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Poor Indian kids checkmating the odds

Indigenous Peoples
Dalit kids winning chess tournaments? ‘You're kidding right?’ a friend said. No I'm not kidding. And yes dalit kids are playing chess. In a completely unique, innovative move, a young dalit man, Ramajayam, has decided to use chess to empower arunthatiyar (absolute bottom of the caste ladder) children.

Drawing inspiration from cricket, Ramajayam, a second year college student, decided chess could take dalit kids to the top, in much the same way as the West Indies used cricket to strike back at the empire.

Ramajayam's Sun Academy for Chess is in a tiny village, Polakkunam, in the Thiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu. It does not have a cybercafe. And Ramajayam does not have an email account. But he has an extraordinary, wonderful dream.

He learnt to play chess, a rarity in any Indian village, began to excel in it and decided it would be fantastic to get other dalits to learn the game. He began coaching children. And now little known Polakkunam village might well produce India's next prodigy. A Viswanath Anand, Karpov or Kasparov!

Ramajayam's obsession with chess has succeeded in infusing a passion for the game in local dalit children. Watching their mentor, the kids gradually became fascinated with this totally alien pastime. He now teaches chess to about 40 boys and girls in the dalit neighbourhood.

The children all study in the humble government village schools nearby. Their parents are mostly sweepers, humiliated, despised and badly treated by the dominant society around them.

Academy is a grand name for a grand dream that is slowly coming to fruition. In reality, they don’t have even a basic shed to sit in. Ramajayam learnt chess by chance from a village mason at the age of 12 and never had a fancy coach or mentor. But he lived for the game and taught chess to all who expressed interest in it.

Now, ten of his students have taken part in district-level tournaments and some of them have won. To understand the enormity of this victory, you must remember that most of these kids are not expected to dream beyond a bucket and a broom. So to beat people from the dominant caste – privileged, wealthy kids – is a Jesse Owens moment for them. They are winning for all dalits. They are taking their community one step out of the rut. It’s a stupendous achievement.

If these kids became footballers or sports heroes, a hostile society will shrug and say ‘well they have the brawn’. But when they win in a chess match, it changes the equations radically, indisputably. No one can patronize them.

They don’t need ‘positive discrimination’ or ‘affirmative action’. These kids, indeed the entire dalit community, only need a break. A level playing field – a decent school, good teachers – is all it takes. Hats off to Ramajayam and to the unknown, unsung dalits like him who with no resources are helping their own people, giving them a leg up.

It’s not just a game. This is a community battle for a life of dignity.

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