New Internationalist

Poor Indian kids checkmating the odds

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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  1. #1 madhukar 08 Jun 12

    great post!... and liked the observation: ’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.’

  2. #2 Merlynbrito 08 Jun 12

    Thanks Mari, this piece of news is heartwarming and may be the answer to one of life's greatest ignominies.

  3. #3 Leslie 08 Jun 12

    A very interesting news item. I'm often confused about this entire reservation thing as to why a particular caste or section of society needs to have reservations. If there is a level playing field -- and a level system of testing to go with it -- then we need to put our energies into the creation of intellectual, academic or even physical wealth in the way that Ramajayam has done. And then let them compete with Kasparov or even the next 'caste level'. I wouldn't be so concerned then, if the plane I'm in is being piloted by someone who was allowed to pass an exam with 40% lower marks than the rest! That's the discrimination that can be eradicated by better opportunity at the learning levels!

  4. #4 Niral 08 Jun 12

    Thanks Mari for your insight. It is so very true that given equal opportunities even the underprivileged can rise to heights despite the odds. Government policies where opportunities are provided can make so much more of a difference than just handing out doles which suppresses the desire to get out of the rut when what is really needed is a sense of pride and self esteem.

  5. #5 Vijaya Rodrigo 08 Jun 12

    How inspiring !!! I don't have much to say except that I wish the TN Government would have given the Rs. 2 crore to the Ramajayam's Sun Academy !!

  6. #6 enakshi ganguly 08 Jun 12

    what a beautiful story....if you read the old varna system, the shudras symbolised the feet. By making them play chess Ramajayam has made them the 'head'!!!

  7. #7 Umakant 08 Jun 12

    Thanks a lot for this wonderful real life story. It is quite encouraging to read and I do hope that Dalits and other disadvantaged people could take right inspiration from this experience. Getting into sports and other fields/disciplines is quite a challenging task, but it must be pursued at all cost. This is path breaking story and attempts must be made by others too to emulate in different other fields and vocations.

  8. #8 Poonam Singh 08 Jun 12

    Just the right thing to do!

  9. #9 Prem 08 Jun 12

    Well said Marie. I feel the same way. only if they could get some ’breaks’ in their life, I wonder how far they could reach. It is beyond my imagination. Hope to see more and more Ramajayams are there to support these kids needs encouragement and directions. I think think story is not unique to India. Every country could use few more these ’Ramajayams’. Here in the US also it is very true. they all can use this kind of support and encouragement.
    Thanks again Marie to shed some light on stories like this.


  10. #10 Johnny Oommen 08 Jun 12

    Brilliant, Mari - thats the kind of thinking we need. Our people are no less than any others, regardless of the labels ont he boxes we put each other into. And yes, when adivasi youth do well in hockey, they are looked at as if that would be expected for some genetic consolation-prize-like reason. but chess -that's a totally different ball game. Ramajayam has got it right - and we await the inevitable change.

    Johnny Oommen

  11. #11 Premila Ashok 08 Jun 12

    Heartwarming story. Kudos to you for sharing these success stories with the world, which should bring sponsors and recognition.

  12. #12 vibha 08 Jun 12

    Mari, I am delighted to read this post. What a break this is. And I hear the breaking of shackles, of mindless, ignominious and disgraceful tradition.

  13. #13 Georgina 10 Jun 12

    This is a great story and message Mari. It demonstrates the power that small steps by one individual can have on many mindsets.

  14. #14 Peter Berger 10 Jun 12

    What a wonderful inspiration! I hope he continues to achieve success. Thanks Mari for bringing this to our attention, more news like this ought to be published.

  15. #15 TT 11 Jun 12

    Thanks for posting this story - its always good to read something that inspires hope.

    However, from the comments below, I think that some people are misreading this article to mean that the author advocates that reservations should be done away with altogether - which I think is missing the entire point of the article.

  16. #16 Rob Currie 11 Jun 12

    Great article, Mari. One of our favorite reflections here in Arenal, Nicaragua, is Ché Guevara´s: ’Let´s be realistic. Dream the impossible.’ It´s true here . . . it´s true there
    . . . it´s true throughout the world. Thanks for confirming the wisdom of Ché!!! Un abrazo, Rob

  17. #17 Cynthia Stephen 12 Jun 12

    Mari, a great story. Really heartening to read. Only wish the title were different. The term 'poor' is somewhat of a misnomer, because these children are something much more than poor - they are deprived in multiple ways. Their chess mentor has to be commended for thinking out of the box and empowering these children with a new vision of themselves. I am sure he is on to something really huge, as deprived children have unique skills privileged children don't.

  18. #18 Mehul 15 Jun 12

    Thanks you for this. It always amazes me how chess so easily cuts through class issues in just about any part of the world. It's a magical game.

  19. #19 James Bennett 17 Oct 12

    Such an inspiring young boy who does not only wish to succeed, but also wants other boys with unseen potential to shine as well. Such compassion and determination to help others rise above the rest is truly moving to read about. You don't come across such motivating stories every day. Usually what has become a norm is when people are always competing against one another to climb up the education ladder or the economic ladder and such, in order to survive in this ever aggressive and competitive world. But to know that such a young boy from a poor village who has the goodwill of others at heart, is truly touching and really reflects on what evolution has turned some of us into -- self-absorbed monsters.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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