When Japanese photographer Kenji Chiga traveled to India, he found a country burdened by a caste system that many foreigners consider obsolete. An interaction with a young man affected by this way of life brought a more personal dimension to this affecting topic.

Here, Chiga speaks from the perspective of an outsider—and then imagines how the young man might approach his life and future given the country’s social strictures.

—LensCulture


When I first met the people in this story, as a traveller, I felt that they lived poor yet peaceful lives in India. I was not aware of the fact that caste discrimination still has a strong hold over the country, and that many students commit suicide because of the pressure they feel from their families, from caste discrimination and out of anxiety about their future.

In India, people can be marked as Scheduled Castes (officially designated groups of disadvantaged people) or Other Backward Class (a term used to classify socially and educationally disadvantaged castes), among others. The situation in India has changed a lot in the last 200 years, but the country is still under the spell of the caste system both mentally and economically.

As the government pushes forward, people believe education can help solve these problems. Many parents hope that their newborn son will become a doctor or engineer and rise above their circumstances. As a result, their children make a large effort to pursue these dreams—their parents’ dreams. This leads to an immense amount of pressure on the children. Many children who try and fail become depressed. Some even attempt to kill themselves. Why do these tragedies happen?

Because devoting one’s life to achieving someone else’s dream puts people under a lot of pressure.

Mukesh felt that pressure.

Mukesh was in the free school in Bihar, India. As a child with a sick father, he had dreamt of becoming a doctor since childhood. And yet, his father’s eventual death led to a lack of purpose, and he was crushed by his anxiety and his loss of a clear path.

In India, the main reason why many students commit suicide is because they feel trapped. Many of them aren’t able to pursue the path they want because of caste discrimination and many others aren’t sure what path they really want to pursue.

I guess Mukesh felt everything was over after his father passed away. But then, he also recognized that not everything could happen in his life as planned.

People who have lived their lives desperately feel that everything is over, at least once or twice, throughout the course of their journeys. When seeking light in the darkness, they cannot even see their own hand reaching for the light.

But that light has already started to shine on their faces, hands, and bodies.

When they finally realize it, the night of loneliness and suffering is over. A new world where light is shining, beautiful and full of possibility, will start right then and there.

***

I’m Mukesh Kumaru.

I’m aiming to become a doctor. No, I am studying because I have to be a doctor. I will turn 20 or 21 years old this year. I’m not sure…I don’t know my proper birth date.

I left my home when I was 10 years old. I have been living in the school since then. This isn’t because I want to focus on my studies—it’s because I’m poor and have no other choice.

In my village, most people belong to Scheduled Castes (SC) or Other Backward Castes (OBC). That’s why many of us did not have the opportunity to receive a proper education. For the same reason, birth certificates cannot be obtained in a reliable way. That’s why my date of birth is not clear. In such a situation, it was a real privilege that I was able to live and learn at school. Many children who wish to attend school cannot grab this opportunity. I was really lucky.

When I am at school, travelers from abroad visit from time to time. Many of them are older people, but occasionally travelers come who are close to my age. That is the moment when I feel how much of a difference your place of birth makes. Who the hell am I and what was I born to do? I am trying to live my life, not the one that the caste shows: becoming a doctor.

One day after school, while playing cricket with my friends, I noticed that there was a small bird under a tree. She seemed injured and was not able to fly. We brought her and decided to take care of her. After we cared for her for a while and her injuries started to heal, we decided to release her outside. But she did not fly easily.

She should have been able to fly, but it seemed that she had forgotten how. She might have been afraid of getting hurt again, or maybe she didn’t notice that her situation had changed.

Finally, we realized that she would not be able to fly unless she wanted to. And so we decided to watch over her.

One day, after that, I saw my father in my dreams. In his weak body, he was trying desperately to tell me something. I was sure that my father was calling for my help. “I have to save him as soon as possible. I must become a doctor as soon as possible,” I thought.

I woke up and was very impatient.

So far, I have failed the exam twice. This year is my third time. I have pledged to pass the exam this time.

Kenji Chiga

Note from Kenji Chiga: This body of work is inspired by true-life events. I worked closely with my subject in order to write the text, which was derived from the letters that I received from him and some interviews.