AGRA, India — As far back as he can remember, people told Hari Kishan Pippal that he was unclean, with a filthiness that had tainted his family for centuries. Teachers forced him to sit apart from other students. Employers sometimes didn't bother to pay him.
Pippal is a dalit, a member of the outcast community once known as untouchables. Born at the bottom of Hinduism's complex social ladder, that meant he could not eat with people from higher castes or drink from their wells. He was not supposed to aspire to a life beyond that of his father, an illiterate cobbler. Years later, he still won't repeat the slurs that people called him.
Now, though, people call him something else.
They call him rich.
Pippal owns a hospital, a shoe factory, a car dealership and a publishing company. He owns six cars. He lives in a maze of linked apartments in a quiet if dusty neighborhood of high walls and wrought-iron gates.
"In my heart I am dalit. But with good clothes, good food, good business, it is like I am high-caste," he said, a 60-year-old with a shock of white hair, a well-tailored vest and the girth of a Victorian gentleman. Now, he points out, he is richer than most Brahmins, who sit at the top of the caste hierarchy: "I am more than Brahmin!"
But in an increasingly globalized nation wrestling with centuries of deeply held caste beliefs, there is little agreement about what that means. Do Pippal and the handful of other dalit millionaires reflect a country shrugging off centuries of caste bias? Does caste hold still hold sway the way it used to?
Even Hari Kishan Pippal isn't sure.
"Life is good for me," says Pippal, sitting in his office in Heritage Hospital, one of the largest private medical facilities in this north Indian city. "But life is very bad for many, many people."
The vast majority of India's 170 million dalits live amid a thicket of grim statistics: less than a third are literate, well over 40 percent survive on less than $2 a day, infant mortality rates are dramatically higher than among higher castes. Dalits are far more likely than the overall population to be underweight, and far less likely to get postnatal care.
While caste discrimination has been outlawed for more than 60 years, and the term "untouchable" is now taboo in public, thousands of anti-dalit attacks occur every year. Hundreds of people are killed.
The stories spill from India's newspapers: the 14-year-old dalit strangled because he shared his first name with a higher-caste boy; the 70-year-old man and his disabled daughter burned alive after a dalit-owned dog barked at higher-caste neighbors; the man run over at a gas station because he refused to give up his place in line to a high-caste customer.
But amid centuries of caste tradition that can seem immutable, there has been slow change.
In an extensive survey by the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers found that dalits living in concrete homes, not huts made from mud and straw, had jumped from 18 percent to 64 percent between 1990 and 2007 in one north Indian district. Ownership of various household goods – fans, chairs, pressure cookers and bicycles – had skyrocketed over the same period.
It also found a weakening of some caste traditions, with, for example, far fewer dalits being seated separately at non-dalit weddings.
While most dalits still support themselves as rural laborers, there is also a growing dalit middle class, many of them civil servants who have benefited from affirmative action laws.
"Caste is losing its grip," said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a dalit writer, social scientist and one-time Marxist militant who has become a leading voice urging the dalit poor to see the virtues of capitalism.
In a consumer society, Prasad argues, wealth can trump caste – at least some of the time. Growing economies also foster urbanization, he says, allowing low-caste Indians to escape traditional village strictures. Finally, economic growth also means that the traditional merchant castes are not large enough to fill every job.
"This means other castes also have a chance" in the business world, Prasad said.
To Prasad, the new millionaires are a way to prove that dalits can make it in a globalized world.
"Don't say (success) is not possible because of the caste system," he said. "Here is a list of dalits who are doing so well."
The list is impressive, even if its members are far from India's traditional centers of wealth, power and celebrity. They are, for the most part, blue-collar rich, often finding their niches in less-glamorous industries: building working-class housing developments, manufacturing immense concrete pipes, churning out cheap polyester shirts.
No one knows how many wealthy dalit entrepreneurs have emerged since India opened its economy in the early 1990s, sparking some of the world's fastest economic growth. Hundreds certainly, maybe thousands.
They are also increasingly visible. A decade ago, dalit businessmen regularly changed their last names, since these almost always identify someone's caste. Even Pippal did it at first, playing off the pronunciation of his name and calling his first company "People's Exports" to mask his caste background.
Now, the dalit rich are chatting over cocktails at meetings of their own chamber of commerce, and setting up booths at dalit trade fairs. Top government officials are talking about a venture capital fund to make financing more easily available to entrepreneurs from India's outcast communities.
The wealthiest, meanwhile, have become darlings of the Indian media, held up as proof that modern India is an increasingly caste-blind society.
Nonsense, says Anand Teltumbde, a prominent dalit activist.
"These stories (about successful dalits) sit well with the middle class," said Teltumbde, who is a grandson of B.R. Ambedkar, an independence-era dalit lawyer revered as a hero by dalits across India. "The entire world has changed ... but the number of well-off dalits is no more than 10 percent. Ninety percent of dalits live a dilapidated kind of life."
As for Pippal, he finds himself uncomfortably in the middle of this debate. He is a rich dalit who thinks very little has changed for India's outcasts, a man who credits his own success to hard work and one enormous advantage: ego.
"From my childhood, I was thinking one day I will be a big man," he said.
Raised in poverty, he only made it through high school before his father became ill, and he had to go to work pulling a rickshaw to support the family. His first break came when he married a dalit woman from a slightly better-off family that owned a small shoe workshop.
Dalits have long dominated the shoe business. Caste is largely a reflection of traditional trades, and since making shoes involved working with the skins of dead animals, it was left to dalits.
But Pippal shifted the focus of his father-in-law's workshop, concentrating on high-quality shoes and teaching himself a slew of languages – English, Tamil, Punjabi, Russian, German – to sell his footwear more widely. Today, he owns a 300-worker factory where 500 handmade shoes are turned out every day, then packed into boxes already marked with prices in euros and British pounds. The expensive ones retail for as much as $500 a pair.
He used his footwear profits to start the small Honda dealership, and then the hospital. Immense profits are being made in India's private health care industry, as the new middle class seeks alternatives to the often-questionable care at most public hospitals.
"I didn't know ABC about hospitals," Pippal said, laughing his barking laugh. He gleefully talks about the Brahmin doctors who at first worked for him very reluctantly.
"Now they are earning lot of money from this hospital," he said.
Of course, so is Pippal. He's still a long way from being a billionaire, but says his businesses have a total turnover of about $12 million a year.
At first glance, Heritage Hospital doesn't look state-of-the-art. Pippal's office has stained green carpeting and paint coming away in bubbly clumps. On a recent day, masons were working near the main entrance, forcing patients to enter through a dark hallway beneath his Honda dealership, which is next door. Janitors do little but move around the dirt with wet rags.
But it is cleaner and has more resources than the public hospitals most Indians must rely upon. Pippal proudly ticks off its assets: 150 beds, 187 doctors, a range of care from oncology to plastic surgery.
In so many ways, Pippal has proven himself a success. He is rich. He is greeted with respect on the streets. His children went to good schools, and grew up with friends from across the caste spectrum.
Yet he also believes that he remains, very often, a figure of quiet contempt.
"These people are very bloody clever," Pippal said of the high-caste businessmen with whom he deals. "When there are profits to be made, then everything (about his caste) is OK."
"But in their mind, they're thinking: 'He is a dalit.'"