It had been a very bad week.
A couple of years into my assignment in India, I went to Bihar, the country’s poorest state, to report on the development miracle that was said to be going on under its new government. I saw new roads, new schools, new toilets and newly minted health workers, all emblematic of the sort of rapid change that was supposed to be sweeping India.
But I also met families of landless agricultural labourers who lived in windowless, low-roofed mud huts that would barely holds pigs. I saw a young couple sit down to their one meal that day: a pot of insect-speckled, four-day-old rice. A local official took me to a showpiece village for Dalits, the people once known as untouchables – then recoiled in visible disgust when one of the residents almost brushed his sleeve by accident.
In village after village, I met people living in conditions more grim, more horrifying than almost any I had seen in 20 years of reporting that had taken me from the AIDS-ravaged highlands of Lesotho to dust-baked southern Afghanistan. After a couple of days, I was nearly speechless with despair. If this was India’s beacon of progress, well, the gods help us all.
With a couple of hours left before my flight back to Delhi, desperate for even a fragment of good news, I decided to look up an activist a friend had told me about on the outskirts of the Bihari capital, Patna. He had described her work as revolutionary. So I had the taxi stop in the town of Danapur, tracked down the address – a plain, red, metal gate – and stepped inside.
I found myself in a playing field full of schoolgirls, caught up in a boisterous game of tag. When they saw me, they froze. Then they turned, put their hands together in a quick, respectful greeting – “pranam, didi” – and went right back to running.
These girls were so strong, and so confident – so unlike any of the people I had met over the past few days. I ventured up the path and in the door, and met the school’s founder, Sudha Varghese. She told me I had come to the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls. Those wild, free creatures in the schoolyard were Dalit girls, a fact that made their sense of joyful inhibition even harder to believe.
Sister Sudha has made it her life’s work to square the shoulders and raise the chins of these girls, these most marginalized citizens in the poorest corner of India. Within a few minutes of sitting down across from her battered wooden desk, my despair began to melt away.
The word prerna means “inspiration” in Hindi, and that school became mine: the vehicle for the most important stories I tried to tell in nearly five years as a correspondent in India.
It wasn’t immediately clear which stories those would be. Certainly there was no shortage of breaking news to cover: Days after I arrived in the country, a band of young Pakistani men loaded down with weapons sailed into the Mumbai harbour and ran rampaging through the city. A couple of hours after I had picked up keys to the new office, I was on a flight to Mumbai into the middle of that story. After that, the pace rarely slowed.
I covered the largest election ever held in the world, when 417.2 million Indians voted in 2009. I reported on a nascent space program, and a massive Maoist insurgency. I wrote about the steady ascendance of women into local government because of an audacious affirmative-action campaign; the successes of the world’s biggest-ever public-welfare scheme; and the craven robbery by officials that has crippled a food-distribution system meant to feed the hungry.
There were big political stories – including corruption scandals of breathtaking scale – and big business stories. Economic growth has plummeted over my time here, from near 10 per cent a year to just over 5 per cent, but that has scarcely dampened the voracious interest in this ballooning economy, which just this year overtook Japan to become the world’s third largest.
When I arrived, the signs of that growth were everywhere, at least in the cities. And there were stories to tell from the other India as well: the India of the 800 million people who still live in villages, and eke out a bare living on agriculture.