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One day last June, I ducked from a noisy Bihari street through the low red gate of Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls, and into another world. I knew nothing about the school; I was hunting for its founder, Sudha Varghese, a nun, but I knew almost nothing about her either – only that a friend of a friend had mentioned her as a person worth looking up if ever I found myself in Bihar.
And there I was, in the heat of summer in India’s poorest state, frustrated by dead ends on a couple of stories. So I called up Sister Sudha and asked to see her, then followed her directions outside the capital, Patna, to a dusty street in a town called Danapur. I deciphered the Hindi sign on the gate and knew I’d reached a school – but I was totally unprepared for the scene I found inside.
There was a big, open field, and it was filled with girls: They were running and tackling each other, kicking balls and playing tag, shrieking and giggling. When I went through the door with photographer Candace Feit, the games momentarily came to a halt. The girls looked at us, two white, sweaty strangers, two women on their own, with intent curiosity. They put their hands together in front of their hearts and nodded their heads – “ Pranam,” they said, a respectful Hindi greeting for their elders.
And then they turned and went right back to running and laughing.
I had never seen girls with poise like this anywhere in rural India. Wherever Ms. Feit and I travelled in Bihar, we tended to draw a crowd: people who looked well-intentioned and warm, but gawked, or flat-out stared; curious, but too shy to talk to us, ducking away when we tried to start a conversation, women pulling their sari pallu over their faces.
We followed the path up to the big yellow school building and someone was sent to fetch didi – the Hindi word for older sister, the name by which Sister Sudha is almost universally known. Short and slight, with long grey hair in a loose bun, she appeared at the doorway, brushed a light cotton dupatta back over her shoulders, and asked us in. She made us tea, and told us that this was a school for Mushahar – for the people at the very bottom of the Hindu caste system, the most ostracized of even the “untouchables” – for their girls, the people who always have the least value in every place I’ve been in India.
I quickly discovered that although she is a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Sudha sees herself first and foremost as an activist, with a humanitarian mission, not a religious one.
Ms. Feit and I stayed at the school until well into the evening. We began a conversation with Sister Sudha about caste and gender in the new India that was the most frank and insightful I have had in my years here. Her own story is fascinating. But the alchemy she has wrought with these girls – girls raised all their lives to believe they are worthless – is riveting to behold.
I knew instantly that I wanted to write about them. I wanted to know how Sister Sudha had helped them become healthy, confident creatures. But it was also immediately clear to me that the girls presented a profound puzzle: In the West, and even in urban, well-to-do India, there is a comforting belief that caste discrimination ended long ago, except for a few aberrant incidents here and there – and that gender discrimination is well on its way to ending, as well. I know differently, from my travels here. I know there is little place even in the new India, in “Incredible India,” for poised, confident young people who also happen to be Mushahar girls. What would happen to them? Would they stay in school? And if they graduated – then where could they go?
Ms. Feit and I returned repeatedly to Prerna over the coming months. In October, we had the chance to go with several of the girls to their villages on one of their rare trips home, to spend time with their families and to see first-hand how caste plays out in rural India today. On each of those visits, our presence drew the instant and hostile curiosity of dominant-caste people in the community, who made it clear they did not like us spending time with the Mushahar. Some of those encounters were deeply unsettling, and I was left trying to imagine what it would be like to live in the tola, to be alone there when dark fell, knowing I could expect no protection from the law.
With Breaking Caste, The Globe and Mail begins an ongoing project on the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls. We will continue to go back to Prerna to follow the girls to learn from them, and from Sister Sudha, about how India is changing, and how far a Mushahar girl can go, armed with dreams and hope.