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Girls arriving to school on their first day. (Lana Slezic For The Globe and Mail)
Girls arriving to school on their first day. (Lana Slezic For The Globe and Mail)


What’s better than a miracle school for ‘untouchable’ girls? Add to ...

Read more about the extraordinary schools that give India's Dalit girls a chance at a better life by clicking here.

When mealtime arrives the first night, the new cook hauls the steel pots out of the kitchen. Big enough for adults to bathe in, the pots brim with rice, lentil daal and fragrant masala vegetables.

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Ninety schoolgirls line up and hold out their hands for the steel thali tray that will be their plate from now on. The cook holds out the ladle to the first in line to serve herself, but the girl is frozen in confusion. All down the row, eyes are wide, disbelieving.

It is more food than most of them have seen in their lives.

These girls – who have always eaten last, left with only the scraps at the edge of the pot – are being told to help themselves. To fill their plates.

And they do. They eat and eat, giggling through mouths stuffed full. When at last they sit back on their heels, unable to swallow one more grain of rice, their plates are still covered in food.

Now, Sister Sudha Varghese steps forward and calls gently for their attention.

“You have eaten very well,” she says approvingly in Hindi. There are giggles. Sister Sudha goes on, her words slow and measured: “There will always be enough for you here. You will have three meals every day, and you will have two snacks, and there will always be as much as you need.

“But food is precious,” she tells the girls, all of them silent now. “And many in our community are hungry. And we do not want to waste. So please, take only what you need.”

Come morning, the girls line up again for breakfast. This time, they fill their plates just so far, no further. One of the smallest girls approaches Sister Sudha, wraps a thin arm around her waist. “People in my village are hungry,” she says earnestly. “We can’t waste.”

Here you will always have what you need: The words, when the slight nun speaks them into the fading light of her new schoolroom, are deceptively simple. But they are the bedrock of Sister Sudha’s educational philosophy, of the revolution she is trying to engender in one of the world’s most marginalized communities.

Nearly 50 years ago, Sister Sudha, then a teenager, came to the eastern state of Bihar from her native Kerala to join a Catholic religious order and work with India’s poorest people.

She soon fled the comfortable confines of the convent and spent the next 25 years in a tola, a huddle of mean mud houses at the edge of a village that are reserved for the Mushahar, a group at the very bottom of the Hindu caste system.

These are the so-called untouchables, or Dalits, deemed by virtue of their birth too impure to eat, walk, bathe or even breathe among their neighbours.

Eventually, Sister Sudha was driven out of the village by her own success: When Mushahar she had educated on their rights demanded police action over their abuse, the dominant caste members came looking for her. She moved nearer to the capital of Bihar, Patna.

She was determined to try an experiment she had been thinking about for years: She would build a safe and nurturing place for Mushahar girls.

She would take them away from the strenuous farm work and domestic labour they perform from the time they are toddlers, and away from the omnipresent risk of sexual assault and certain marriage in their early teens. She would educate them, in the school curriculum and in something more: She would try to dislodge their deep sense of inferiority and teach them the rights they are promised in India’s constitution – and how to fight for them.

Sister Sudha called her residential school Prerna, the Hindi word for inspiration. In the past six years, its students have flourished beyond everyone’s wildest expectations, except for her own. She imagined just what has happened: The girls would win international karate tournaments, fine-art competitions and school prizes; they would bloom with poise, confidence and a quietly nourished defiance.

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