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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)

BREAKING CASTE: PART 3

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

Yet even as they flourished, Sister Sudha began to feel the limits of Prerna – just 125 girls, when everywhere she went in the state there were so many more, glinting with the same potential but left herding buffalo, collecting firewood and walking with their heads down. She was bothered, too, by suggestions that Prerna’s success was an aberration.

Meanwhile Bihar state came to be headed by a canny Premier, Nitish Kumar, who has identified the Mushahar and other low-caste groups as both a vote bank and an obstacle to his progress statistics. He sent word asking Sudha if she could replicate Prerna. She said she would try. He promised the money to rent and convert a building, hire teachers and buy books, beds and pots.

For a location, she chose the congested town of Gaya, about five hours from Patna. It is a few kilometres from Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha found enlightenment, which has an airport and a stream of pilgrims and tourists from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Tibet and beyond. Gaya, by contrast, has nothing of note except the high rate of starvation deaths in its large Mushahar community. But it does have the demand: Mushahar parents “are beginning to realize what they have been missing,” Sister Sudha says.

The new school, called Prerna 2, has space for 100 girls on three floors of a single narrow building. It took the best part of a year to get it open, navigating state bureaucracy and fending off predatory civil servants and resentful neighbours. There were delays when builders did not show up, funds were not sent and deliveries did not come.

Meanwhile, Sister Sudha sent word to all the Mushahar tola within 100 kilometres, saying each family could send a girl to take an entrance test – to measure not education, as few have any, but ability and eagerness to learn. She posted the list of successful candidates and announced the school would open, ready or not, in February.

The first day, families began to arrive mid-morning. The girls were in their best clothes, with their meagre possessions in little satchels, and giggly with anticipation, clinging to the small siblings they would be leaving for the first time. They lined up to register even as workers trudged past with piles of bricks on their heads and a sociable cow belonging to the previous tenant poked her head in the window.

There was one arrival the school’s founder was not expecting, a young woman with her three-year-old daughter. Sister Sudha explained the school was for older girls. The mother said she knew: She wanted to enroll herself. She’d been forced by her parents to leave school and marry at 12. Now, her husband was dead. She was still a teenager. Couldn’t they find her a place?

Sister Sudha directed someone to write down the woman’s name and address. She could not take her here at Prerna 2, but she would look for a place for her.

Next through the door was Leela Devi, 29, with her daughters Anjali and Shushan, who were 12 and 11. Ms. Devi explained that she had left school in Grade 2 – “I can read and write my name and my husband’s name and my kids’ names.” But as for her daughters, “if they study here, they can be teachers, or doctors.”

She watched the bustle of opening day with satisfaction, although her daughters looked bewildered at her words.

At midday, Sister Sudha gathered all the parents together in the big main room. “It’s a very important day for you and for us, it’s a day of joy,” she began. “Because your girls are taking a new step in their lives. ... Our communities, whether in Gaya or in Patna or anywhere else, lag behind in education, and those who lack education have hardly any scope to grow.”

The parents nodded earnestly. Most had signed the enrolment form with a thumbprint.

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