But she continued with a warning. “One thing I want to tell you right from the beginning: Your girls might look small today, but the school environment, regular meals and sports – all of these things will make them grow faster. In five or six years, they will start looking big. But then don’t start thinking, ‘They have grown up, and we have to get them married.’ ”
When girls are married, they have to leave the school. “So you yourself,” Sister Sudha went on, “would be taking your daughter off of the path of education and harming yourselves. All our previous students who chose to leave school and get married, they regret it now.”
In the late afternoon, the parents made their ways out the door. There were no big displays of emotion, just some brisk admonishments to study hard; any girls who were overwhelmed brushed their tears back quickly. Sister Sudha told the teachers to start leading them in games and songs to keep them distracted.
The new girls were not yet like those of the first school. They were skinny, grimy and scratching at lice, with attention spans, she figured, of eight minutes at best. And something more: “If I ask the girls in Prerna 1, ‘Who would you like to become?’ they would say, ‘I want to become a teacher. I want to be a doctor, an engineer, I want to be the district magistrate.’ All kinds of things come out. But when you ask these girls, they have no idea.”
No one has ever suggested to these girls they can be anything but landless farm labourers like their parents. “That kind of ambition is not there yet, or they are not able to express it. But then, I have my ideas – that it is there.”
The next morning brought a series of firsts: The girls were woken before it was light and shown how to roll up their bedding and sweep the floor. The housemother, Jyoti Kumari, doled out toothbrushes and toothpaste, led the girls to the row of taps out back and instructed everyone to wash their faces and brush their teeth.
Then they were taken in small groups around to the hand pump out front, in the sheltered courtyard. The girls squinted uncertainly at Ms. Kumari, but she moved briskly, filling a bucket, tugging off dresses and handing out shampoo. Shivering in the morning chill, the girls were lined up and scrubbed – for many, it was their first bath in months; from now on, they would do it each morning.
Ms. Kumari gave out lengths of sarong to use as towels, and made sure everyone had a comb. Next came an intense session of hair brushing and braiding, as the mats and knots of months were worked out. In an hour, the girls were lined up again, looking noticeably tidier.
Out in the yard, the new sports teacher began to teach basic calisthenics, with some flailing and bumping along the way. The girls learned a prayer, and then a song – asking a non-specific god to give them strength (Sister Sudha intended to keep this school as non-sectarian as the first Prerna).
The girls were preparing to file in to breakfast when the nun, who had watched quietly from a back corner, stepped forward. There was one more thing they would do each morning, she said: “You must say, ‘Jai Bhim!’ ”
The girls looked blankly at her.
“We say, ‘Long live Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar,’ ” she told them. The girls clearly knew little or nothing about the legendary Dalit leader, architect of India’s constitution, whom Dalits revere with the devotion that dominant-caste Hindus have for Mahatma Gandhi. “He was a leader of the Dalits, and the laws of our nation were written by him. He was from a Dalit community, a Dalit family, a family like ours.