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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 ...

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.

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.

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.

“He got the opportunity to study, and not just in India. He was so bright, he went abroad to America and England, and practised law. Do you know lawyers, the ones who wear black coats and fight cases in courts? Our Babasaheb Ambedkar went to study in England and then came back to India. He wrote the first laws of our nation. So he is the biggest leader for our people.”

Her charges were still staring.

“So every day after prayer what will we say? We’ll say for him, ‘Jai Bhim!’ ”

The girls repeated the words, but too softly, Sister Sudha scolded. She wasn’t finished with the history lesson. “Ambedkar also faced a lot of discrimination but he fought against it. He made a place for himself, he struggled, and he left us three mantras.”

She waited, but the girls did not know the mantras. She looked to the new teachers – they didn’t know either.

Become educated!” Sister Sudha thundered. “And? Unite! And? Struggle. … Do you know what it means to be united? To become one! Together to fight for our rights.”

By now her eyes were blazing and the girls’ chins were lifted and their shoulders straight. No one had ever spoken to them like this.

“Demand your rights, and if you have to, fight for them. If we fight together, we can do anything.”

Once more she punched up her fist, and this time every girl yelled, “Jai Bhim!” And then she sent them in to breakfast.

It is with full plates, quick hugs and simple, radical lessons like these that Sister Sudha will change these girls’ lives, as she has at Prerna 1. But she can’t be at both schools at once, and if she starts more – as the state government is urging – she will have ever less time to spend at each one. She realizes the risk.

“Maybe I am very greedy about them,” she said of her girls. “Because I see what can be done with them.” Every time she visited another village, she saw what she might do with the girls there. “So maybe I have given into that temptation also.” She laughed. “But there is no harm in trying.”

At least, she hopes not. The Prerna schools have answered every question about what these girls are capable of, except the one that may prove most important: Where will they go after that? They no longer fit easily in with their families and their villages. But with caste-based atrocities reported in newspapers each day, it is clear that change in India at large has not happened as fast as at Prerna.

“My dream and my hope for them is that they would be educated,” she said of her new charges. “They’ll be people with self-confidence, independent, and someone who can stand up in their community and attract other children to follow the way that they have taken, the way of education. And they will become agents of change and help their society to go ahead.

“And I’m sure they themselves will begin to dream.”

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail’s correspondent in New Delhi.