“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.