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A group of students from the Prerna Residential School for Girls in Patna, Bihar. The school houses, feeds and educates more than 100 students. (Candace Feit For The Globe and Mail)
A group of students from the Prerna Residential School for Girls in Patna, Bihar. The school houses, feeds and educates more than 100 students. (Candace Feit For The Globe and Mail)

Breaking Caste: Part 2

You can unlock the potential of India's Dalit girls, but where can they use it? Add to ...

Four girls from Prerna have completed high school so far. They went back to their villages and married (at least one, Sister Sudha says wistfully, found an educated boy). They also got jobs as vikas mithra, liaisons between local government and the Mushahar, earning $90 a month – a considerable accomplishment.

But Sister Sudha wants much more for her girls: vocational training, perhaps for jobs as receptionists or data-entry clerks. University for the clever ones, such as Poonam. And then professional jobs, and marriage, of course, but to educated men.

None of it sounds impossible. Until you are back in Jamsaut.

An hour after leaving school, Poonam and Rajkumari (the family's only surname is a caste name they do not use) arrive at the small road that branches to Jamsaut, lined with small shops and a brightly painted Hindu temple. They hurry past these to the Mushahar tola – the small patch of land reserved for people of their caste, behind the village proper, bordered by swamp.

Their house is a half-brick, half-mud structure about the size of a master bathroom in a Canadian suburban home, with a roof of twigs laid over scrap sheeting.

Poonam rushes to hug her younger sisters and brother, then turns to the tasks that made up her days before she moved away to Prerna: She fetches water in a tin pot from the tola's hand pump, chases a family of pigs away from the entranceway of the house and lights a dried cake of buffalo dung in the hearth, filling the unventilated house with noxious smoke, to make tea with a handful of loose leaves and a pinch of black pepper.

Her mother asks her to go to the shop, passing her a crumpled 20-rupee note (about 35 cents). The fastest route would be to go behind the house and cut 15 metres across an empty green field, past other, larger houses, to the small village store. But she turns the long way down the path – and when a foreign visitor heads for the shortcut, Poonam gasps and yanks her back. It is as if there is an invisible electric barrier, and she will not step over it. She flinches if she even comes close.

When the visitor asks her why, Poonam, normally quick with observations, is stumped. Her people live here. Others live over there – and she does not know them, does not talk to them, does not meet their eyes on the road and never, ever takes the footpath past their houses.

About an hour after Poonam returns to the village, three men arrive outside her house: They are lighter-skinned, well-dressed men from the dominant caste in the village; one sports a large gold watch. Rajkumari pulls her sari over her face. Everyone looks down. One of the men stands above Poonam's aunt, who is seated in the only chair, and glares – she moves to sit in the dirt nearby, and he takes the plastic chair. The men start to fire questions at Rajkumari: Who are the foreigners, and why are they here in the tola?

The women pull their children close. Rajkumari mutters an answer and fidgets in the dirt. The visiting reporter and photographer introduce themselves; the reporter explains that they are trying to learn about the lives of the Mushahar. The men smirk.

“Their life has changed, become better. They're educated. They go out to work,” says one, Rajesh Gupta, with a confidence at odds with the untruth of his statement. “Earlier, they were the ones who took anything, without retaliation. Now, they stand up for themselves.” He does not make it sound like a positive innovation.

The men stay and glower a while longer, then walk off, laughing loudly. The reporter asks Rajkumari if she has ever been to any of their houses. She looks baffled: “Of course not.”

She casts an uneasy glance at her eldest daughter. Tall and clear-skinned, Poonam is such a different creature from the grubby, runny-nosed, half-clad children of the tola. The upper-caste men have noticed her, and Rajkumari saw them noticing.

The invisible fences that keep Poonam in one small corner of Jamsaut were built at least 2,000 years ago, laid out in ancient Hindu texts that specify rigid social stratification into four castes, divided by occupation, with priestly Brahmins at the top and craftspeople at the bottom.

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