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breaking caste: part 1

A student studies on the hallway floor at the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls in Jamsaut, in India's eastern Bihar state.Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail

Read more about the extraordinary schools that give India's Dalit girls a chance at a better life by clicking here.

The sky is still dark, the air still cool, when Poonam is roused by the shrill blast of the housemother's whistle. Tousle-haired, her face crinkled with sleep, she bundles her bedroll and shuffles with her friends out of their crowded dorm and to the lawn.

Still yawning, she takes her place in the front row of three ragged lines and begins to swing her arms and legs. This half-hour of exercise wakes her, and she is giggling by the time the girls head back inside. She fills a small plastic tub from a hand pump and gives herself a quick bucket bath. Then, back at her bunk, she lifts her uniform from its small steel case, smooths its pleats and puts it on: knee socks, grey kilt, white blouse, heavy shoes. Biting her lower lip, she wedges her long hair back in two barrettes.

She lines up for a plate of bread and daal and a steel cup of watery yogurt, and eats squatted on the veranda out front, her Hindi notebook propped in front of her for some last review.

By 7 a.m., she is on her way – her pink glasses perched on her button nose and her backpack pulling down her shoulders – out the gate of the girls school and up the road. Of the 125 girls here, Poonam has shown herself one of the brightest, and rupees have been saved to send her and a few others to private school. The rest of the girls watch with silent envy as she sets off; the responsibility is immense.

But Poonam, at 15, brims with confidence: She will get her high-school diploma, then go to university and get a bachelor's degree. And then she will be a teacher, she says – the best kind, who always takes the time to make sure students understand. In Poonam's whole community, there are only 10 people who can read, but she is undeterred.

"If I try, I can be and I can do anything," she says one evening. She sits with a few other girls in the circle of a lone light bulb, eking out a last hour of study. Her voice is filled with conviction. "If I don't try, I won't be able. But trying will take me far."

It is a beautiful idea – beautiful, and completely unfounded.

There's a popular image of India today, of technology start-ups, call centres, film sets, even a space program – the emerging superpower in the business pages, the one the government splashes on its "Incredible !ndia" billboards.

But Poonam lives in another India, one she shares with three-quarters of her 1.2 billion fellow citizens.

In the official India, "untouchability" – the social exclusion of Dalits, the people at the bottom of the Hindu caste system – is an antiquated, illegal practice, countered with a plethora of affirmative-action schemes.

But in Poonam's India, caste is still rigidly enforced, in her village and most other rural areas. It's the India where a million girls have gone "missing" in the past six years because of sex-selective abortion, and where female work-force-participation rates are among the lowest in the world.

Poonam is a Dalit and a girl in India's poorest state. The odds stacked against her are immense.

It is an article of faith here that urbanization and economic growth are bringing greater equality. For some people, in the biggest cities, this is indisputably true. But Poonam is the acid test: In her India, in her lifetime, will it ever be enough just to work hard and have a dream?

This story starts long before Poonam came to school. It starts in 1964, in an airy classroom in a whitewashed Catholic school in the lush heart of Kerala, the southernmost state of India.

Another teenage schoolgirl, this one lanky but strong, is hunched at her desk: The teacher has left the room, but she is oblivious to the hubbub of chattering girls that has erupted around her. She has in her hands a magazine – a precious thing, something the girls only see a few times in a year. This one is from the Mission League, and it tells of the work being done in other parts of India by nuns and priests who work among the poor.

The article that has caught her attention is about Bihar, a state far to the north. There, she reads, the people are so poor that they sleep by the roadsides, in mean little huts or no shelter at all.

The girl puts the magazine down and tries to picture it. Her parents own a plantation, where they grow ginger and rice and pepper. They are not rich, but they are prosperous. The workers on their farm have less, of course, but her parents pay them well, they have sturdy houses and she plays with their children in the yard after school some days. She tries to picture people so poor they must sleep at the roadside. She can't. And she decides, in that moment, that she will one day go to see for herself.

One year later, that girl, Sudha Varghese, set out on the four-day train journey north. In a quietly radical act, the first of many, she joined a Roman Catholic religious order, the Sisters of Notre Dame, which worked on education in Bihar. By becoming a nun, she was taking the sole path that would allow an Indian woman, then or indeed even now, to live as a woman alone, single and independent, for the rest of her life.

She spent a few years training at the Notre Dame Mother House in Patna, the Bihari capital – she had to learn English and Hindi, the language of the north; prepare for taking her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; and learn the basic skills of teaching and social work.

But Patna was disappointing. While Bihar was far poorer than Kerala, life in the Mother House was soporifically comfortable. So, in just a couple of years, Sister Sudha struck out on her own: "I wanted to be with the poor – and not just the poor, but the very poorest among them," she says. "So I went to the Mushahar."

The name means "rat eaters" – a sneer at the people at the bottom of the caste system. In a rigidly segregated society, the Mushahar are deemed by dint of birth to be the most reviled, below even the "manual scavengers" whose traditional job is to collect excrement from people's homes and carry it away in baskets on their heads.

The Mushahar are found mainly in the north Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; elsewhere, this bottom-caste position is reserved for other groups.

Dalits make up 16 per cent of Bihar's 103 million people, and Mushahar are about 15 per cent of Dalits. They are the least literate (about one in 100 adults can read), and have the worst health and economic indicators.

Almost without exception, Mushahar own no land, have no job but occasional farm labour, and are made to live apart from the rest of the community – to the southwest, so wind that blows over them does not touch the rest of the village.

Sister Sudha had known about caste, of course; her family was likely high-caste Hindu before converting to Christianity many generations before, although they never talked about it. The labourers on their farm came from the Dalit community, but she was raised sharing meals with them.

Bihar was an alien world, the one she had been seeking. She travelled out of the capital for a couple of hours to the tola – Mushahar settlement – of Jamsaut, and asked if she could stay.

"I was looking for a people and I found them," she says.

A look or touch that 'pollutes'

The idea of "untouchability" – that some people are so "polluted" simply by virtue of the family into which they are born, that they cannot be touched, sit or eat with others – was laid out in ancient texts of Hinduism, and endured for nearly 2,000 years.

Organized resistance began in the mid-1800s and grew slowly; in 1950, India adopted a new constitution that outlawed caste discrimination. New affirmative- action quotas were meant to give the former "untouchables" – who began to call themselves Dalit, a Sanskrit-derived word for "the broken people" – access to education and to government jobs.

Today, Dalits make up a sixth of India's population, about 170 million people. In the biggest cities, many Dalits have been able to leave untouchability behind. The parliamentary speaker is a Dalit woman; so is the chief minister of the largest state. In cities, Dalits can attend schools, buy tea at a café,and live where they like, although individual landlords may turn them away when they hear their surnames.

But in rural India – where 70 per cent of the country's population lives – the great majority of Dalits are landless workers; they make up the bulk of the population in bonded labour. A national survey in 2006 found that in more than half of the villages, Dalits were not permitted to enter non-Dalit houses, to enter places of worship, to share non-Dalits' food or use the same barbers or laundry services.

So it is hard to overstate how bizarre Sister Sudha's arrival seemed to the people of the tola – this young woman in her crisp, clean sari, who did not shrink from their gaze or their touch, but stepped inside their settlement and asked to stay.

In a pattern of generosity that would last for decades, they gave her a home – first, she shared a tumbledown hut, but when more children came and the family needed the space, she slept in a grain storage shed. "I got used to curving my body around the circle of the bins," she recalls.

The largest adjustment was learning to wake at 4 a.m. so she could go with the women into the fields to relieve themselves: There were no latrines, and modesty dictated that women could make this trip only in the dark.

Much of village life shocked her: Everything was grimy, muddy, covered in flies that feasted on the animal waste and food scraps tossed in the lanes, and no one had the habit of washing.

"But slowly, slowly," she says, "these things moved away and I began to see the children." She started with simple things: gathering women in the evenings around a small fire and talking to them about hygiene and the health of their bodies and their children. She taught the alphabet to children who couldn't go to the school in the dominant-caste section of the village.

Still, she saw herself as the student. "I was a beginner with regard to being in this community and being with the people, learning their culture, learning to accept them and also to really fashion my life so that I will become part of them."

Only very slowly did she set out to pass an idea back – that, as excluded as the people of the tola were, they had rights.

When they worked all day in the fields of a landlord who then scoffed and refused them the 30 cents they were promised, she led them back to sit, silently and peacefully, in his yard, until they were paid. She gathered children and took them to school, and went back every day to make sure they were allowed to sit on benches, not confined to windowsills or the floor, and to touch books like other children.

She told her neighbours that their children were entitled to a government stipend to pay for school books and uniforms, and that they could insist that police investigate the dominant-caste village-council members who had pocketed the funds.

She stayed for 21 years.

It was not a religious mission. "It's a purely humanitarian exercise," she says. "Wherever I see there is something lacking in them being a fully human being, I like to support them and see that they reach their full human good – so that is my purpose."

This philosophy places her in a tradition of Indian public service that is often called Gandhian, but with a respectful tilt of her head to the Mahatma, Sister Suhda rejects that label. Instead, like many of the Dalits, she holds as her inspiration Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Dalit who became a lawyer in the 1920s, led the fight against untouchability and drafted India's constitution.

Ambedkar nearly succeeded in setting up a separate electoral system for Dalits, arguing they could never have real political power in a system privileged castes would inevitably dominate. But Gandhi foiled that, threatening a fast unto death if Dalits were given their own system. Many still begrudge him that, and his larger failure to do more to end caste inequality.

There are others in India who practise Sister Sudha's style of integrated grassroots activism, such as Aruna Roy, who spearheaded the anti-corruption Right to Information movement; her husband, Bunker Roy, who founded the Barefoot College to educate poor, rural women; and Murlidhar Amte ("Baba"), a social worker who spent decades living with and advocating for lepers.

These activists tend to come from privileged backgrounds but spend their working lives closely tied to impoverished communities, working for education and social development. But there are only a handful of stories quite like Sister Sudha's, of living on the margins for decades, pushing for the most incremental change.

'It's all her doing'

As years passed, Jamsaut's women became Sister Sudha's focus. She had realized that rape was ubiquitous. "No one practises untouchability when it comes to sex," she snaps.

Or to drinking – higher-caste men would come at night to drink the date moonshine the Mushahar men brewed, then help themselves to the women, who had nowhere to hide.

The men rarely protested, because they relied on the income, and the women felt helpless. But mothers began to confide in Sister Sudha – stories they told her in despair, for what recourse did they have?

Finally, one day in 1992, when a young girl had been brutally gang-raped, Sister Sudha took her and her mother to the police station. When the police refused to register a case – "no one would rape a woman in clothes so dirty," they said – the women sat there on a bench, all through the night and the next day, until finally the disgusted police took the report. And Sister Sudha kept pushing the police until they arrested the men in question.

By then, authorities had begun to dread the sight of her, for now she spoke the language of the law. Frustrated that the legislation meant to protect the Mushahar was never implemented, she had decided in 1987 to take on the legal system.

"I saw the people in my village all the time being duped – the high-caste people would say, 'You have to pay for this or for that document,' or 'You have no right to this or to that.'"

For three years, she commuted to law school in Bangalore; she aced her exams and became an advocate.

In the next two years, she registered nine rape cases. "There were a lot of threats. They were ready to finish me off – 'It's all her doing: Which Mushahar ever files a case? Which Mushahar ever went to the police?' … I was frightened. But I decided I could not show it."

Gradually, Sister Sudha's work became a small empire, which she called Nari Gunjan, or Women's Voice. Using funds scraped together from her parents and siblings – who thought she was mad but wanted to help – and a bit from the community itself, she started an educational centre where Mushahar girls could get a basic education and some income-generating skills.

A Unicef staffer happened to see it, and arranged a grant of a few thousand dollars. So Sister Sudha expanded to 50 educational centres across rural Bihar, where girls and groups of older women learned about sanitation, reproductive health and their rights. She travelled the state, supervising it all on a bicycle – "the cycle sister," they called her.

Eventually, she says, she had simply become Mushahar. She planned to stay forever. But in 2005, some teenage Mushahar boys were attacked by dominant-caste young men. The boys filed a police case – and the wrath of the assailants' families came down on Sister Sudha.

She protested that she hadn't even known about the incident. But ultimately, she was behind it, from all her years of convincing the Mushahar that they had rights. The families made it known that she should disappear or they would do it for her. The police said they could not protect her – or would not.

Heartsick, she put a padlock on her wooden door in Jamsaut and went back to the convent in Patna. She lasted just days on its smooth floors and soft beds: "I could not survive there." She decided that the time had come to concentrate on a new project.

Girls, she had concluded, were the key to change for the Mushahar. To be a girl in the lowest caste is to be the person of the least value in every community, in every state. Until their lives changed, there could be no real talk of change in the country.

The girls needed education, but could never study in the villages. Even when they were permitted entry to school, they had too much else to do to attend with any regularity – herding livestock, gathering firewood, minding baby siblings or transplanting rice seedlings in the paddies.

Sister Sudha resolved to build a residence, a hostel where girls from all the tolas could come and stay and have no job but to learn. She would build them a home where, instead of the all-purpose "Mushahar," people would call them by their names.

Prerna is born

In Lal Kothi, near the outskirts of Patna, she found a place. It was half public latrine and half water-buffalo shed, but the state government helped her repair it, and, with donations and volunteer labour, the stinking, derelict building became a two-storey dormitory with a kitchen and a small, open study space.

She named it the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls – prerna is Hindi for inspiration.

The first girls arrived in 2006. Parents were anxious – they wanted their children to be educated, but it was a shocking idea to send a young, unmarried girl away on her own. Often, mothers had to mount sustained campaigns to persuade fathers and mothers-in-law.

"In almost every case," Sister Sudha says, "the mother is the critical thing that makes change possible."

From Jamsaut, Poonam's parents sent her. She was 10, or maybe 9 or 8 – no one had ever asked. She was half the height of a Canadian girl her age. She did not own shoes. She had a perpetual squint, and had never seen a doctor, let alone had her eyes checked. At home, when she bathed, it was by accident, in the ponds where the children chased the buffalos.

She had never used a latrine. She had never slept on a mattress. She was in Grade 5 – she'd attended school when she wasn't working with her parents – but had never owned a book.

The hostel was a strange new world: Poonam had never paid attention to the hours of the day before. Here, there was a schedule, and bathing, and three meals every day – she did not have to wait until the men, boys and adult women were finished and eat their scraps. She could even be first in line with her plate. Within months, she had shot up several inches and developed rounded arms and legs. She had glasses that helped her read. The hours of studying were an almost unimaginable luxury.

But the nights were unnerving, so far from the familiar noises of the village; girls whispered about ghosts and demons. To soothe fears, Sister Sudha has them line up each night to sing a prayer – a non-denominational one, as she is fanatical there be no Christian prayers or any other religion's.

"No matter how dark my way, I will trust in you and you will help me continue," the girls sing, in Hindi, to an unnamed god. "Help that I think not of what I have received but be more conscious of what I can give."

Sister Sudha had planned to send the girls, who now numbered 125, to the government school next door. But like so many others in India, it was a disaster: The teachers seldom showed up, and when they did, they sat gossiping on the veranda. On a good day, they might write a lesson on the board before they walked out. The children were left to puzzle out the mysteries of subtraction or the alphabet alone. After a semester, the girls had learned nothing.

So she pulled them out. For a dozen of the brightest, she scraped together the money, $200 each a year, to send them to a private school up the road. There were no other Dalits at the school, but the director is a businessman, and a fat envelope of fees paid up front quashed any hesitations he had.

For the others, Sudha hired some local, unemployed university graduates as teachers. Squashing together the bunk beds, she cleared a couple of rooms and started a school of her own. She followed the government curriculum, but bolstered it too: She wanted the girls to learn to sing and draw and paint. They asked for dance class. And she hunted up a karate teacher.

"Karate, I felt, would give them more self-confidence, and also self-protection – because many of these girls, in their homes and the fields where they go to work, they could be victims of sexual and physical abuse. So karate would give them strength to protect themselves" – and maybe to fight back.

The girls took to it. In fact, this year, 20 of them travelled to the national competition in Gujarat – the first time they had ever been anywhere besides the school and their villages. They won gold or silver in nearly every category, a sweep so astonishing that Bihar's chief minister summoned them and offered to send the winners to world championships in Japan.

Sister Sudha found herself organizing passports and plane tickets for seven girls who, a year before, had never even been in an auto-rickshaw. In Tokyo, they gawked at the skyscrapers, the gleaming white-tiled hotel bathroom and the machine in the dining room that hissed out Coke or coffee. They came home with seven trophies.

But something else surprised them most: "They were so astonished by how much respect people showed them," she says. "They said, 'Imagine, bowing to me, speaking to me, this way.'"

Looking strangers in the eye

Poonam returns to Prerna from the private school at 1:30 in the afternoon, and lunch is waiting. She changes quickly from her uniform into one of her two dresses, using a safety pin in place of a broken zipper, as the dress has had many owners before her. She pauses briefly for lunch: rice, lentils and potatoes.

Then she takes her books out of her backpack, and begins laboriously copying the unfamiliar English words of a fairy tale – in the Bihar version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, it's a lion instead, and after the third time the boy calls "lion!" it eats him. Poonam sighs and hastily turns that page.

It's hot in the dormitory, with not even a breath of wind through the iron grills on the windows. The smaller girls tumble on their bedrolls, telling secrets and playing checkers. A few fall asleep.

But at dusk a whistle blows again, and Poonam joins the others as they gather on the school field for free-form games of tag, tackling and races. They move with a freedom and unself-consciousness that would be unthinkable in the village. No one is watching. No one will seize their arms and angrily remind them what is acceptable for Mushahar girls.

Everything they feel the urge to do is acceptable here: When they run, they are astoundingly fast. When they tackle, they are lethally efficient. And when they laugh, they are loud.

This has been Sister Sudha's fundamental goal, to replace the sense of worthlessness inculcated in them since birth.

"All that they have known and heard and seen is, 'You are like dirt.' They have internalized this: 'This is my lot,' they feel. 'This is where I belong. I don't belong on the chair. I will sit on the floor, and then no one can tell me to go any lower than that.'

"All their lives, they are told, 'You are the last. You are the least. You do not deserve to have.' They learn very fast to keep quiet, don't expect changes and don't ask for more."

At the school, where everyone is focused on the girls' well-being and achievements, she shows them they are worth more. As soon as they step outside its walls, someone mutters, "Mushahar," and they are reminded they are untouchable.

But by helping them to explore new things and excel, Sister Sudha hopes that they will come to know at a visceral level that they are as good as others, and sometimes, even better.

The constant subtle reinforcement has had a profound effect. The girls stand straight. They gleam with health. Their pale blue dupattai are pinned precisely on the shoulders of darker blue kameez. Their teeth are shiny white. Their braids are tied in fat ribbons. They greet adults with a respectful pranam – hands meeting in front of their hearts – and they look strangers in the eye when they say hello.

"That takes a long time – when they come here, they are just looking at the ground all the time," Sister Sudha says quietly. "To get their heads lifted is something."

By 10 p.m., a warm, heavy dark lies over Prerna, and the last giggles have died out in the dorms. Even bookworms such as Poonam have stowed their cherished books beneath their bunks, tucked in the corners of their mosquito nets and closed their eyes.

On the concrete steps out front, Sister Sudha sits awake. She knots her grey-streaked hair at her neck, loosens it distractedly, knots it again, and tries to envision a future for her girls.

Their lives have undergone unthinkable changes in a few years, but their families and their villages are not changing nearly as fast. "It will be really a challenge for them to meet even their own family, their own sister who did not study here," she says.

These are the ideas that plague Sister Sudha: Where will they go when they leave? What is it realistic to think they can do?

"In the hostel, we are here to protect them. But they won't always have someone to fight for them or protect them. They have to prepare themselves to face that."

Stephanie Nolen is the South Asia bureau chief for The Globe and Mail.

Editor's note: A Dalit woman was elected as India's parliamentary speaker, not as president. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.