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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/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)
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/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)

Breaking Caste: Part 1

Remarkable school gives girls from the bottom of India's caste system new hope Add to ...

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.

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