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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 ...

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.

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