It had been a very bad week.
A couple of years into my assignment in India, I went to Bihar, the country’s poorest state, to report on the development miracle that was said to be going on under its new government. I saw new roads, new schools, new toilets and newly minted health workers, all emblematic of the sort of rapid change that was supposed to be sweeping India.
But I also met families of landless agricultural labourers who lived in windowless, low-roofed mud huts that would barely holds pigs. I saw a young couple sit down to their one meal that day: a pot of insect-speckled, four-day-old rice. A local official took me to a showpiece village for Dalits, the people once known as untouchables – then recoiled in visible disgust when one of the residents almost brushed his sleeve by accident.
In village after village, I met people living in conditions more grim, more horrifying than almost any I had seen in 20 years of reporting that had taken me from the AIDS-ravaged highlands of Lesotho to dust-baked southern Afghanistan. After a couple of days, I was nearly speechless with despair. If this was India’s beacon of progress, well, the gods help us all.
With a couple of hours left before my flight back to Delhi, desperate for even a fragment of good news, I decided to look up an activist a friend had told me about on the outskirts of the Bihari capital, Patna. He had described her work as revolutionary. So I had the taxi stop in the town of Danapur, tracked down the address – a plain, red, metal gate – and stepped inside.
I found myself in a playing field full of schoolgirls, caught up in a boisterous game of tag. When they saw me, they froze. Then they turned, put their hands together in a quick, respectful greeting – “pranam, didi” – and went right back to running.
These girls were so strong, and so confident – so unlike any of the people I had met over the past few days. I ventured up the path and in the door, and met the school’s founder, Sudha Varghese. She told me I had come to the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls. Those wild, free creatures in the schoolyard were Dalit girls, a fact that made their sense of joyful inhibition even harder to believe.
Sister Sudha has made it her life’s work to square the shoulders and raise the chins of these girls, these most marginalized citizens in the poorest corner of India. Within a few minutes of sitting down across from her battered wooden desk, my despair began to melt away.
The word prerna means “inspiration” in Hindi, and that school became mine: the vehicle for the most important stories I tried to tell in nearly five years as a correspondent in India.
It wasn’t immediately clear which stories those would be. Certainly there was no shortage of breaking news to cover: Days after I arrived in the country, a band of young Pakistani men loaded down with weapons sailed into the Mumbai harbour and ran rampaging through the city. A couple of hours after I had picked up keys to the new office, I was on a flight to Mumbai into the middle of that story. After that, the pace rarely slowed.
I covered the largest election ever held in the world, when 417.2 million Indians voted in 2009. I reported on a nascent space program, and a massive Maoist insurgency. I wrote about the steady ascendance of women into local government because of an audacious affirmative-action campaign; the successes of the world’s biggest-ever public-welfare scheme; and the craven robbery by officials that has crippled a food-distribution system meant to feed the hungry.
There were big political stories – including corruption scandals of breathtaking scale – and big business stories. Economic growth has plummeted over my time here, from near 10 per cent a year to just over 5 per cent, but that has scarcely dampened the voracious interest in this ballooning economy, which just this year overtook Japan to become the world’s third largest.
When I arrived, the signs of that growth were everywhere, at least in the cities. And there were stories to tell from the other India as well: the India of the 800 million people who still live in villages, and eke out a bare living on agriculture.
But the Prerna school gave me a way to write about the stories that lay underneath many of these others.
Again and again, I went out to investigate an issue – why were 47 per cent of children still malnourished, despite 15 years of roaring growth? Why had India managed to slash its rate of HIV infection when African nations using the same methods had had no success? And again and again the answer had to do with the status of women: Women didn’t get to decide what their family grew or bought or fed their children. Women’s mobility was so constrained that they could never have an extramarital relationship, and so never passed on HIV.
In my first days in India, I was startled by the absence of women in public spaces, save for the occasional portrait of a political leader such as Sonia Gandhi smiling down from the wall. That never lessened. But it took longer for me to notice the endurance of caste – the ancient stratification of society by birth.
Discrimination based on caste was outlawed in 1950, yet nevertheless the caste categories are now formally enshrined by government, because everything from subsidized rice to college admissions to parliamentary seats are subject to caste-based quotas. A national survey in 2006 found that in more than half of rural communities, Dalits were not permitted to enter non-Dalit homes, to use the same laundry man or barber as non-Dalits, to go into the places of worship, nor to share food or water or dishes with non-Dalits.
Ah, people told me, but that’s the villages – it’s different in the cities. Tens of thousands of people seem to want to believe that, because there are pages of name-change advertisements in the newspapers each day – placed by migrants seeking to leave their past behind by shedding their caste-revealing surnames.
But as I became more literate in the subtle signs of how caste plays out in India today, I began to see it everywhere: in the two sets of dishes at the home of a friend, a senior executive in the supposedly caste-blind tech industry – there was a steel set kept for visitors and workers of unknown caste. (This is called the “two-tumbler” system.) In the way a street sweeper in a municipal-government fluorescent vest pulled the end of her sari out of the way lest it touch the suited workers walking by.
A senior civil servant confided that his colleagues, upon learning he came from a Dalit family, refused to visit his Mumbai home. Caste has proved resilient, an ancient system of discrimination grafting into a modern economy.
And yet from day to day neither caste nor gender discrimination received more than cursory coverage in the local media. I rarely heard people talking about either, and when I wrote about these issues, officials at India’s Ministry of External Affairs summoned me to politely berate my outdated coverage.
“These are all things of the past – no one is concerned about these things any more,” a senior spokesman chided me.
But that’s not what I saw. One week, I covered the launch of the new BlackBerry to a voracious Indian market in the high-tech “millennium city” of Gurgaon, outside Delhi – and the next week, I drove a couple of hours farther down that road and covered a violent siege against Dalits in a village where a dominant-caste woman had eloped with a lower-caste man she had met at business school. It felt like time travel to the Middle Ages.
This rising tide swamps many boats
The conventional wisdom in theories of economic development, largely borne out by recent history, is that rapid growth will be accompanied by sweeping social transformation. In China, it came hand in hand with revolution. In 1960s Quebec, too, although the revolution was of a more peaceful kind. In Thailand and others of the so-called Asian Tigers, traditional feudal systems were rapidly replaced with urbanized mobility. In next-door Bangladesh, the growth of the garment industry has created a vast class of women with waged work – badly paid, dangerous work, but work that has given them much greater autonomy and has shaken up all the traditional ways.
Will India be the country that defies that theory? As the Indian economy has grown, its rate of female work-force participation – already one of the lowest in the world, at 12 per cent – has declined further. Forty-six per cent of public places in rural India today maintain the two-tumbler system.
There are many places – South Africa and Brazil, for example – where growth has been accompanied by an increase in inequality between the richest and the poorest. But in all those places, the poorest, at least some of them, have seen their own baseline improve. In India, the basic indicators of quality of life – child deaths, maternal mortality, access to clean water and sanitation, quality of housing – have not budged for a vast tranche of the populace.
Seventy per cent of Indians still live on less than $2 a day. Less than 7 per cent graduate from high school.
There is a widespread belief outside India, put forth perhaps most often and most eloquently by former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, that India cannot be a superpower if it does not confront and change the enshrined ideas about women, and all the old forces that keep much of the population shut out.
“India will rise or fall with its women,” she told a gathering of political, business and cultural leaders at the Women in the World Summit recently. “It’s had a tradition of strong women leaders, but those women leaders – like women leaders around the world, like those who become presidents or prime ministers or foreign ministers or heads of corporations – cannot be seen as tokens that give everyone else in society the chance to say, ‘We’ve taken care of our women.’ So any country that wants to rise economically and improve productivity needs to open the doors.”
But maybe Ms. Clinton is wrong. Over the course of my years here, I have begun to wonder whether India will be the country that will grow and grow and never undergo that transformative disruption.
“Our Prime Minister likes to say that what India is achieving today has no parallel in human history – this pace of economic growth in an open society,” Harsh Mander, a prominent Delhi-based social activist who was recruited by Ms. Gandhi to advise her government, told me not long ago. He acknowledged with a gentle tip of his head that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was correct about that. “And yet we’re leaving millions of our people behind.”
The people elected to power are utterly unmoved by this, he said. “When they drew up the new poverty line recently, they set it at 32 rupees [54 Canadian cents] a day. That means one rupee for health care.” It’s tantamount to ensuring that those now at the bottom stay there. “They feel the country can keep on without these things changing, because it’s been fine until now.”
I wondered – as I sat on flights from Delhi to Mumbai as the only woman other than the air hostess; when a Delhi woman with a master’s in business confided which doctors would reveal the gender of a fetus, to facilitate aborting a girl; when a Harvard-educated business owner told me that “those people” (lower castes) simply did not have the ability to hold a professional position – just what it would take for change to come.
Poonam claims her choice
We are sitting in rough wooden chairs under a lazy fan, my friend Poonam and I,
and we are having a conversation we have had many times before. It is late morning, blanketed with the heat of summer in Bihar. We are in the front room of the Prerna schol, and from upstairs come the murmurs of a math lesson, a scrape of benches on the classroom floor. Poonam, 16, is cutting class to sit and talk to me; she knows this is my last visit to Prerna for a long time, and she will sweetly tolerate my probing.
“What can you do?” I ask her. “What can you do, in India today?”
Poonam is from a group of Dalits called Mushahar – illiterate, landless labourers who are so stunted by lifelong malnutrition that she towers over them when she goes back to visit, and she is not tall herself. When she walks in the street outside school, neighbours will cross to the other side so her shadow does not touch theirs.
She is also a straight-A student with a love of biology. An artist. A prize-winning athlete. A trophy-holding debater. A canny observer of the world around her. A secret writer of sappy poetry. And a child, who cannot help but run when she comes into an open space. She considers my question for a minute, fidgeting with the light pink dupatta draped over her shoulders.
“The condition of women in the rural areas is very bad, very uncertain,” she says in Hindi. “They have no choices, only to live the way they live today. They have no work, no health care. For urban women or upper-caste women, it’s not the same – they’re educated, they have jobs as teachers or nurses or police officers. They have choices.”
“Choices,” I say, nodding. “That’s a big one. Getting to make your own.”
Poonam carries on. “Girls like us, if we take the opportunity given to us, we can become educated and get those jobs as teachers and nurses. It all depends on what you do with the chance you’re given. It used to be only for those others. Now, we also have that opportunity, if we take it. What used to be possible only for them is possible for us also.”
A horrifying reality check: the bus case
After a couple of years of spending time with the girls of Prerna, I was nearly convinced: Every time I left the school, I would sit on the evening flight back to the congested, smoggy buzz of Delhi, and feel hopeful.
And then on the night of Dec. 16, 2012, a 23-year-old Delhi physiotherapy student named Jyoti Singh went to see Life of Pi with a friend. Here is what happened next, as later pieced together by police: They caught what they thought was a private bus home, and for three hours it rolled through the streets of the Indian capital, through five separate police posts, the curtains in its windows masking what went on inside.
The passengers – actually friends of the driver, who had hijacked the school bus for a night of “fun” – set upon Ms. Singh and her friend. First they robbed them, and then they began to beat them, and when the young man, a software engineer, fell semi-conscious to the floor of the bus, they dragged Ms. Singh to the back and took turns raping her – first using their own bodies, and later with iron rods. Eventually they dumped the pair by the side of the road near a call centre, where employees coming off a night shift found them.
Ms. Singh came from a low-caste family – not as low as Poonam’s, and not as poor, but people who had fought for the smallest toehold in the new India. Her parents had sold their tiny plot of land in Uttar Pradesh, a few miles from the Bihar border, and used the money to rent a two-room house in a Delhi slum and send their children to school. Ms. Singh, in particular, had been their big hope.
She justified their faith: She earned high marks, tutored neighbourhood kids, got into a professional college and got a call-centre job to help pay for it. She went to class all day, worked night shifts and barely slept. She packed away the salwar-kurtas people had worn back in the village, bought jeans and T-shirts and had her hair streaked.
She died in hospital 10 days after the rape on the bus, after painstakingly recording a statement for police (twice, because they messed up the first one) and pleading with them to catch the men who attacked her.
Something about this story – the brutality of the men who attacked her, Ms. Singh’s courage, perhaps a camel’s-back frustration with the constant tide of news of violence against women – left people here enraged. In the days after the attack, and especially after she died 10 days later, there was an unprecedented outpouring of fury by many Indian women and the men who care about them. There were massive street demonstrations in Delhi, which the panicked government tried to shut down. A conversation erupted in public, not only about sexual violence but about harassment, selective abortion, dowry and the myriad other ways women are rendered unequal here.
It took place in the erudite pages of the English-language newspapers, but in many other places as well. The girls of Prerna went to a candlelight vigil. They talked about rape. But then, just as quickly as it had come, the conversation faded away.
“On the positive side, it was a moment of public empathy for a woman whose name we didn’t know. There has been no mass public upsurge because of violence against women anywhere before, ever,” Mr. Mander, the activist, observed when we talked about it in the spring. “You had the government not knowing how to respond, but it got its act together and created the committee [to look at modifying existing laws] and a lot of what it recommended was accepted.”
And then. “We hit the limits of empathy. Homeless women are being raped right here every night,” he said, gesturing to the pavement outside his office window. “There are no demonstrations.”
Even more disturbingly, there were fewer women around at all: After the attack on Ms. Singh, one in three female employees in the capital either reduced her hours or quit her job, according to a survey by the Association of Chambers of Commerce of India.
When I went back to Prerna after Ms. Singh’s death, I found it impossible to look at the girls with the same optimism I had before. Jyoti Singh had tried plenty hard. She was focused. And look what happened to her dreams. It made me terrified for these girls at Prerna, about whom I had come to care a great deal, and it also made me think they were painfully deluded: Their hard work would never be enough.
And so when I went back to Bihar a few weeks ago, to tell the girls I was headed to South America to write about a new place, to thank them for their patience with me and to explain that I would not be around so much to poke my nose into their lives – I couldn’t resist having the conversation with Poonam one more time.
‘What about the future?’
Sister Sudha sits with us, listening at first and translating when my Hindi and Poonam’s English don’t quite meet in the middle, and then taking over, gently probing Poonam’s ideas.
“What about the future?” I ask, flinching a bit as I bring up Ms. Singh and her murder on that Delhi bus. “What can a girl like you do in India today?”
“I just have to be focused on my goal,” she answers quickly. “Sometimes my friends call me to come and chat with them and away from my books and I stop studying – but there is nothing else in my way.”
“But as soon as you step out through that gate, you’re not safe,” Sister Sudha says reflectively. “Your gender makes you not safe.”
“I’m safe in here, though.”
“But you can’t stay here all your life” – Sister Sudha and I, in chorus.
“Where we’re unsafe, women must come together and raise their voices and speak out for change” – Poonam, deadly serious.
I try to keep the dismay off my face; Poonam is staring hard at me. But it is hard to imagine change coming just because some Dalit girls demand it.
“All around there are situations like this, the harassment and the violence,” Sister Sudha says again, playing devil’s advocate. “Better you should stay home and get married and have your children.”
Poonam’s reply is lightning fast. “But that also is not safe – you get a husband who is not humane, he does not treat you well and you become a victim of violence.” She goes on, thinking about home. “You know, women in urban areas come together. But in villages they don’t because of the fear of dominant castes.”
Sister Sudha is still pushing. “Even within our own caste, people are exploited. Women are exploited by men.”
Poonam bristles. “They always blame the girl. It’s always her fault. Nobody looks at justice, who is wrong and who is right. Even in my own home no one stands up for me.”
She pauses for a minute and swings her legs back and forth a bit. She flips the dupatta up over her shoulder. She has a plan: “You have to get yourself educated and get a livelihood, a job, a post.” With that, she says, she would have the ability to fend off everyone who tries to hold her back.
So – I should be hopeful?
Poonam speaks with the same certainty I first heard from her years before, when we chatted on my first visit to Prerna: “If I want, I can do it. If I want, I can be safe anywhere. I can be safe and I can manage.”
“The key is resistance. Resisting what they want, focusing on what I want.”
“They. Who do you mean, they?”
“Boys. Men. Society. The key is resistance.”
She says it with a fierceness and a conviction that make her seem so much older than 16.
That’s Poonam’s plan. Resistance.
And I can’t help but feel hopeful when I hear it.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect currency conversion for the poverty line of 32 rupees a day. That converts to 54 Canadian cents and not six cents as published.