It was my first visit to Bihar. As I rode past the streets of Patna towards Nari Gunjan’s Prerna Hostel in Lal Kothi, I thought to myself that this doesn’t look half as bad as I had been told. Narratives from several sources implored me to prepare for the worst, if I were to survive this visit. I could think of at least three locations in Mumbai and its vicinity that are in a dire need of waste management systems as compared to Patna. Anyway, I digress.
Our cabbie was in a chatty mood. He commented on my heavy bags, the purpose of my visit and yadda yadda. I played the silent observer as I was recovering from a bout of fever. My accompanying colleague, Manju, was kind enough to keep the conversation alive in a light tone that comes to her naturally. After a little bit of haggling over the bill and the parking charges, the driver helped us unload our luggage from the car and said, “Theek hain madamji, aap humein dua dijiye aur aap dawa le lijiye. Aapki tabiyat theek nahi lag rahi hai.” (Okay madam, give me your good wishes and please take medicine. You seem unwell). I smiled!
His unexpected kind words and observations caught me offhand. I tend to associate the memories of a place with the people I meet. This incident made me more kind towards him. But I did not anticipate the surprise awaiting me.
A lone messenger lingering at the main gate watched this scene unfold. Before we reached the gate, the little girl had notified the other girls of our arrival quicker than the bell icon on YouTube notifies you of a new video. A throng of girls gathered to usher us into their residence. Manju has been working with Nari Gunjan for two years now and has a special place in the hearts of these young girls. While they greeted her with cheers, I stood awkwardly admiring their hearty reunion. Before I could speak, Manju introduced me to them and I was greeted with hugs galore. Their faces lit up like the star-eyes and wide grin emojis combined. Amidst all the group hugs came excited shrieks of “Namaste didi! Aap kaise ho?” (Hello! How are you?)
Nari Gunjan (roughly translates to Women’s Voice) has been working with the marginalized Mushahar community in Patna district for the last thirty-one years. Their prime motive is to empower women through education. Prerna hostel for girls is one of their many ambitious initiatives towards achieving this goal. It creates a holistic learning space for the girls imbibed with value education barring any discrimination. The founder, Sudha Varghese (recently popular among households as a KBC contestant, as my cabbie also liked to call her), has a background in law. She has stayed with this community for decades and raises these girls as a parent would. She might come across as taciturn and a formidable personality but the girls at Prerna hostel look up to her as she has their best interests at heart.
All residents of the hostel follow a daily routine like a military regiment as the bell tolls. Apart from studies, they practice martial arts, fine arts and yoga. They read the newspaper every morning and discuss it in groups.
“Everyone knows Deepika as an actress. I want to join the police force when I grow up so that people know Deepika as a police officer too,” shared one of the middle school girls during an ice breaking session on day one.
One of the girls asked what I wanted to be when I was growing up. I thought I might break into a sweat for the lack of an answer. I found it best to accept the truth and simply said that I didn’t know and that I’m still in the process of figuring it out. Frankly, at the age of six, the plan was to be “someone” but then I changed my mind while I was in college and here I was, teaching kids. I wouldn’t have dreamed of finding solace in a classroom. The girls acted wiser than their age and seemed to understand.
These young girls full of aspiration, have to struggle to be educated because they belong to a certain community. How is it reasonable? I have been enamored with the beauty of Bihar, the love and affection from these girls, meeting co-fellows and admiring the vast open fields of Bangalwa. As I look back on the visit, it reminds me of Carrie Bradshaw’s words, “Maybe some labels are best left in a closet.”