When I am frightened, I don’t show fear

Natasha Badhwar meets Sudha Varghese, who has lived with a community of Musahars for three decades, helping women stand up against caste and gender atrocities


Sudha Varghese, who empowers girls from Bihar’s downtrodden castes. Photo: Sumit Sharma
Sudha Varghese, who empowers girls from Bihar’s downtrodden castes. Photo: Sumit Sharma

This is a very long story with many branches and sub-stories, all of which seem essential to tell. I want to leave you with the essence of it all.

When times are bleak, we need to meet and hear from those who radiate inspiration. People who show us a map on which we can choose our own routes and resting places.

Sudha Varghese has been living and working in Bihar for three decades now. Her life story intersects with that of many women of the Manjhi, Musahar and other Mahadalit castes, who have always lived on the fringes of their villages.

Varghese is a lawyer by profession and has lived with a community of Musahars, helping to organize the women to stand up against caste and gender atrocities and create livelihood options for those who are both ill-educated and landless.

In 1987, Varghese, along with her team, established Nari Gunjan to help women from marginalized communities become aware of and access their rights. When we arrive to meet her at the Prerana Hostel in Danapur, near Patna, it is evening and we find ourselves walking through rows of adolescent girls in their karate uniforms, practising with impeccable coordination, their neat plaits flying in action. Prerana Hostel is one of Nari Gunjan’s two hostels where girls from the most downtrodden castes of Bihar live and study. Many of them are first-generation students in their families. I am reminded of my own daughters as I watch these girls in action, their eyes bright with concentration.

Prerana Hostel’s adolescent girls in their karate uniforms, practising with impeccable coordination
Prerana Hostel’s adolescent girls in their karate uniforms, practising with impeccable coordination

“What you do today, what you say today, the children are the witnesses,” says Varghese. “Their adult lives will be affected by what you choose to do now. What opportunities are we giving to children? Education is foremost; without it, they have no power to make choices about what they want or can accept.”

Varghese and her team have helped to create and facilitate self-help groups called Mahila Dastak and Yuva Dastak, which bring women, children and youth together to be able to support each other. Nari Gunjan teachers run a parallel school for children who are enrolled in the government-run schools in villages, to ensure that they remain at pace with the curriculum.

In Dhibra village nearby, Badamu Devi makes me note her detailed address. Jamsaut Panchayat, Thana Shahpur, District Patna.

“I have been with Sister Sudha for 30 years,” she tells me. “I would travel everywhere with Sister Sudha to talk to women about education. She would always keep me in the front. I have been to Delhi and Ranchi. Even now, when she wanted to train women to become drummers, Sister Sudha consulted me. Today, the women drummers’ band travels far and wide to perform. It feels great to see my daughter-in-law travel like I have travelled and lead her group.”

Her daughter-in-law, Chhatiya, is listening carefully to her. She adds, “I have two girls and a boy. Ever since I have been travelling with the drummers’ band, I earn enough money to buy whatever I want when I need to.”

“My son fights with me about sending my daughter-in-law out to work,” Devi confides. “I tell him that one income is just not enough for the household. Why should a woman be helpless when she can tap into her strength and talents to earn money?”

“What have you got from going out?” I ask Chhatiya.

“There is so much tension at home,” she says. “We are always on the edge. I feel so calm when I am away at work.”

“In my youth, the daily wage used to be 5 annas, then 10 annas and eventually it became Rs8. What could we feed our children in this Rs8?” asks Devi.

“On Women’s Day one year, we performed a play in Danapur. It was about being able to claim economic independence. How far can we stretch our low wages? We had a song that went—don’t stay in purdah anymore. Come, we have to get out and earn our own money.”

In 2006, Varghese was awarded the Padma Shri Award to honour her work. “What has changed in the 30 years that you have been working here?” I ask Varghese.

“The main change is that a lot more women talk about violence and exploitation. They don’t stay silent. People have seen the consequences of being reported, and that is a deterrant.

“The Mahila Dastak group became a sounding board. The feeling that I belong to this group gives women a confidence that they are not alone any more. It eased their inner tension. When we first arrive in a village, we see women very agitated. There is so much turmoil in them; they are so disappointed and fearful that they reject you.”

How pervasive is domestic violence?

“I know a lady who committed suicide in our village. Her son was abusive towards her. At the last minute, she said, Didi, please save me. I don’t want to die. But the poison had seeped in too much. Women have the capacity to suffer and keep it down, but a point comes when she breaks. She cannot take it anymore.

“Domestic violence is almost taken for granted. You are in a family, you are the daughter–in-law, you need to be taught how to behave, how to talk, how to suffer quietly. It is part of tradition, it is all-pervasive. No one ever shares their feelings, true feelings. You talk in abuses and threats. How can you expect positive feelings in return?

“I challenge the men and women to begin to listen. I say, let the victim speak. I talk to the victim. I tell her to let me know what happens later. We need to work towards a violence-free panchayat. The mukhiya should listen to the woman. She should have a place in her own society where she can be heard. We need the first rung of support at the local, community level.”

As a lawyer, Varghese is reluctant to advise women to pursue legal action against their families. “Poor women cannot maintain a case in court. It is very expensive, and she will only become more victimized. In the end, she will leave the case and nothing will have changed for her.”

“Do you see yourself working with men more or do you believe that the focus has to remain with the women?” I ask Varghese.

“I always feel guilty that I cannot reach out to the men,” she says. “I sent our facilitators to sit with and listen to the men. They have come to a stage when they talk to us, look in our eyes and shake hands with us. Change comes in various ways.

“Our actions have to invite them. I have about 300 young boys who are part of Yuva Dastak, who solve problems of their own peer group. They also organize cricket matches between blocks. Talking and listening has brought them to a stage where they feel that they are the ones who can bring change. In their own blocks they organize meetings, taking responsibility to set up mikes and dhurries, and to handle the younger children. We are always in search of what more we can do for them so that they can participate in the world as adults. They don’t always have to be put in a corner because they are Musahars. Their lives can change,” says Varghese.

Outside her office, the younger children among the 250 girls who live in Prerana Hostel have begun to sing together. We hear a song from an old Hindi film that goes, Itni shakti humein dena daata, man ka vishwaas kamzor ho na (give me so much strength, O Almighty, that the faith in my heart doesn’t waver). I am reminded of my own daughters again.

Listening to Varghese talk about violence, apathy and abandonment, I wonder where her steely will draws its energy from. “There is so much cynicism and backlash,” I say to her. “What makes you go on?”

“I don’t show fear,” says Varghese, in her calm and even tone, her gaze steady and kind. “Even when I am threatened, I am frightened inside, but I don’t show fear. Everything is not possible, but a lot is possible. Hope is necessary. We cannot get disappointed, that things will never change. They will and they do,” she says.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.

READ MORE