There's a little school near Athani, Belgaum district (North Karnataka) which epitomises the best and the worst of the 'rest of India' -- an India we city-dwellers would not care to know for it's an India ignored by even the politicians and the cable television mafia.
The best of that India lives in the Malabad Vimochana Residential School for the children of Devadasis and 'normal' children. This school is set in a couple of acres and is 20 kms from Athani town. Athani is a filthy, pig-infested place, where it is best to always insist on boiling water (rather than boiled water). But the Malabad school gives you the impression of an untouched place, for these children have literally no contact with the polluting influences of our city life.
The school, which has 400-odd students, is one of the very few in India which caters to the Devadasi community and it runs solely on donations. There are a couple of computers here -- just so that the children learn how to identify the keyboard from the monitor, otherwise, their only means of recreation is to sing (Raj Kumar songs are a great favourite), play catch or hide-and-seek or try and pick sugar cane from the many tractors that dot the approach roads to Malabad. Belgaum is sugar cane country, working in the sugar factories is one of the few opportunities of employment for people here. But that's another story.
At the school, every visitor is a cause for immense excitement -- the Devadasi girls and boys here are so poor that few have the money to travel to Belgaum city (140 kms away), let alone Bangalore (600 kms away). And since the childrens' lives revolve around their classes, every female visitor is naturally 'Teacher Madam' and every male is addressed as 'Sir'. In fact, the first question Mahananda and Savithri, two class-10 students, asked me was: "Are you here for your MSW?" (Many Masters in Social Work students visit the school every year to research the Devadasi cult).
Just like those MSW students, I too went there with an agenda -- to see how and why the Devadasi cult has survived in this day and age. But the childrens' simple joy, shamed me. Their innocence glows in their faces and yes, they are immensely brave. They come from housewholds dominated by women. Their mothers are farm labourers by day and many of these women are also 'dasis' to upper caste Patils and Lingayats (the dominent castes in North Karnataka), by night.
Yet, these children are symbols of change -- they are in Malabad because their mothers have courageously broken with tradition to get them educated. But will they be able to truly break free? If I go back next year, will Mahananda and Savithri still be there or will they have been married off? I really don't know and I'm scared to find out.