Teaching India

Sister Act: The nun in army boots who opened her heart and her school to Kolkata's street children

With her Rainbow schools that teach and house children from the slums, Sister Cyril fights the notion that quality education is a preserve of the rich.

I am convinced that India will remain unequal as long as its classrooms are unequal.

India’s classrooms today mirror, produce and reproduce the disgraceful inequalities that scar the country. It is here that the children of the rich receive the best education that money can buy. They rarely if ever rub shoulders with the children of the poor, of working-class parents, and of socially ostracised castes and discriminated religions. If these other children are able to enter school at all, their schools are entirely separated from the schools for rich children, and are far more poorly resourced, often with absentee teachers and absentee classrooms. Children in these schools frequently are first-generation learners, battling the want of their homes, and struggling against hunger, cramped unsanitary living spaces, poor health, distress migration, and pressures to join the work force or marry while they are still children; as well as cruel historical prejudices of caste, gender and communal identities.

One person I know who has most doggedly and fiercely battled inequality in India’s classrooms is a feisty and stocky Irish Catholic nun who wears army boots with her nun’s habit. Sister Cyril made Kolkata her home more than six decades back, arriving there after a long ship journey as a 17-year-old novice nun back in the 1950s.

In 1979, when she took charge as principal of Loreto Sealdah, this school was a conventional convent for middle-class and wealthy girls like many across the country. She resolutely prised open the doors of her school first to welcome children from the city’s slums, who soon constituted half the strength of the school. Later, she fought even more radically to open the school to girls from the streets, who live and sleep in the school after the other children have left.

In a compelling forthcoming book, Damn It, Do It: Thoughts of a Practical Radical Nun, she collaborates with Neil Farrelly, Greg Dale and Tim Mann to tell the story of her extraordinary journey with the children she has raised. This volume, on the one hand, is an arresting portrait of a woman in a religious order who fights both creatively and combatively to construct better and fairer life chances for the most dispossessed of Kolkata’s girls; on the other, the book affirms luminously the intrinsic equality of all children and the possibilities of creating spaces where children of the rich, the poor and the destitute can be nurtured and educated together, where they can be taught to grow side by side with confidence and self-worth, as well as mutual understanding, compassion and respect.

Free books, uniforms, meals and rations for home 

Sister Cyril redesigned her school sensitively to meet the needs of all the children who study and live within its walls.

“Slum-dwelling children who cannot afford to pay tuition fees and need full financial support come in at four years of age along with those who pay. They get their uniforms and books for free from the school as well as food (a hot mid-day meal) and even rations to take home as they are so badly off. They get an evening snack before they go home, and very often you will see them slipping it carefully into their bags to take back to their mothers, who may have had nothing to eat all day. If they have younger siblings, the children are encouraged to take a meal home to them as well so they are not brain-damaged when it is their turn to go to school. They live in hutments stitched together from bits of sacking, rags, cardboard, and it is a source of wonder how they come here so clean. They have the option to stay and study in school, if they have no place at home. They can also even have a bath here, especially when they grow older and are bigger. We do everything we can to ensure that they get a fair chance and take pride in their progress.”

I met Sister Cyril in the course of my own life journey when, more than a decade back, I was searching for the best ways street children can be taken care of. I observed that the dominant – almost exclusive – state response to children whose only home are city streets was to forcefully lock these children away in prison-like institutions. The government calls these "children’s homes" but the children themselves describe them as chillar jails (chillar means small change), and this is what they are. They crush the free spirit of street children, who rebel, rage and scuffle against these and try only to run away from them.

But the humane alternative to these prison homes could not be to let the children remain unprotected on mean city streets, exposed to violence, rape, hunger and disease, and denied education. The challenge was to take them into adult care in ways that were voluntary, caring, transparent and healing. My search for answers about how this could be best accomplished brought me to Sister Cyril’s school.

A street girl was raped one day barely metres outside the school gates of Loreto Sealdah. What followed for Sister Cyril was a kind of epiphany. In a flash of profound insight, Sister Cyril realised that her school – like every day school in every city in the country – was vacant some 16 hours a day, and these were precisely the hours during which homeless children are most vulnerable to abuse and violence. Therefore, it was possible for her to take care of hundreds of homeless children if only she opened up her school to them, not only as a place of study but also as a place of safety, food and rest through the day and night.

“To run a good school is no longer enough,” she decided, “because we must, if we have a conscience, be looking after all these children who are outside and who nobody bothers about.”

Her mind made up, she set about implementing this radical and unorthodox idea briskly in her customary no-nonsense fashion, brooking no opposition. She found support to build an extra floor on the roof of the school, equipped it with mats to sleep, toilets and lockers, and opened these up for children from the streets. During school hours, by turns, each class went to the top floor and taught the children one to one, child to child. After school hours, the children from the streets had a run of the whole school campus to themselves, to eat, study, sleep and play.

It usually took a year or longer for a former street child to be readied to join regular school. Young children were admitted to Loreto itself, whereas older girls joined Bengali-medium schools in the vicinity. Sister Cyril called the children from the streets rainbow children.

“Children from the streets are free spirits. That’s why we call them Rainbows. A rainbow gives us great joy when we see it in the sky, but we can’t pin down a rainbow. We can only commune with it.”

Like many of the world’s great ideas, Sister Cyril’s epiphany was a disarmingly simple one. If every school opened its doors for street children, there would be no children forced to sleep on the streets. Learning from her, I wrote at that time: “It is not as though there are no places for us to house and educate all street children in safety. The physical spaces exist. It is the spaces in our hearts that do not.”

A lesson in compassion

Sister Cyril showed us, by forceful compelling example, what becomes possible if only we are willing to open up these spaces in our hearts. I resolved with my colleagues that we should try to extend this same rainbow idea to government schools. It has been an arduous journey of a decade because we are still unable to prise open the spaces in the hearts of most governments for the dispossessed and vulnerable children from the streets. But still, in 45 schools in six cities – Hyderabad, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and Patna – my colleagues have been able to work with state and local governments to open such ‘rainbow schools’ in government school buildings for nearly 4,000 street girls and boys, and also persuade the Central government to accept this idea in government programming. In tribute to Sister Cyril, my colleagues call their organisation Rainbow Foundation India.

Sister Cyril predictably faced great opposition to the idea at the start, from within the church and from parents of privileged children. But her response to them was: “Do I ask you before I teach the children history, or maths, or science? Then why should I ask you before I teach them compassion?”

And compassion is a lesson many children of Loreto take to heart. She recalls in her book:

“Once, a House Captain came to me with three sets of new uniforms and asked me to give them to a certain girl in her House. She explained that she had seen this girl wearing a cardigan that wasn’t part of the uniform and had insisted that she remove it. The girl was reluctant and when the Captain saw the condition of her uniform under the cardigan – mended in many places and so worn down that there was almost no cloth left – she felt so ashamed that she had so much and this girl had next to nothing, that she went home and asked her mother if they could buy some uniforms for her. But she did not wish to embarrass her by giving them to her directly, and asked me to hand them over instead. Who says inclusion cannot work?”

Sister Cyril did many things to create a spirit of equality in her school. Educators in privileged schools often lament that children of the poor find it hard to adjust to their privileged peers, suggesting, therefore, that for the sake of the poor children, they should be educated separately. Sister Cyril disagrees passionately, asking why is it that we assume that only the children of the poor should learn to adjust. Why can’t privileged children adjust as well? She observed that girls from the slums and streets found it hard to wear footwear, so she changed the school uniform, requiring all girls until Class 6, including those from privileged homes, to be barefoot in school. If privileged children brought expensive gadgets and pens to school, Sister Cyril would call them to her office and ask them if they had such low self-esteem that they felt their classmates would only admire them if they showed off expensive belongings?

Unorthodox school campus

“Merit”, Sister Cyril often says, “is a myth."

"There is no merit. You’re either born with a lot of brains or you’re not. And even if you’re born with a lot but you’re brain-damaged due to starvation when you’re small, and you receive no stimulation from your parents because you grew up in a rubbish dump, where’s the merit? On one side is the child who has six tutors, and a TV and a PC at home, educated parents to look after every need, someone to polish his shoes and put them on, another to spoon the food into him while he studies for his exams. And having to compete with this is the little one down the road queuing at the pump for water, trying to get younger siblings ready for school because her mother’s gone to make tea for the rich family at five in the morning. So where’s the merit?”

Her unorthodox school campus grew to include two day schools, a rainbow hostel for street children, a soup kitchen, a training centre for school teachers, and a 24x7 place of safety for people in need. Dispossessed people knew this was a place they could go to in times of need.

Sister Cyril recalls, for instance, a seven-year-old boy who

“came through the gate around 9 in the morning. He had a baby in his arms and two little toddlers trailing behind. He took them over to the tap, took off the rags they had on and proceeded to bathe them. Then out of the little plastic bag he carried, he took three little clean dresses and clothed them… The older students said to me, ‘The baby needs milk,’ so I said, ‘What will we do?’ ‘We can buy milk from the shop and a baby’s feeding bottle.’ ‘OK,’ I said. ‘Do that.’ So the baby was fed and the others, too, and when evening came we found an old cot that someone had donated, cleaned it up and put in a fresh mattress and bedding for the baby, and the other three just curled up on a big mat like little puppies and fell asleep… It was a very wet night and their mother came in around 10 pm looking for them… It was raining heavily so I asked her where she would spend the night. She said, ‘Oh, under the bridge or in some shop doorway.’ ‘Would you like to leave them here?’ Her face lit up. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said, and so they stayed.”

She concludes: “It doesn’t take much to rescue a child if you keep your gate and your heart open!”

Her understanding of poverty is robust, compassionate, insightful and fiercely empathetic. Poverty “leaves you with no resources, no security, no future. You live in the present because experience has shown you that tomorrow may never come, so whatever you earn today, you spend, and hope that tomorrow may be better and if it is not, then you keep your head down and survive as long as you can. Whatever comes to hand, make use of it, whether it’s an old tire to keep the bits of straw from blowing off your roof or something off the garbage dump that you can recycle.”

Speaking of a slum close to the school from where many of her children come, called Eastern Bypass, she says: “They have no future. No identity. No voice. No address. Because it’s a non-recognised slum, they have no eligibility to vote, no ration card, so no capacity to be able to buy cheaper food.”

But she always finds dignity among the poor. Cleanliness, she often says, is a middle-class luxury, and you need to look under the grime of the children. “… as terrible as the poverty is, it’s a poverty of material things, not cultural. No matter how poor or weak the children, if you play some Indian music, watch as their hands and bodies move perfectly. Give them a bit of chalk and watch the beautiful designs they draw without any real effort. They have a culture that goes back thousands of years to when the rest of us were living in caves.”

Asked if love conquers all, she replies, “I think, in the long run, it probably does, it certainly conquers more than anything else does, but I’m not sure if it conquers everything. Hate doesn’t conquer anything at all. At least, love reaches into people’s hearts, but not all people’s hearts are changed by love. Sometimes it takes a little longer than others.”

Sister Cyril is determined that she does not aspire to be a saint. All she wants is to rescue girls living in the hardest conditions imaginable, and to nurture them to find confidence, self-worth, healing and an escape from the dirt-hard poverty of their parents.

Neil Farrelly aptly describes her as “fearless, controversial, sometimes irritable, at times overbearing”, but at the same time “a force. Creative, both spiritual and practical in the same breath”. She possesses “a conscience that never quits, and enough stamina to fuel the city of Kolkata all by herself. She’s not a saint but that’s not what she cares about”.

Of all India’s failures seven decades after freedom, the most culpable is the persistence of grossly unequal childhoods based only on the accident of birth. Myron Weiner observed that India does not make investments in quality public education for all children ultimately because the lives of the poor do not matter. The lives of the children we see each day at traffic lights and sleeping on pavements each night matter to governments and people of privilege even less. We have taught ourselves to perfection the dodgy art of looking away. Sister Cyril’s story in Saving the Girls: Thoughts of a Practical Radical Nun demonstrates what can be accomplished if someone chooses instead to look steadily and compassionately, and what is more, to care and to act.

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