How a single schoolteacher turned an Indian village on its head
by Brad Miller
Sometimes God likes to give you hints that you are about to be surprised.
Unfortunately, I’m not very good at noticing hints.
I’d been in India for over a month and had just arrived at a train station. I was in Aligarh, about two hours from New Delhi, to visit the small village of Mainath. I had heard that a Truthseeker named Tanuja had started a school and women’s empowerment program there, and I wanted to check it out.
It seemed like a pretty routine trip: some photos, a few interviews. But God had some pretty big surprises in store for me. The first one was a motorcycle ride.
I had ridden on a motorcycle in New Delhi, holding on behind a driver as we whipped in and out of traffic. But this time there were three people holding on to this motorcycle; our driver, my friend Deshpande, and me, desperately clutching my bags full of camera equipment and clothes as I struggled to hang on over potholes and bumpy roads.
That was perhaps clue number one that things might go a little unexpectedly.
On the way there, I saw a man walking three sickly dogs on short, silver chained leashes. As we passed, I realized he was walking monkeys.
Clue number two that I might be surprised.
As we whipped through three lanes of traffic on a two-lane roundabout, I watched as shouting police officers angrily pulled a man from a municipal bus. My view was cut off when we passed by a cargo truck at less than arm’s reach, and the blast of its horn made the metal in my bag vibrate.
Clue number three that things might get a tad uncomfortable.
After forty minutes, and three completely unheeded clues, we turned off the main road and down a winding dirt path. Through fields of grain and past cattle-dung storehouses, we had arrived at Mainath.
And even though I didn’t know it, I had arrived at the forefront of God’s movement in India.
Arriving at the gate of a small home, I gingerly stepped off the motorcycle, still a little shaky from the rough road. Immediately, the front gate opened and I was greeted by Tanuja.
Tanuja is a Truthseeker who arrived in Mainath seventeen years ago. Dressed in colorful, traditional clothing she appeared as a blur of purple and green, greeting her guests, bringing food, addressing students, talking with teachers… She seemed to never stop moving, and she never stopped smiling.
Click here to listen to Tanuja tell her story
I was ushered out of the broiling sun and into a small shady room. A small overhang provided shade and a kind of porch. Crowded into this oasis of protection were over one hundred students – the school.
They welcomed me with a song in English, and then it was time for the tour. At the hottest part of the day, we ventured out. I slathered on some sunscreen, grabbed my camera, and followed Tanuja.
Strolling along the winding dirt streets of the village, sun-baked brick houses on either side, I had to be careful where I stepped. Water buffalos wander freely up and down the streets. They cluster around hand pumps to public wells, waiting for someone to draw water for them.
This wasn’t too surprising. A rural farm village in a developing country looks like a rural farm village in a developing country. The surprising part was what I learned next.
I was told that that 69 percent of India’s population comes from a rural background. For 830 million Indians, this is India, not the cities. The images of India I had always seen, images of super-dense urban population, pictures of the largest cities in the world, were the exception – not the rule.
As far as its own people are concerned, India is a rural country.
As we continued through he village, Tanuja gestured to a row of finely constructed, freshly painted houses.
“Here are the Brahmin (high caste) houses.”
After crossing a field, we came to another set of smaller stone buildings.
“Here are the potter houses.”
After that, buildings were cracked, some with hastily-built additions of wood and plastic.
“There are the cart-puller houses.”
Crossing two more fields, a half mile away from the original Brahmin houses, she said,
“Here are the farmer homes.”
And finally, in the most distant outskirts,
“These are the beggar houses.”
I was stunned. I had read about the caste system, a way of dividing and oppressing people based on birth and assigned trade. But in my mind I had always expected it to look like a European or Old West village. Sure, the rich people have their own section, but the blacksmith and baker and farmer and potter, they’re all mixed together.
But the caste system doesn’t allow for that. In a village where many people couldn’t even spell their names, they knew exactly where they could and couldn’t build their houses. From the time of their birth, their position was determined. Not only in society, but the literal position of their house.
I was looking at raw, physical segregation. As we walked through the village, down the rungs of social standing, I tried to catch the eye of villagers. I wanted to give a friendly wave, or say hello. Most smiled, a few waved back. But it wasn’t until we arrived at the beggar caste that something incredible happened.
With their homes built over half a mile from the rest of the village, the beggar caste can see visitors coming. When they saw Tanuja, they didn’t come out to say hi or to wave.
Kids ran out to greet her. Mothers and children came out of houses. Brothers and fathers put down their work to say hello. In minutes, we were surrounded by a smiling, laughing, questioning mass.
They surrounded Tanuja, asking questions, giving updates on health or families, or simply coming to pay their respect.
But Tanuja is not high caste. Why such enthusiasm and honors?
Because before Tanuja, these people didn’t have homes at all.
Tanuja was born into a farmer caste, but was fortunate to receive top education at a missionary school. There she learned the value of education, and was also introduced to Christ.
When she moved to the village of Mainath, her son only a toddler, she discovered there was no proper schooling available. Government schools were ineffective, unhelpful, and even abusive. Determined to give her son a proper education, she got a job at a private school so that he could attend as well.
She was thankful her son would have a future due to his schooling. But every day she walked several miles to the bus stop to get to school. And every day she saw the village children.
“Their parents did not send them [to school],” she told me. “They had no money, no facility, no good transport.”
The odds were stacked against them in every way imaginable. The education that had freed Tanuja as a child, the schooling she had worked to give her son, all of this was hopelessly beyond their reach. And it galled her.
God was tugging at her heart. And as soon as her son was old enough to get to school on his own, she quit her job and returned to the village. Tanunja knew education was a blessing her family had been given, and she knew it was time to pass it on.
Tanuja and her students dance and sing
With only the help of her immediate family, she set up a school. On the porch of her home, she invited the children to come and learn.
But instead of an outpouring of gratitude, Tanuja was mocked for her efforts. Not only by the upper-caste Brahmins, but by the very people she was trying to help.
“It’s a joke for them,” Tanuja told me. “They say ‘she’s being like children, she has no work so she plays with children.’”
Tanuja was called foolish and condemned as lazy, yet she was not discouraged. She knew God had called her. And she had faith that no matter what, God would be glorified. Before long, something amazing happened.
The children started learning.
But they didn’t keep this learning to themselves. Words, numbers, letters, it was all too exciting. The world was opening up before them. They started telling their parents.
Tanuja told me about one mother who had to catch a train in the city. Illiterate, she was terrified by the flood of numbers and symbols, the noise and pressure and push of bodies. She had been told, “Train 91,” but which was 91?
Her young son tugged at the hem of her dress, and pointed to train that had just arrived in the station.
He learned it in school.
It didn’t take long before all the parents wanted their children at Tanuja’s school. The first year saw 30 students, by the third year there were over 120. Her position in the community rose. And suddenly, the things she had been saying all along had more weight.
Things about equality, and freedom, and dignity.
The idea that there is only One True God
The claim that women and children have worth.
The promise that this God Loves the least and sent Jesus as proof.
And something Tanuja had been speaking about for some time – the plight of the beggar caste, suddenly became a lot more important.
This caste had been displaced from their original home. They were wandering and had no permanent houses, no proper facilities, no community to call their own. But Tanuja pressured the village to let them in, to accept them and allow them to settle.
Eventually, the village leaders relented and allowed them to build homes. These cement houses I was walking through existed because Tanuja spoke out against the discrimination of the caste system.
These children running into my lap had a new future because Truthseekers was offering them free education.
These mothers, once confined inside the house, were smiling with new dignity. Tanuja had started job training and economic development for them. They could now sell handicrafts for additional income to support their family, and no longer be dependent on a husband for food or clothing.
Women, old and young, once trapped in oppressive rituals, were attending Bible studies. Why?
Tanuja explained, “First they have no homes, no facilities, they are far from education, no transport system. Nobody tried to mix with them, and they have no permission to come here… but day by day first their children came here and with children their parents come here and then they have satsung [worship].”
They weren’t saved by well-reasoned argument or a well-designed public works project. They didn’t come to know God’s Love through a rally or a seminar. They know who Christ is because they have met someone who loved them even when they hated her, and surrendered her dignity to serve them.
As we walked back from the beggar quarter, a child ran up to Tanuja with a message. She needed to come to one of the households right away.
We hurried to the courtyard, worried that someone might be sick or hurt. Lying on the ground, surrounded by a gaggle of onlookers, was a young man. His legs appeared paralyzed and atrophied. Mentally disabled, he did not speak, but greeted everyone with a warm smile.
His family needed a cart to help him get around. But the local leaders had disregarded their case. Tanuja patiently helped them gather the proper paperwork, check and organize it.
She then made one phone call, turned to the mother and said, “The cart will be here tomorrow.”
Watching this transpire, I was reminded of the kingdom of God. When the judges of this world turn a deaf ear to the oppressed, they cry out to God. And God answers.
I realized that God had seen the suffering in Mainath long before I did, long before Tanuja or Truthseekers or anyone.
And the greatest shock, bigger than monkeys or hidden majorities or raw segregation, was that God’s response to all this suffering was not some overwhelming, fire-and-brimstone miraculous revolution.
It was to tug at the hearts of His people.
To give them the courage to leave their livelihoods behind.
To give them the strength to endure the mocking and ridicule.
And to bless their efforts with greater success than they ever asked for.
I do not know who in India has been crying out to God. I do not know how long they have prayed for deliverance. But I think the greatest surprise of all is that organizations like Truthseekers, and servants like Tanuja, are the answer these people have been looking for.
- READ: Want a great read about village life? Untouchables by Narendra Jadhav paints a vivid picture of day-to-day existence among the lower caste in India as it chronicles one family’s journey to escape oppression.
- PRAY: When asked, Tanuja replied that the greatest thing people can do for her ministry is to pray. “Don’t forget Jesus” she replied.
- FOLLOW: Following along on Truthseekers twitter or Facebook feeds is a great way to stay informed and follow along with events in Tanuja’s village and across India.
- GIVE: Over 200 children are enrolled in Tanuja’s school, but many fall absent due to lack of shade or toilet facilities. Tanuja dreams of a permanent building for shade and a comfortable, odorless toilet. Consider making a financial gift to her ministry to make that a reality.
- Tanuja’s ministry has also expanded to offer job training, computer classes, women’s economic development, and is starting to spread to other villages. To support this amazing movement monthly, tap the donate button.