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A Thatha Story
‘Girls smashing rocks’

Norman Habel

The Grihini women now call me thatha which means grandpa. I am honoured to be part of the Grihini family and accept that title today. 22 years ago, the Kodaikanal International School in, South India, of which I was principal, was about to construct a new Middle School to meet the needs of ambitious international students. The time came for us to lay the foundations. I expected a cement truck to arrive and pour the concrete into the holes dug for the foundations. Instead, trucks of rocks arrived followed by groups of women.

Many of these women were teenagers, the same age as the students studying at my school. The task of these women was to sit beside the road and use a small hammer to smash the large rocks into screenings small enough to be used in the concrete. All day they smashed rocks into small pieces for about a dollar.

When I asked who these young women were, I was told they were Dalits. I was informed that they were nobody important, just coolie labourers and not to worry. I realised that many of these women should be in school rather than smashing rocks to construct school for their affluent peers. How could I espouse education if I ignored the injustice that was part of the very construction of my own school.

I discussed these issues with friends in St Louis and their response was to give us $4,000.00 to initiate a program. Upon returning to India, I discussed with my wife Jan Orrell how these funds might best be used. She had been reading the work of Manushi in the North and that of Jessie Tellis Nayak and proposed that we form a local social action group to explore the possibilities.

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