As I watch the bright young girls put up two short plays, — one of them being Sai Paranjpye’s Bards of a Feather — displaying fine acting skills and speaking English with a clipped accent, it’s difficult to believe they come from the poorest of homes in Uttarakhand.

They are students of the 267-strong Him Jyoti School in Dehradun run by the Him Jyoti Foundation that provides quality education to poor girls from Garhwal and Kumaon, with two seats reserved for Sikkim.

Whether they are in PT class dressed in colourful T-shirts and shorts, or in the lunch hall, where freshly hot chappatis, vegetables, rice and dhal, are served or later during an interaction at which the senior girls want to know what they should study to become journalists, I marvel at their complete transformation.

Earlier, their principal, Jyoti Dhawan, and treasurer-cum-trustee of the Foundation, Prem Bhalla, had explained that when the girls join this school in Class 5, they can barely speak Hindi, as their mother tongue is either Garhwali or Kumaoni. First, they are taught Hindi, and then English.

By the time they finish Plus Two, some of them are ready for higher education in the best of Indian institutions. This year one of the girls got into Lady Shriram College in Delhi, and two got admission in Punjab University. Two students are in third year engineering. Better still, recently a Him Jyoti team won a debating competition against a Doon School team!

The beginnings Him Jyoti was set up in 2005 in a rented bungalow in Dehradun. Its seeds were sown in 2003 when Sudarshan Agarwal (a former governor of Uttarakhand) was making a train journey to Dehradun, along with fellow Rotarians. He mooted the idea of instituting scholarships, and announced his contribution of ₹1 lakh.

By the time they reached the city, he had a corpus of ₹11 lakh for the Foundation. Starting with scholarships of ₹25,000 a year for deserving students, by 2005 they had a corpus of ₹5crore, with many corporates coming on board. It was enough to start a school.

A chat with the chief minister got the school a 10-acre plot. Today the landscaped environs of the school make it difficult to believe that this was once barren land, a dumping ground.

The students were selected from government schools. In the last nine years the scenario has changed dramatically: where once parents were reluctant to send their girls to this residential school, now there is intense competition for admission. It took two years to build the present school. The first two batches, of 15 and 18 students each, have now passed out.

Their dreams Gulshan Jehan is the daughter of a labourer who earns barely ₹3000 a month. Her dream is to be a doctor. Joshila Rai, from Sikkim, whose father has a small farm, wants to be a civil engineer. Others want to be teachers, pilots, musicians, journalists. No dream is too big for them.

I look at their neat dorms, clean toilets, plush environs, well-equipped classrooms and labs and wonder how the girls “adjust” when they go home to their families during the summer and winter breaks.

Jyoti, the wife of a fighter pilot and an educator who has taught both Indian and international curricula and joined the school two years ago, says, “During the winter break many girls didn’t want to go home as their Board exams were coming and they said helping their mothers with the housework left no time to prepare for their exams. So we started counselling parents to give them a five- hour break and a secure place to study.”

The parents understand the importance of that and are complying. And yet, admits Jyoti, most of the girls return from holidays with pinched and tanned faces.

It feels good to get the right response from the girls I talk to: “Yes, we help our mothers cooking, fetching firewood and water and are happy to do so.”

Joshila says quietly, and without any exaggeration, “When I complete my education and get a good job, my first priority will be to fulfil my mother’s wishes, as she has had such a tough life.”

Smashing stereotypes It takes ₹1.2 crore a year to run the school and Bhalla says corporates such as ONGC are pitching in generously.

And the corpus of ₹6.1 crore gives them confidence, given the general opinion, when Agarwal was made governor of Sikkim in 200, that the school would collapse.

With a donation of ₹3 crore from another family which wanted to start a similar school in Kumaon but couldn’t as the land alone would have swallowed all the money, the Foundation is building a vocational centre to train women. Agarwal continues to take interest; a sprightly 82 now, he was last seen at Him Jyoti demonstrating to the kitchen staff how to keep it spanking clean!

Along with a great academic education, the girls are getting lessons on smashing gender stereotypes too.

Underlining the need for such a school for boys Jyoti is constantly counselling her wards not to timidly accept their brothers getting importance or priority at home.

“I probe their psyche on rape, which is increasing, and tell them that its not okay for their chhota bhaiya to get away with extra chocolates at home. Tomorrow he’ll grow up to think it is his right to take, even by force, any girl or woman he fancies.”

She thinks when it comes to marriage, too, these girls will assert themselves. Most of the girls want to study further and take up a career.

In December, Agarwal asked the parents take an oath: hum betiyon ki shadi abhi nahi karengey, hum unhey aagey padhney dengey (We will not get our daughters married now. We will let them study further). The parents willingly and unanimously took that oath.

She hopes these empowered girls will also tackle another big problem in the hills — alcoholism. “Just the other day one of the girls in the play you saw refused to go home because her father, completely sloshed, came to pick her up. We made an excuse saying she had some work and asked him to send his wife to fetch her another day.”

Whether it is Sandhya Rai, a gifted singer, Himani or Mitali, an interaction with the students reveals the truth of what Jyoti says: “I feel so blessed to be here though many a times it is very frustrating…”