Some 135 km away from the maddening crowds and the chaos of Mumbai, a group of school-going girls are sweating it out at a house in rural Maharashtra.

Braving the sizzling sun and the heatwave sweeping warm sand through the streets of Phangane village, a few more ‘girls’ — sporting a uniform of pink sari and black blouses — join in the ongoing study session at the house of Kantabai More.

Their ‘mentor’ Nitesh grumpily looks at the wall clock as it chimes 1pm, browbeats the late-comers and gestures them to take a seat with the swing of his hand.

“There are 30 elderly women — aged between 60 and 90 — who are going to school for the first time in their life.”

“Why do you get late always? I don’t like this attitude. Helping you with the homework is not my only work. Hurry up! Finish the work fast so that I can also go back to playing with my friends,” said Nitesh.

The class V student is the grandson of Kantabai More. At 65, she has started going to school to “rid myself of the stigma of illiteracy”.

She is not alone, though. There are 30 elderly women — aged between 60 and 90 — who are going to school for the first time in their life.

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Most of them were deprived of a formal education as a child. Their families were either too poor to afford their education or they simply thought “it was sheer waste of time and money to invest in a girl child’s studies”.

The common perception was that the girls, who would be married off at a tender age, were destined to do the household tasks only.

The Aajibaichi Shala or the Grandmothers’ School is probably an attempt to do the course correction. Many of its students were child brides who never got an exposure to formal education.

The school, which started on the International Women’s Day this March, aims to empower the elderly women and break the stereotypes.

“Earlier, whenever I had to go the bank to withdraw my old age pension, the staff would simply look at me, hold my thumb and thrust it on the ink pad to print the thumb impression on the documents. I felt so ashamed of myself. People laughed at me for not being able to sign my name. I felt that I should at least be able to sign my name. This is why I decided to start going to school. Now, when I go the bank, they greet me with folded hands and offer me a pen to sing my name. It feels like I got my dignity back with the stoke of a pen,” says Kantabai.

She goes on: “I never attended school as a child. I had four siblings — three sisters and two brothers. My father did not have the money to educate all of us, so he sent only my brothers to the school. My parents would go out to work in the fields. So all three girl children, including me, stayed at home and did household tasks.”

At 11, Kantabi was married to a better off family to a 28-year-old man. Things didn’t change for her even after marriage as her in-laws too were opposed to the idea of educating a girl child.

Her classmate Ramabai Ganpat Khandakle was married off at the age of 10. “I too was never sent to school as our parents were poor. We were 9 siblings. We had to help our parents in farming work. At 80, I am going to school again because I don’t want to die as an illiterate. When I go to the other world, I will be able to carry at least a few words with me. Now, our first priority is school, the rest can wait.”

Hence, switching from doing daily household tasks to chanting nursery rhymes, remembering alphabets hasn’t been an easy task for Ramabai and her classmates — all aged between 60 and 90.

The initiative has been received well in the village that houses 70 families belonging to different faith.

The families are so co-operative that they come to drop the elderly women to school.

Take the case of Nitesh. He not only helps his grandmother Kantabai in her studies, but also drops her to school after returning from his own school everyday.

For a village that faces perennial water crisis, the school brought another blessings in form of portable water.

Most families make a living from subsistence farming and doing menial jobs at the industrial units in near by town.

The village that has no public transport or primary healthcare unit, sees a beacon of hope in the school.

Founded by Yogendra Bangar, an award-winning primary teacher with the help of non-profit Motiram Dalal Charitable Trust, it is probably India’s first school for unlettered grannies.

“The main object of starting the school was to instill love and respect for the elderly”

Unlike the usual Indian villages where dirt, filth and chaos rule, Phangane is a very neat and clean picture postcard village, situated on the foothills the Sahyadri Hills.

As you enter the village, a freshly made rangoli or sand painting greets you: Welcome to Aajibaichi Shala. The two-room school building is donated by a village farmer Dattatray Deshmukh. Though it is still a work in progress, it couldn’t hold back the classes.

The trust wanted to the elderly men to join the school, but they underlined that it was the women who needed this support the most. Most men in the village can sign their names, it was the women who had to go through the embarrassment whenever they were to sign their names.

Besides the regular classes, the school organizes excursions occasionally. This gives the elderly people, who never venture out of their villages in their life time, the much needed change.

Aajibainchi Shala is neither a morning school nor an evening one. It begins at 2 pm and continues till 4 pm.

Though their grandchildren laughed at the ideas of them going to school, they were the ones who volunteered to drop them to school and help them with homework.

The anxious grannies are now coping with daily homework and an upcoming unit test. This will be their first exam in a formal teaching space since they started going to school.

Motiram Dalal Charitable Trust, which provides financial assistance for the school, started the initiative to convey the message that the elderly people are “very important for our society”. “The main object of starting the school was to instill love and respect for the elderly,” says Dilip Dalal, the founder of the trust.

The school also serves as a platform for socialization for the elderly. They are so excited for the school that the preparation starts three-four hours in advance. On my second trip to Phangane, I reached at noon and was surprised to see the women dressed in the school uniform already sitting at the doorstep and gossiping with each other or simply pouring over a book apparently to finish the pending homework.

Sharp at 1:45 pm, the ‘girls’, with their red and black school bags strapped on their back, step out of their houses and head for the school. Holding the hand of their ‘guardians’ (read grandchildren) in an apparent role reversal, the grannies look as happy and bubbly as the little ones.

“The school has given me the opportunity to reclaim my dignity. It has also helped improve my relationship with my daughters-in-law. The communication gap that was there between me and my grandchildren has also gone. Suddenly, I am feeling young,” sums up Kantabai.

Image Credits: Sanjay Pandey