The temperature is a sizzling 36°C in the village of Phangane in Thane, some 120km away from Mumbai. In a small two-room brick house, Kantabai More is in a hurry to finish her daily chores. Dressed in a bright pink sari and white blouse – her uniform – she is getting ready to head off to afternoon school, but there are just a few more tasks to complete. Food needs to be prepared for the family and the house needs to be swept and cleaned.
Finally, she serves herself a couple of chappatis and a vegetable curry and wolfs it down, all the while glancing at the clock on the wall.
It’s already 1.15pm and she knows she’s going to be late if she doesn’t leave soon.
‘Please hurry up or I won’t be able to drop you to school today,’ shouts out Nitesh, a young boy.
‘Just a minute, I’m on my way,’ she says, picking up her school bag and slowly hobbling out of her house, holding the hand of the boy tightly.
Kantabai knows she can’t afford to hurry on the road. If she trips and falls, she could be bedridden. You see, she’s 65 years old and suffering from age-related rheumatism. Nitesh is Kantabai’s grandson who does the school run with her every afternoon after returning from his own school.
The grandmother is going to school to ‘rid myself of the stigma of being illiterate’, she says.
Kantabai is not alone. Around 30 grannies in Phangane, between the ages of 65 and 90, are going to school – many of them for the first time – to overcome the shame and pain of being illiterate.
‘When we go to the bank, it’s shameful to use a thumb impression instead of a signature,’ says Kantabai, clutching a blue school bag with books and a couple of pencils, braving the summer sun on her way to class. ‘Sometimes people laugh at us for not being able to sign our names. I’ve always wanted to be able to at least do so and read the headlines in newspapers. This is why I decided to go to school.
‘As a child, I could never attend school because my family was too poor. I have four siblings – two sisters and two brothers. My parents were farmers and barely made enough to feed us.
‘Our father would tell us that he did not have the money to educate all of us. So only my brothers got the chance to go to school. My sisters and I stayed home and did all the household chores.’
Things didn’t change for her after marriage.
‘My husband, also a farmer, is moderately literate,’ says Kantabai. ‘But he was too busy working to encourage me to go to school or learn how to read and write. I too got busy with raising our children – three boys and a girl.’
One major factor preventing illiterate adults from learning the alphabet is the lack of schools for them. ‘There were times, like when my children were grown up and married and I had a little more time at home, when I felt I could spend some time learning how to read and write a bit,’ says Kantabai. ‘But unfortunately there were no options available in our little village.’
But that changed last month when an aajibaichi shala or grandmothers’ school started functioning on International Women’s Day (March 8), stirring the nondescript village – where most families make a living from subsistence farming or doing menial jobs at the industrial units in nearby towns – into action.
Conceived by Yogendra Bangar (left) and set up by the Motiram Ganpat Dalal Charitable Trust, the grandmothers’ school in Thane is off to a great start.
Set up by the Ambarnath-based Motiram Ganpat Dalal Charitable Trust, in collaboration with Yogendra Bangar, an award-winning teacher from Phangane Zilla Parishad’s primary school, the grandmothers’ school offers a beacon of hope for the illiterate elderly women in the village.
A rudimentary two-room building was donated by village farmer Dattatray Deshmukh for the cause. Construction work is still in progress.
‘Initially it was set up with men in mind,’ says Yogendra, who conceived the idea of the school.
‘But we realised that while most of the men could at least sign their names, the women were struggling and often said they felt embarrassed because they had to use their thumb impressions in place of signatures in all official documents such as identity cards and ration cards.’
When the women voiced their desire to learn the alphabet, the trust decided to start the school for them.
Classes at Aajibaichi Shala begin at 2pm and continue until 5pm. ‘We chose the timing keeping in mind that these women have daily chores at home to take care of,’ says Yogendra. ‘We did a survey and found that this was the most suitable time slot when they are usually free.’
The teacher also recruited Sheetal More as an instructor.
‘In the beginning, I was a little hesitant to accept the job, because I was not sure how the elders would feel when a much younger person like me is teaching them,’ says the 25-year-old teacher.
‘I was a bit embarrassed too. I kept wondering how I could teach a class of students that includes my mother-in-law. But surprisingly, it was she and my two children who coaxed me into accepting the offer.’
Once she got over her initial hesitation, Sheetal quickly took charge of her students.
Classes begin with a 10-minute assembly where Sheetal briefs the women about what she plans to teach them that day. Attendance is taken and the names of absentees noted; they’re contacted the next day and asked to explain their absence. The students then fish out their slates, on which they are asked to copy down the Hindi alphabet, which Sheetal writes on the class blackboard.
‘I was a little nervous on the first day,’ she says. ‘But I realised that they were like children – curious and cute – in class. They don’t mind if I shout at them or say some harsh words if they are not attentive in class.’
Alphabet practice makes up the core of the session. Sheetal sits down with each of the grannies individually and coaxes them to write the chain of letters of the alphabet.
‘My aim is to get them to write their names within the next three months,’ she says.
One student is Ramabai Ganpat Chandelle, an 87-year-old widow. She has no children and lives alone. ‘I feel the school has given me a sense of purpose in life,’ she says.
Like any schoolchild, Ramabai is excited about the idea of doing something new. Just a tad hard of hearing, she has a powerful voice and grins when showing off her new bag and slate to me.
‘I rushed through my chores, got ready in my uniform and came to school with my neighbour’s son,’ she says. ‘He accompanies me in case I fall or need help.
‘I am like a ripe fruit that might fall off the branch at any moment. I couldn’t go to school as a child and remained illiterate all my life. But I don’t want to die illiterate.
‘Now, I am happy that I would be able to read and write a few words when I go to the other world.’
The women, like Gulab Kedar, have received massive support from the community and their families, especially children and grandkids.
Her neighbour Gulab Kedar’s hands tremble slightly as she attempts to reproduce the letters from the blackboard on her slate. Peering through her thick glasses, the 72-year-old meticulously copies down all the letters and leans back victoriously.
‘I also never went to school,’ she says. ‘This is the first time I’m seeing what the inside of a school looks like.’
Gulab’s 15-year-old grandson drops her to school every day.
‘The first day I requested him to accompany me, he started laughing,’ she says. ‘‘‘Are you really going to school?” he asked. But when he saw I was not joking, he said, “Good, I’ll drop you to school”. Now he is the one who reminds me in case I’m getting late.’
Of the 28 students, many are frail. Some have weak eyesight, others are hard of hearing and a few struggle to walk long distances. Luckily, the school is right in the centre of the village so hardly more than 500m away from the furthest home.
The anxious grannies are coping daily with homework and an upcoming test. This will be their first exam in a formal teaching space since they started going to school.
‘When I return home, our grandchildren too chip in to help me with my homework,’ says Gulab.
‘My grandson, 12-year-old Lakshman, sits with me and shows me new words and even maths. They sit and study along with me. It’s great fun. I’m now trying to read some of his text books. I may be old, but I’m so happy that I’m able to read some letters.’
To start with, the school is teaching the alphabet to elderly women such as Kantabai (top) and Radhabai (right).
Nathuram Dalal, a 38-year-old man whose mother Radhabai also attends the school, says he initially felt the elderly women would not be keen to study.
‘But I was surprised by their determination and willingness. My mother tries to finish all the work she has and looks forward to going to school with her friends. They are really like little schoolchildren. I’ve bought her some basic books to help her hone her reading skills.’
Support and encouragement for the school from the little-educated or unlettered villagers have been overwhelming. ‘The best thing about this project is that everybody in the village encouraged us,’ says Yogendra. ‘There wasn’t a single dissenting voice. All the people said: “Nobody has done something like this before. Whatever you are doing is good for the society. We are with you”.
‘Knowledge is important, particularly to educate these elderly people who never got an opportunity to study. We started this school to bring happiness to their lives and make the village 100 per cent literate.’
Though the school’s first goal is to make the women literate, it has other plans for the ladies as well. ‘We have planned some creative initiatives where they will be trained to make handwoven quilts and paper bags,’ says Yogendra.
Besides regular classes, the school also organises excursions occasionally. Late last month, the grannies, who had never ventured out of their village, were taken on a bus trip to Ralegan Siddhi, the village of social activist Anna Hazare, about 10km away.
‘It was very nice to travel with a group of like-minded people,’ says Gulab. ‘We really enjoyed ourselves. We are hoping they take us out more often.’
The Motiram Ganpat Dalal Charitable Trust started the initiative to ‘convey the message that these elderly people are very important for our society. We started this school to inculcate love and respect for the elderly,’ says Dilip Dalal, the founder of the trust.
The school has given these elderly women a purpose in life. Instead of sitting in an isolated corner of their homes, they are now communicating with their classmates and teachers at school and enjoying themselves.
At home, grandchildren have become their classmates and even mentors. They sit together and learn from each other. Suddenly, the generation gap seems to have disappeared.
‘I am in the last leg of my life,’ says Gulab. ‘I don’t know when I will be gone. But I know that I won’t die unlettered.’