Ajjibaichi Shala … schooling grandmothers and fulfilling their long-cherished dreams

These grandmothers – all in the age group of 60 to 90 years – living in Fangane village in Maharashtra – had just one dream … to be able to write their names before they reached the end of their lives. Their dream came true in 2016 when Yogendra Bangar, a local schoolteacher, opened a school for them. Now, they proudly shun the thumb impression ink pad and put their signatures on ration cards and bank documents. These days, they are praying very hard for coronavirus to go away so they can go back to their school

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Sheetal More, 34, a school teacher, sounded a bit concerned when I spoke to her over the phone. The school where she teaches is shut since March in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and, given the situation, she is not sure when it will open next. She is a tad worried that her students – grannies in the age group of 60-90 – are going to forget what she had taught them before the nationwide lockdown was announced in March.

“They say they have been practicing at home. But that’s not going to be enough. I am the only teacher at the school and it has been challenging for me to teach them. Some can’t hear and some can’t see. So, I have to teach them individually. Plus, they tend to forget in two-three days, so I have to keep repeating. I am especially worried about slow learners! The other students would mockingly tease them for being slow when we used to have regular classes!” said More.

The school is shut now but the mornings have never been this busy for More. When the call went through at 10 AM, she was sitting along with her two children, both studying in the primary section of the government school in the village, and her mother-in-law. The children were practicing their Math assignment forwarded by their teacher on WhatsApp. Her mother-in-law, Kantabai Laxman More, 70, was writing English alphabets on her black slate. She had been listening to the entire conversation. So, when More handed over the phone to her mother-in-law, she said in a mock teasing tone: “I won’t lag behind! The only teacher in the school lives in my house! I can clear my doubts whenever I want! My friends don’t have this advantage!”

Teacher Sheetal More with her mother-in-law

There was a brief interruption in the interaction as the pressure cooker whistle went off and senior More instructed her daughter-in-law to switch the flame off.

All this was happening in a small village named Fangane, located in Murbad Tehsil of Thane district in Maharashtra, around 120 kms from state capital Mumbai. The village comprising 70 homes – majority farmers, only a few are employed in state government jobs — is home to Ajjibaichi Shala — a school for grandmothers, which was inaugurated on March 8, 2016, on the occasion of Women’s Day. Thirty “100% illiterate” grannies – all between 60 and 90 years of age – enrolled in the school. It was first decided to give them green sarees as uniforms. But as most of them were widows and, as per the Maharashtrian tradition, they were not allowed to wear green, they were given pink sarees. The colour matched with their red school bags. Before the pandemic hit, they would wear their saree-uniforms – most would drape it in Navvari style, a saree draping style in Maharashtra — neatly comb their hair, cover their head with the saree pallu, pack their bags and go off to school. Big bindis on their foreheads, anklets, and flowers in their hair … those were the only accessories they had.  

Gradually, the nondescript village started making news for being a progressive village that was trying to educate ajjis (grandmothers). These women never got an opportunity to attend school when they were young, most got married even before they turned 18, and have spent the better part of their lives managing their households, raising children, helping the men in the fields, and looking after their grandchildren. They had resigned to their fate but secretly yearned to read and to write … at least their name … before they reached the end of their lives.

So, when they got an opportunity, they grabbed it. The school was the brainchild of Yogendra Bangar, 44, a Zilla Parishad school teacher, who, in 2012, got transferred to the only government school in Fangane village. He wasn’t very excited about it as it was an Adivasi region surrounded by mountains, and the village was considered to be very backward. He had two options – either to go with the flow and wait for the next transfer or be the changemaker. He chose the latter.

Keep swiping right to see some heartwarming images of Ajjibaichi Shala

“There were many problems like poor sanitation, no healthcare facilities, and lack of public transportation. After living in the village for nearly two years, I realized the major problem was the severe water scarcity. People had to walk for 2.5 kms to fetch water and their entire day revolved around this activity. I wanted to change this,” said Bangar.

In 2014, Bangar met Dilip Dalal, the founder of the Motilal Dalal Charitable Trust — an organization based in Ambarnath, Mumbai, which, along with many businesses, is also involved in charitable activities. “I told him about the water problem in the village and requested him to allocate some funds. He jokingly challenged me that if he gave me Rs 1 lakh, I would have to resolve the water problem in the village within a week. I accepted the challenge. The entire village dedicated itself to this task. Together, we dug the pits, laid the pipelines, fixed the corks, and within four days, each and every house in the village got piped water connection. Dilip jee was impressed!” said Bangar.

So, two years later, in 2016, when the Ajjibaichi Shala was to be set up, Motilal Dalal Charitable trust instantly came on board and helped with the uniforms, bags, school stationery, and basic books.

Yogendra Bangar with his students

“The village is like a close-knit family. After the water problem got resolved, we grew many fruit-bearing trees. We celebrate each and every festival with great enthusiasm,” said Bangar, adding: “On February 19, 2016, on the occasion of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Jayanti, we had organized a grand function. The children had prepared skits and musical events. The adults were reading religious verses. The ajjis werethere too, sitting in the last row, wearing brand new navvari sarees. After the event, a few of them came to me and said they regretted being illiterate and wished that they could at least read religious books and write their names.”

It affected Bangar. He instantly decided to open a school for the ajjis in the village. “I got so excited that I mentioned it to one of the local journalists who was there to cover the function. I told him that I would open the school after a month, on Women’s Day, but, at that point in time, it was just an idea. The journalist published this news and from the next day onwards I started getting calls from other journalists!” said Bangar.

However, answering these phone calls helped Bangar conceptualize the idea of a school for ajjis. When asked why grandfathers were not included, Bangar said: “This generation was born in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. There was a lack of awareness and financial problems in most homes. But, even then, men were sent to schools, and women were excluded.  Most of the grandfathers in the village could read and write, but the grandmothers were 100% illiterate. Besides, these women have struggled a lot. Their lives have revolved around managing homes, looking after their children, and working in the fields. And now, when the next generation has taken over, they often feel unwanted and unloved. Educating them was the primary task, but I also wanted them to laugh, socialize, make friends and enjoy life,” said Bangar.

It was first decided to give them green sarees as uniforms. But as most of them were widows and, as per the Maharashtrian tradition, they were not allowed to wear green, they were given pink sarees

The tagline for the school is “shikshanala vayache bandhan nahi” (age is no bar when it comes to education). The school was first set up in the living room of a farmer. But when they got a good response and many journalists started coming to the village to write about the ajjis, the school got a permanent address. Sheetal More, who had studied until class 10, was the most educated lady in the village back then and was unanimously chosen to be their teacher.

“Earlier, the students had to attend the school daily, for two hours in the afternoon, but after two years, we started calling them over the weekend as they also had to help with household chores. Our primary objective was to teach them how to write their names. They went beyond that. Today, all of them put their signatures on official documents and no longer have to go through the humiliation of giving their thumb impressions. They can read short stories, do basic calculations and most can read religious books. There are very few who can’t but that’s because they are too old and can’t see,” said Bangar.

The schooling isn’t restricted to studying. These grannies also play games, like kho-kho. As per More madam, they are quite a handful. They giggle and pull each other’s legs while the class is on. They have been allotted a space to sit depending on their hearing ability and vision capacity, but they don’t follow these rules and go and sit with their friends. There are the quintessential backbenchers too, who, despite warnings, wipe their slates with their sarees. The grannies are particular about two things … no homework, and no exams. “The good part is that they never bunk. There is this ajji who came to attend the classes even though her son was getting married the next day and there were guests at home!” said More. 

However, whenever they behave and, more importantly, perform well, they are rewarded by the management. In 2018, they were taken on a two-day picnic to Wai in Maharashtra, also known as “Dakshin Kashi” as there are more than 100 temples in the city. “It was a lot of fun. It was after a long time I was going on a casual trip and, for the very first time, I was going with my friends,” said Parvati Kedar, one of the ajjis who attended the trip.

The ajjis were taken on a school picnic to Kashi

A lot has changed over the years. Bangar has got transferred to Murbad district, 15 kms from Fangane. He, however, visits the grannies regularly to know their progress and resolve their issues. More continues to teach at the school without charging a penny. Earlier, it was a batch of 30. Now they are 28. Two students, both in their 90s, passed away owing to age-related ailments. The other ajjis miss them but are glad that they learnt to write their names before they passed away.

To be able to write their names gave them the identity they were looking for all their lives. It was almost as if they were living, but never existed on paper and their thumb impressions always stuck out like a sore thumb. To get a sense of what putting their signature on bank documents or ration cards meant for them, I spoke to four ajjis over the phone.

Kantabai More, the mother-in-law of teacher More, got married when she was 17. She never went to school as her parents never had enough money. Her brother, however, was sent to school. “The primary reason I joined Ajjibaichi Shala was because I wanted to learn how to write my name; at least that. So, when I signed for the first time in my life, I felt very happy. It’s my wish to sign on the paper in the bank while withdrawing cash, but they are not letting me do that. They are saying it’s a lot of paperwork to change the thumb impression and letting me sign. But that’s fine. I am not complaining,” she said.

The story of her friend Parvati Maruti Kedar is no different. She does not know her age or at which age she got married. She was never sent to any school. Ajjibaichi Shala was her first formal education and she is happy with what she has managed to learn. “When I signed for the first time when I went to get the ration, my hands started shivering. But I felt really good. I feel proud of myself.”

Nirmala Kedar, an octogenarian student, said: “I couldn’t go to school as a child and remained illiterate all my life. But I didn’t want to die illiterate. I am happy that now I would be able to carry a few words with me when I die.” 

Sunanda Kedar, 70, her voice barely audible, said: “I can write my name. I have no regrets now. It was my only desire in life … to be able to write my name. I am happy that I have managed to achieve this.”

To be able to write their names has given them the identity they were looking for all their lives

The school is going to be shut until further notice. “The students keep asking me when will the school open as they are missing their friends and the atmosphere. But they are also aware that it can’t open till this disease goes away. They know they can’t sit next to each other,” said More. While teaching these grannies, she got motivated and cleared her high school exams and is presently pursuing her BA as an external student. Inspired by her, two other girls in the village are also pursuing their graduation.

The situation of the village hasn’t changed much though. The only school in the village is only until class five. Her kids are in primary now but later on they will have to travel 20 kms one way to attend secondary school, which is in another village. She has no idea how would that work out, but, for now, she is happy that she is sitting next to her children and her mother-in-law, and all of them are studying.

(Picture credit: Yogendra Bangar)

Published by Swati Subhedar

Meaningful conversations, ginger tea, Maggi, playing Tennis, backpacking, travelling, exploring, photography, adventures, meeting interesting people, mountains, beaches, and dramatic sunsets ... these are just some of the uncomplicated things that keep me going.

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