Pandemic, lockdowns, and hunger

World Food Day is observed on October 16 with an aim to eradicate hunger across the world. While, by God’s grace, we always had enough food on our plates, even during the pandemic, and most of us were in a position to help others with meals and ration during the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough since the beginning of the pandemic. Most of these families rely on daily wages or unsteady incomes and the lockdowns dealt a major blow to them. While men were out of work, it was the women who had to bear the brunt as they had to manage with less ration or the parents had to cut down on their intake, so that their children could eat enough. I spoke to five such families.   

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Family 1: Rachana Singh and her family

Four-year-old Archit hesitated and looked at his mother when I offered him an apple which was in my bag. His mother, Rachana Singh, 27, hesitated too. I kept it on the charpoy on which I was sitting. Archit took it and ran into the room while his mother went back to chopping onions and tomatoes. “It’s been months we have bought any fruits,” said Singh and apologized to me for not offering me tea or biscuits. I told her she was very kind to allow me into her house and wait for my journalist friend who was roaming around the village taking quotes for a story that he was working on. It was October 2020, and we were in Jata Barauli village, which is in the Barabanki district, about 30 kms from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow. Singh and I got talking.

There are eight members in Singh’s family – two senior citizens, four adults and two children; out of these only two are earning members. The men worked as master craftsmen before the 2020 lockdown. They did not get a regular income, but it was steady and enough. They could buy a regular supply of milk fruits and vegetables, and sometimes indulged by buying fish, chicken, and eggs. The children would occasionally get their treats of cream biscuits and chocolates. The men could not earn between March and June 2020 when the nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country. The family had to bank on their minimal savings to keep the kitchen running and later had to borrow from a relative when the savings got exhausted. The men stepped out in July 2020 to find work but in the next four months, until October, they could collectively earn only Rs 8,000. The Singh family still had to clear the dues of the local grocery store owner who let them buy groceries on credit during the lockdown.

“These days we mostly eat a curry made of onions and tomatoes and drink tea once a day, in the morning. The adults have cut down on their tea intake so that the two children could be given milk. It’s been months since we bought fruits, eggs, chicken, or fish. We buy two-three vegetables a week. That’s all we can afford presently,” said Singh.

What about their ration cards? In Uttar Pradesh, there are 3.5 crore ration cardholders who receive a monthly quota of 3 kg wheat and 2 kg of rice at subsidized rates of Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg respectively, through 80,000 ration shops.

“Only the earning members in the family have ration cards. Our names are not mentioned in those ration cards. We have tried so many times, but because of some technical glitch, our names got omitted and the authorities have not been able to fix the error. Besides, that ration is not enough as there are eight members in the house. We still have to buy surplus wheat and rice,” said Singh.

Rachana Singh in her kitchen

Family 2: Ritu Gautam and her family

“Our diet has reduced to half. If the situation does not improve, we will have to eat less than this,” said Ritu Gautam, 25, who dropped by along with her toddler while I was talking to Singh. Gautams and Singhs are neighbours. There are twelve members in her family — eight adults and four children. Her husband is also a daily wage earner who had to sit at home during the entire lockdown. “It will take us a couple of months to recover from the lockdown. The men get angry at us and tell us to spend less. What they don’t understand is that vegetables, oil, spices, salt, pulses, wheat, rice, and milk are essential food items. When we were financially stable, it never pinched them, but now that money is an issue, they think we are splurging. Besides, if children demand extra milk, chocolates, and biscuits, we can’t say no to them every time,” said Gautam.

During the lockdown, all the state governments had pitched in to help daily wage earners and migrant labourers. In April 2020, the Uttar Pradesh government announced that it will provide an additional 5 kg of ration (rice/wheat) free along with the 5 kg of food grains to be distributed under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) – a government scheme — to each beneficiary in May and June 2020. As many as 14.5 million people in the state were expected to benefit from the scheme. However, both Singh and Gautam families slipped through the cracks did not receive this additional ration.

When I left the village that day, both the ladies were hopeful that the situation would improve soon so that they could eat two proper meals a day. Just a month later, in November, onion prices touched a record Rs 100/kg, and a few months later, in March 2021, came the second wave of coronavirus, more ferocious than the first one. In a short span of time, it claimed many lives and dealt a severe blow to the economy. Both the waves of the coronavirus led to severe job losses and those who took the maximum hit were the daily wage earners who suffered not just during the lockdown, but also after that.

Ritu Gautam with her son

Covid, job losses and hunger  

As per the latest report by Center for Monitoring India Economy (CMIE), during the first wave of Covid, India lost 6.3 million jobs. As per the same agency, when the devastating second wave halted the Indian economy, we lost an additional 13.3 million jobs. The impact of these job losses was also felt by the women who had to curtail their food budgets as a result of which most families were not eating enough.

In order to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, every year, World Food Day is celebrated across the globe on October 16. This day aims at tackling global hunger and striving to eradicate hunger across the world. In a research report published in June 2020, Oxfam had mentioned that COVID-19 was deepening the hunger crisis in the world’s hunger hotspots and creating new epicenters of hunger across the globe, and had predicted that by the end of 2020, 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to COVID-19, potentially more than will die from the disease itself. Unfortunately, India made to its list of countries and regions where the food crisis had worsened because of the pandemic. 

While we belong to the privileged class that always had enough food on our plates, pandemic, or no pandemic, and by God’s grace, most of us were in a position to help others during both the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough food since the beginning of the pandemic.  

Family 3: Rachana Devi and her family

It’s October 2021 and people are shelling out Rs 80 to buy one kg tomatoes. “I bought basics like onions, potatoes tomatoes and a few vegetables two days back and paid Rs 350. There are four members in the family, including two children aged 11 and 14. They are not kids anymore and corresponding to their ages, their diet has also increased. While we have not curtailed our food budget, myself and my husband have cut down on our diet so that our children could eat how much ever they want to,” said Rachana Devi who lives in Lucknow’s Gwari village.

Her husband does two jobs – he works on a contract basis with a local real estate contractor and his job is to arrange for labourers, he is also a priest who visits the homes of people and performs religious ceremonies. Both the jobs took a hit during the first and the second lockdowns. In fact, the family was still coming to terms with the losses incurred during the first lockdown, when the second wave struck. “During the second wave, people were talking about the third wave in October-November. Is that true? I don’t think we are in a position to deal with more financial losses as we are rebuilding for scratch,” said Singh.

Rachana Devi outside her one-room house

Covid leads to India’s fall in hunger index

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) report 2020 released on October 14, 2021, mentions that India has slipped to the 101st position among 116 countries in the GHI ranking from its 2020 ranking (94), to be placed behind Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The report also mentions that “people have been severely hit by covid and by pandemic related restrictions in India, the country with highest child wasting rate worldwide.” The government, however, was quick to react and claimed that the methodology used to calculate India’s ranking was unscientific. Both the lockdowns undoubtedly worsened the food crisis, and the below case study is the perfect example of this.

Rakesh Singh along with his mother and children. Read their story below

Family 4: “Manoj ki mata ji” (Manoj’s mother) and her family

“Sab Manoj ki mata ji hi bulate hai,” (everyone calls me Manoj’s mother) said this woman in her sixties, when I asked her name. Brothers Manoj and Rakesh Singh, along with their families, lived in Gwari village in Lucknow until October 2020. Eight family members – the two brothers, their wives, their mother and two children – lived in a one-room house. Both brothers worked as rickshaw pullers and earned daily wages. During the first lockdown, the family had to depend on food packets that were distributed daily in the locality as in the absence of daily wages, it was difficult to buy groceries, milk, and vegetables. In the wake of a severe financial crunch, Manoj and his wife moved to their village in Sandila, a town two hours from Lucknow, where they have a small farm.  

Rakesh started earning again in August 2020, however, a few months later, the second wave struck. This time, however, there were no food packets to bank on.  

“We went hungry on some days, but thankfully, after a few weeks, we could go to our village home. We have a small farm there and we sow potatoes in it. Every month, my brother and his wife send a sack full of potatoes. In case of a third covid wave, this time we will at least have potatoes. That was our learning from the last two lockdowns. It was tough to go hungry on some days,” said Rakesh.

Putli Devi does not have money to refill her cylinder. She cooks on the chulha. Read her story below

Family 5: Putli Devi and her family   

In September 2020, just after the first lockdown, the price of one LPG cylinder was hovering around Rs 632. Presently, in October 2021, one LPG cylinder is priced at Rs 922.50. The constantly rising prices of LPG cylinders has burnt a hole in the pockets of even middle-class families, poor families don’t even have the means to refill these cylinders. A few families I met at Mehmudpur village in Barabanki district in September 2021 have gone back to cooking on chulha (wood stove). When I met Putli Devi at her house, the first thing I noticed that the ceiling of the house was covered with black soot. I wondered what cooking on the stove must be doing to her lungs. “Do we have an option? Everything is so expensive. But one must eat basic meals. We can’t cut down on the meals, we have to buy vegetables, oil, spices, wheat, rice and pulses. That can’t be done away with, so we have to cut down on other expenses. Why would I get the cylinder refilled when it costs Rs 800-900?” she asked. Her husband is a farm labourer, who was out of work during both the lockdowns, and she has two children aged 6 and 8.  

“Is there going to be a third covid wave?” asked Putli Devi, while I was leaving her house.  

Indian men, cooking and kitchen chores – Covid-19 and beyond

In May this year, I put forth a question in a food group on Facebook. The group, which has over 155,900 members worldwide, a majority of them Indians, is a space for people to connect over ‘food talk’ but it is not just about food or recipes. As the pinned post about the group’s guidelines informs, this is a place to connect, mingle and share. Very often, you would find that the discussions on the group range from a number of things – from seeking suggestions and ideas on baby names, to sharing decor and festive tips, and sometimes, women would post in a lighter vein – how their spouses had failed to follow the simplest of instructions when it came to buying groceries or cooking rice in the rice cooker.

In my post, I asked if the men did any cooking – participating, and playing an active part in the kitchen. I wanted to hear from men and women both. I asked, because I was curious. On one hand, the pandemic had led to a surge in baking and making all kinds of tasty treats in the home kitchen, and there had been a lot of focus on cooking, trying out new recipes and rediscovering heirloom ones. On the other, I had also heard a lot of women complain that they were caught in a draining routine – cooking meals three times a day, juggling working from home and many other duties, with often little to no help from family members. I wanted to know if there had been a shift in attitudes when it came to Indian men and cooking duties, not just because of the pandemic but also beyond that.

You can see a man's hands holding an Indian device to make string hoppers and in the back are various things - slightly blurred images of a bottle of oil and egg holder

Several comments started appearing on my post in quick succession, and most of them were from women. It appeared to me that I had touched a raw nerve.

Before the post was deleted (since it was deemed off-topic according to the rules of the group), I tried getting back to all the comments on my posts. I asked further questions and sought approval for quoting their answers for this article.

A woman quickly wrote back to me saying that I could quote her and I was so glad that she did so. Sheela Sharon’s comment on my post stood out because of its honesty, and it found resonance with many women, quickly gathering many Facebook likes and loves.

Sharon, who is based in the US, wrote: “My partner never helped me in the kitchen nor household chores for the last 10 years. He was pampered, spoilt and completely unaware. Covid-19 quarantine has been a blessing. [With] work from home, he realized how much I do at home which was unnoticed. Now he is the one who does dishwashing, kitchen cleaning, laundry which has made it so easy for me to cook and manage the house better. He only makes coffee and fried egg. You need passion to cook, and I don’t think he has it or will try to cook. My husband is not proud of himself for not helping me all these years. Better late than never.”

Sharon credited the pandemic for the shift in her husband’s perspective towards household chores and duties, including the ones in the kitchen. Many other women chimed in, some saying that their husbands didn’t even know how to cook rice and were not even interesting in learning how to do so. One comment simply read, “I have given up. He is just not interested.”

This reminded me of two incidents. During my post graduate studies in journalism and mass communication, I had gone for an overnight stay at my friend’s place. In the evening, a neighborhood aunty had come visiting. Suddenly as the clock struck six, she jumped up with a start and exclaimed, “Akshay (name changed) will be home any minute now and I need to make a glass of warm milk with Bournvita for him.”

“Aunty,” I asked, “Would Akshay be back home from cricket or tuition at this time?”

“Why no!,” she said, her eyes widening in surprise. “He is an officer with the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited. He will be back from work, and he always likes to relax with a warm glass of milk when home.” And with that, she bade a hasty goodbye.

I remember being genuinely befuddled. Why would an adult man need his mother to warm up a glass of milk?

However, I knew fairly too well that it was a reality of many Indian households. Men depending on their mothers, sisters, and wives to do even the simplest of cooking tasks for them – be it boiling an egg or making tea.

Indeed, some mothers even took pride in the fact that their sons did not enter the kitchen at all. As one of my mother’s friends had once said, “My son doesn’t even know how to make a cup of tea. Or Maggi. And why should he? I am here, and when he has a wife, she will take over.”

While it is not fair or even accurate to make sweeping generalizations, many women did comment on the post saying that their men never learnt how to help their mothers with cooking and carried on with that attitude after they had families of their own.

However, a lot of women also chimed in with how the men in their families had set an example, and what they were doing as mothers to make sure that their children, irrespective of their gender, learnt cooking as an essential life skill.

Preeti Babji’s comment on the post was in a way, a tribute to her dad. She wrote, “I proudly say I learned cooking from my dad. I remember dad used to help mum in the kitchen 40 years back and [is] still trying new dishes. He is 70 now and during Covid he called me and asked for banana bread recipe, which he had when he visited us.” Another member, Nagashree Manwatkar wrote, “My husband and I share cooking [duties] almost equally. He comes from a traditional business family where men never cook. He is our breakfast guy, can roll parathas and make French toast and pancakes. I love to cook more elaborate food wherein he helps with prep and clean up. He also does our grocery for the week. He has also recently taken to looking up recipes and making brand new recipes. We have a good partnership going.”

Rasana Atreya has ensured that both her children learnt how to cook. She shared in the comments section: “I have a 19-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. My son will be moving into an apartment in August (at school). I’ve made sure both can cook. My husband can cook, but we all think that his dishwashing skills are more useful for us.”

Many women also pointed out that when their husbands took an equal and earnest role in the kitchen, it had a positive effect on their children. As Divya Mani wrote: “My husband cooks everyday. In fact he cooks more than me. It’s by choice and sometimes circumstantial. And looking at this, my son has also starting showing an interest in cooking and he is only four years old!

It was also important to hear from the men themselves. That is, if they hadn’t ventured into their kitchens so far, what would motivate them to do so and if they were indeed a regular at cooking, what or who was their inspiration?

Dhrumit Sheth, an IT professional currently based in Canada shares, “I have always been a foodie since childhood, and very particular about what I want to eat and how it should taste. While growing up, both my parents went out to work and I have seen my dad cook and help my mother in the kitchen. Also, even as a kid, whenever my sister and I felt hungry in our parents’ absence, we used to make snacks and other food rather than wait for them to return and then eat. So that made me interested in cooking as well, and I strongly believe it’s a life skill everyone should have.”

Sheth, who grew up in India before shifting base to Canada in the recent years, says that there have been some rare occasions when friends or relatives have asked him why he is so active in the kitchen. “If someone asks me why my wife doesn’t cook [as much], I just say that she is not that fond of cooking (which is true) and takes care of other things, while I am interested and fussy about food, so I take care of that part of our life.”

What are Sheth’s favourite things to cook? “I love to make, eat and offer lasagna, veg kurma (a Kerala curry) and shahi paneer,” replies Sheth.

Sometimes, it is also a change in circumstances that leads men to alter their childhood habits .

Shailin Nath (name changed) confides, “I wasn’t very good in the kitchen and to be honest, if I did do something after marriage, my mother wasn’t very pleased with it. She would say – you work full time, leave the kitchen to your wife. My mother always attended to, and still does to this day – every little thing in the kitchen. She doesn’t think it is a man’s job to contribute or even take part in any of these chores. I grew up that way, and amongst that kind of attitudes.”

So, what changed? Nath says, “This was way before the pandemic. When we were expecting our first child, neither my parents nor my wife’s parents could come and stay with us in the United Kingdom. My wife’s aunt came after delivery, but how long could she stay and help? The doctor had suggested that my wife eat a lot of green leafy vegetables and a nutritive diet to get her strength back. After my wife’s aunt left, I started looking up recipes. I realised that it was just the two of us and if I did not help, my wife would not get any respite at all. If the baby was sleeping, I would ask her to get some sleep too, and I would quickly make something for us – mixed lentils khichdi, palak paneer, or even an egg curry. I learnt so much in those months and if I hadn’t, I would have carried a lot of guilt. Because I helped her in the cooking, she was able to look after herself and in turn, our baby’s health and wellbeing.”

Another quote from a father of two, again with a request to let it remain anonymous, was on similar lines. “When we had our daughter, we had decided that we would feed her good, homemade food. The sort of food we had access to when we were growing up. And since we both worked, it was important that I learnt to cook as well. How could I say to my daughter that in order to be fed hot and nutritive food, she had to wait till her mother came home? And that even if I was home earlier, I couldn’t give her a hot roti with ghee (her favourite) because I did not know how to roll one?”

“Even if my initial rotis were misshapen, they were still homemade, made from fresh dough and layered with ghee and a sprinkling of sugar. Just the way she liked it. I learnt how to cook because feeding my daughter was not just my wife’s duty. A hungry child needs food – and hunger can’t wait till mummy comes home.”

Perhaps there is hope. The great Indian kitchen as depicted in the movie of the same name, is changing. One little recipe and baby step at a time. From a father who makes a hot roti for his daughter, a husband who learns how to wash dishes and cut onions after a decade of being spoilt and pampered by his mother, a brother who brushes up his batata poha skills during the pandemic. To a mother who insists that the kitchen and its many duties belongs to, and should be claimed by everyone, and not just by the women in the household. A mother who vows to raise her children differently, ensuring that cooking is not a skill dictated by one’s gender.

And then, there’s always humour. What we cannot conquer by change, we do so with humour.

Like a friend who responded to this potential match who had written to her ‘I want to marry a good cooker.” By which, he meant, a woman who was a good cook.

“Maybe you should try Hawkins or Prestige,” she had emailed back.

Perhaps ten years to that email-exchange, I am hoping the man got a cooker and also acquired some cooking skills. It’s about time. Really.

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)