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)

When these children living in Adivasi hamlets in Aarey, Mumbai, got smartphones, they danced with joy!

Just two months back, these children were staring at an uncertain future because they didn’t have a smartphone and were moving one step away from education with each passing day. After Mumbai-based journalist Sohit Mishra did a story on them, help poured in from India and abroad and he personally went back to Aarey and distributed around 85 smartphones. In this first-person account, Mishra talks about how because of the positive response that the story received, the journalist in him could sleep better at night and why there is a need to tell many such stories and do quality journalism during a pandemic

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Children living in some of the 27 Adivasi hamlets located inside Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony, the sprawling 1,300 hectares of forest land in the heart of the city, received a special gift in September.

In March, following the government’s order of keeping the educational institutes closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, schools and colleges across India began conducting online classes with the use of smartphones and computers. However, for children living in rural India, urban slums, and Adivasi pockets such as Aarey, this meant a long gap in their education. Many of these families didn’t have a basic phone or had just one smartphone in the family. Factors like poor network and connectivity added to their problems. While many citizens, NGOs, and voluntary organizations have stepped in to help such children either by giving them smartphones or finding alternative means to educate them, there are still many who haven’t attended a single class or touched their textbooks since the beginning of the pandemic.

Sohit Mishra, a Mumbai-based journalist, shares with ‘The Good Story Project’ this heart-warming first-person account of how people from across the globe stepped in to help children living in Adivasi hamlets at Aarey by providing them with smartphones after the story he did on them had the desired impact. He also writes about the importance of doing quality and responsible journalism, especially during a pandemic when there is pain, suffering, and anxiety all around. It’s noteworthy that airing of the story coincided with most of the primetime slots being dedicated to the coverage of the aftermath of the death of a Bollywood actor, and a section of society openly expressing its disgust over the over-the-top, TRP-driven coverage. Mishra’s story led to these children receiving the best Children’s Day gift, that too two months in advance. This is his first-person account. 

Journalist Sohit Mishra’s story (The video is sourced from Mishra’s Facebook post.)

In August end, when I decided to do this story, most of the schools across the country had resorted to online classes. I thought about children living in rural India and the urban poor who were getting impacted because they didn’t have smartphones. That’s when I decided to visit Aarey as I knew the financial condition of people living over there wasn’t good. Through my story, I wanted to raise an important point that if people living in heart of the financial capital of India were not able to afford a smartphone, then imagine the plight of children in the rest of the country. When I reached Aarey, I noticed that children were playing and because they didn’t have a smartphone, they were not studying at all. One of the girls I met, who was around seven-year-old, said her friends were able to study but since she was poor, she couldn’t. That made me very sad that a girl at her age was experiencing discrimination based on her financial status and she knew that she was denied education or wasn’t able to study as her family was not in a position to buy a smartphone. That’s when I decided to go ahead with the story.

I always knew it would be a good story, but I didn’t know it would go viral and so many people will come out to help. Initially, one of our viewers contacted me on Twitter and offered to help Shiksha, a class three student who featured in the story. Her mother had never been to school, but she named her daughter Shiksha. Things were going smoothly until the pandemic hit them and Shiksha’s educational journey suffered a roadblock because of the absence of a smartphone. Soon, help started pouring in from India and abroad and many people started sending smartphones for these children. Several senior journalists who wished to remain anonymous pitched in too. Bollywood actor Sonu Sood, who has been doing some incredible work since the lockdown, also sent some smartphones. It was incredible to receive courier packages every day and opening them at night after returning from work helped me sleep better.

Sohit Mishra (left) with the smartphone parcels. Children at one of the Adivasi hamlets showing their smartphones

I personally went back to Aarey to distribute these smartphones. In all, we have distributed around 85 smartphones. Our initial plan was a cover one Adivasis hamlet inside Aarey, but we ended up covering 12. The children were extremely happy after receiving the smartphones and were dancing with joy. Some of the parents had tears in their eyes and they assured that they would make sure that the children made the most of this opportunity. They said they never expected that anyone would help them. They could never have imagined that people would actually bother to send smartphones for their children. They said that this gesture has given them hope that the world can still be a place where their sons and daughters will be able to grow and prosper.

Personally, as a journalist, this story and the response to it, made me very happy. During the lockdown, I had covered that entire migration crisis. It was heartbreaking to see people on the streets, starving and not having a single penny on them to buy food. I was fulfilling my duties as a journalist by covering these stories, but I couldn’t do much to help them personally. But after the Aarey story, when people started sending smartphones and when I handed them over to the children, that was extremely satisfying for me. It motivated me to do my job with more responsibility and I was happy that as a journalist I could impact a few people and do my bit for society. 

The video is sourced from Mishra’s Facebook post.

The only positive emerging out of the ongoing pandemic, which is an unusual and unprecedented situation in itself, is the fact that people have gone out of their way to help others in need. Since the lockdown, there have been many stories of pain, suffering, loss, despair, hopelessness, and heartbreak. This has affected our society but has also made people more ‘giving’. I think the reason why people came out in large numbers to donate smartphones, even though the pandemic has affected all of us financially in some way or the other, was because somewhere down the line they could feel the pain of these parents. When there are so many crisis-ridden stories, people feel compelled to help those in need in whichever way they can.    

While we need more such people, we also need people who can question the government. After all, after announcing the closure of schools, it was the government’s responsibility to ensure that no student was left out.

Many journalists have done a fabulous job of covering the pandemic and the lockdown with maturity, empathy, and sensitivity. However, around the time the story came out, a section of media was busy covering the aftermath of the death of a Bollywood actor and that coverage dominated all the other news stories. As a journalist, that broke my heart a little. There were so many people who were staring at an uncertain future because of the pandemic, and their stories needed to be told. But it seemed as if no one cared. I think that’s why people liked my story and responded very positively to it. As journalists, it’s our responsibility to tell stories, but we must also do stories that can help people come out of dire circumstances. I am convinced that many such stories would be done in the future and the day is not far when people themselves would support journalism that serves them the news that matters and not garbage.

Sohit Mishra is a senior correspondent and anchor at NDTV India. The views expressed above are his own.