A 70-year-old grandmother from Maharashtra’s Phagane village wanted to read. “I wish I could read at least the holy books,” she told Yogendra Bangar while struggling to read about the life of Chhatrapati Shivaji during the annual Shivaji Jayanti festival in the village. It prompted Bangar, a local zilla parishad teacher and activist, to start a school for grandmothers called Aajibaichi Shala in the Thane district. It was inaugurated on Women’s Day in 2016.
Bangar built the single-room school with funding from the Motiram Dalal Trust. The trust was started by Dilip Dalal to work for the underprivileged and the elderly.
“Knowledge has great importance in life. We started this school to develop confidence and bring a sense of purpose to the lives of these elderly women,” Bangar says.
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In the Aajibaichi Shala, the age of students ranges from 60 to 90 years. The school has around 35 students. And the timings are flexible – sometimes the classes are from 10 am to 12 noon, and sometimes from 2 to 4 pm.
Shital More, 30, is a Class 10 graduate and the sole teacher in the school. She teaches the women to read and write numbers, alphabets in Marathi, and rhymes. Monday to Saturday, the students come dressed in pink saris.
The garden surrounding the school has one tree for each student and the women are responsible for nurturing their own trees right from the sapling stage.
Seventy-year-old Kantabai More says that she never attended school as a child. She had four siblings — three sisters and two brothers. Her father so was poor that he could only send her brothers to school. Her parents would go out to work in the fields and all three girls, including Kantabai, did household chores.
But switching from daily housework to nursery rhymes and alphabets hasn’t been easy for Kantabai and her classmates. So, Kantabai’s grandson Nitesh helps her with studies and drops her to school, in a rare reversal of roles.
“Earlier, when I had to go to the bank to withdraw my pension, the staff would simply look at me, hold my thumb and thrust it on the ink pad for the fingerprint on the documents. I felt so ashamed of myself – I should at least be able to sign my name,” says Kantibai, adding, “Now, when I go to the bank, they greet me with folded hands and offer me a pen to sign my name. I feel proud.”
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Students come up one by one and draw on the board | Jayati Saha
The grandmothers agree that education has changed their lives and made their families proud of them. Old people become inconsequential for many, probably because they cease to be productive after raising one generation. The mission of Aajibaichi Shala is to rid these old women of the social stigma of illiteracy, give them a sense of pride and convey the message that the elderly in our society need to be loved and respected.
Jayati Saha is an independent photographer. Views are personal.