Thane: Aajibaichi Shala, Fangane

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Grandmothers’ school/ 2019

Sharmila Ganesan Ram, March 9, 2019: The Times of India

Aajibaichi Shala, a unique weekend village school for grandmothers near Mumbai: Location
From: Sharmila Ganesan Ram, March 9, 2019: The Times of India

Fresh roses jut out of their severely-combed grey hair, silver anklets decorate their calloused feet and laminated Aadhaar cards hide in their thin school bags. 'Ironic' reads the name on the small, dark bottle of iron tonic sitting beside 70-year-old Shevanta Kedar. "It's water," says Kedar, who brings the bottle so she doesn't have to use her saliva to wipe her slate — something her classmates are doing at the moment. "Use your sarees to clean no," urges the teacher, Sheetal More, in vain. Clearly, their pink uniforms are too precious for the students of Aajibaichi Shala — a weekend "granny school" which began exactly three years ago in Fangane village in Thane on Women's Day. It's here that the aajis went from pressing their thumbs on official documents to writing their names in Marathi.

The village school for grandmothers was born in a two-room home three years ago in Thane's Fangane village on Women's Day

Fangane used to be a thirsty village then, riddled with so many problems that most educators could dread a posting here. When Yogendra Bangar was deputed as headmaster of its zilla parishad primary school in 2013, the village had one toilet and corruption ensured that government funds "never translated into a single drop of water". Gripped by the urge to "permanently take pots off the heads of the village women" who trudged three km daily for water, Bangar requested a charitable trust for help. Soon, a rainwater harvesting pit and civic pipelines manifested. What these couldn't quench, though, was the village women's thirst for reading.

Unique school only for grandmothers

Marathi-medium school, opened on March 8, 2016 (Women's Day)

Students, approximately 25-30 in number, are women aged 60-90

Located in Fangane village, Thane district, Maharashtra

Yogendra Bangar, local zilla parishad primary school headmaster, co-founded school with Motiram Dalal Charitable Trust

At a Shiva ji Jayanti celebration in 2016, when a few unlettered silver women expressed their wish to be able to read the Marathi book 'Shiv Charitra', a ponderous thought struck Bangar: "The first letter of the Marathi alphabet stands for Aai (mother). Why can't it stand for Aaji? Isn't she someone's mother too?" Shortly after, a school for grandmothers was born in a two-room home. Its uniform was supposed to be a green saree. "But since the students included widows, who are not supposed to wear green traditionally, we went with pink," says Bangar, recalling a rally of the "Gulabi gang" — as a paper once called the pink-saree-clad grandmas — going around the village in an open jeep on March 8, 2016, the day Aajibaichi Shala — a weekend school for women above the age of 60 — was born.

The uniform was supposed to be a green saree, but since students included widows, who are not supposed to wear green, pink was chosen: Yogendra Bangar, principal, zilla parishad school, Fangane

Enlisted as teacher by virtue of being the only "tenth pass" in the village of roughly 500, Sheetal More was intimidated at first. Her job entailed giving instructions not only to women whose hands shivered but also to a woman who made her hands shiver. The roll call included silver-haired mother-in-law, Kantabai. Quickly, 30-year-old Sheetal learnt that teaching the elderly was "very different" from teaching her teen sons. "I can't scold them. And I can't teach all of them at once. Some of them are hard of hearing. Some can't see very well. So, I teach them individually, shouting in their ears sometimes, holding their hands while they write," says Sheetal, who is also careful not to praise any one aaji as others may take offence. The school, she says, doesn't hold exams because exams would make the aajis "very angry".

This determined grandmother walks to school with her granddaughter, no longer okay with being relegated to a corner inside the home

Today, the aajis may still have trouble remembering their 'matras' and 'velantis' but several recycled answers to visiting Indian and foreign camera crews later, they are no longer afraid of talking, says Bangar who recently cracked up at the Marathi-Hindi cocktail speech of an aaji. From being relegated to a corner inside their homes, the grandmothers have graduated to reciting self-composed poems onstage. "My mother answers the phone now," says Shiva ji Kedar proudly about 65-year-old Parwati.

For teacher Sheetal More the task is challenging. Many of the elderly women can't see or hear very well, so she has to teach each one individually

While many admit that they don't yet sign on bank documents or ration cards as changing the registered thumb impressions entails arduous paperwork, sisterhood is what pulls the giggly seniors to class every weekend. Between household chores, farming and selling vegetables, their lives are full but amidst schoolgirlish jokes, troubles evaporate. "Learning is fun," says Parwati Kedar, whose two-year-old grandkids often snatch and tear her books when she practises writing at home.

I will be signing my vote for the first time this election

In class today, a few granddaughters lurk, rectifying their respective aaji's typos. 1947-born Janabai Kedar sits intently in the first row, careful not to laugh at the mistakes her peers make while writing their own names on the blackboard. "I never got a chance to go to school," Janabai says. The room is visibly excited. For the first time, this weekend, they will be stepping into a long-distance train for a Kashi Yatra. Some ask Bangar if they should bring bhakris or rice. One aaji who lives alone after being deserted by her son wonders which relative she can ask to sign the No Objection letter for the trip. "Take his sign instead," suggests a peer, pointing to Bangar.

Smiles all around as the seniors pose with the kids, some their own grandchildren, in front of the school

The unique school has not only inspired a director to make a Marathi film but also to build new premises for the school. While the mango, cashew and chickoo saplings — adorned with names of their respective care-taking aajis such as Subhadra, Sumanta and Shevanta — have grown into three-year-old trees now, two nonagenarian aajis on the roll call have succumbed to age. The others want to hurry learning. "I will study till I can read the Dasbodh (spiritual text)," says Kantabai, who is also looking forward to emerging from the voting booth without a blue thumb. "I will be signing my vote for the first time this election," she says.

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