Age no bar: These grannies are going to school to shrug off illiterate tag

In a village 95 km from Mumbai, grandmothers are strapping on bags and skipping spiritual 'baithaks' for school time, all to pull off a signature before the final call comes

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre Shikshanala vayache bandhan naste (learning has no age limit) sounds platitudinous. The cliché, however, gets a real-life sparkle when put on a blackboard facing 28 non-literate grandmothers who have enrolled themselves at the Aajibainchi Shala in Phangane village of Thane district.

Embracing a routine that is conventionally reserved for tiny tots — nursery rhymes, alphabets, math tables and the occasional class in painting — senior women, aged 60 to 90 years, are coping with daily homework and an upcoming unit test. This will be their first exam in a formal teaching space since they started going to school in March.

All aged 60 to 90 years, students of Aajibainchi Shala in Phangane, one of the remotest of 206 villages in Murbad taluka of Thane district, walk 1 km to get to school where they spend two hours every day learning from kindles and charts. Pics/Satej Shinde

An otherwise nondescript non-motorable Phangane, 95 km from Mumbai on the Kalyan-Ahmednagar highway, now has a claim to fame. Until recently, it was a village of 400 people where the red-coloured ST (State Transport) bus and the government’s BDO (Block Development Officer) did not venture. On March 8, International Women’ Day, things changed.

The classes are sponsored by the Motiram Dalal Charitable Trust, which has provided a blackboard, slates (which the ajis call ‘TV book’), a book shelf and colourful pencils. Twenty-eight women from the village are currently enrolled

Families here live on subsistence farming and sundry employment in the Ambernath industrial vicinity, doing small jobs in packaging. Most can barely make ends meet. Each house grows shevga (drumsticks) and has them for breakfast, lunch, dinner — guests are gifted shevga, as there is little else.

The students are all aged between 60 and 90. Many of them don’t have birth records. When they fail to recall their exact age, they claim 65 as a suitable answer. PICS/SATEJ SHINDE
The students are all aged between 60 and 90. Many of them don’t have birth records. When they fail to recall their exact age, they claim 65 as a suitable answer. Pics/Satej Shinde

The village now, however, has a unique classroom which could boast of the country’s oldest pupils wearing a uniform of pink nauwari saris. The Motiram Dalal Charitable Trust and Yogendra Bangar, a teacher from Phangane Zilla Parishad’s primary school, created history of sorts when they set up a blackboard, kindles, a book shelf and colourful pencils at a farmer’s house. The house belongs to Dattatray Deshmukh.

The classes are conducted at local farmer Dattatray Deshmukh’s home. He has  has loaned two living rooms for the cause. One acts as the classroom, the other is where study material — charts, stationery — and food supplies are kept
The classes are conducted at local farmer Dattatray Deshmukh’s home. He has  has loaned two living rooms for the cause. One acts as the classroom, the other is where study material — charts, stationery — and food supplies are kept

His decision stems from both goodwill and the fact that the matriarch of his family is a part of the class. The house has two huge living rooms with a 1,000 sq feet area that now encompasses the school. One room is for the women to study, another where educational aids (charts, stationery, food supplies) are kept. Bangar and the trust asked men to join in the classes too. But, they found that women, especially senior women, needed this support more. Most of Phangane’s male residents know how to sign their names. The trust thought it best to bring the women up to speed. Sixty became a minimum requirement as the classes needed a cut-off age.

Teacher Sheetal More’s mother-in-law is also a student. Initially, the 25-year-old was uncomfortable teaching a class more than twice her age

Children set the tone by drawing the ‘Welcome Aaji’ rangoli in the open ground outside the school. Select households joined hands to contribute vegetable soup and groundnut ladoos as a booster snack for the brave women who had chosen to be schooled at an unconventional age. In order to liven up the aajis (Marathi for grandmother), the village also organised an excursion to Ralegan Siddhi to meet social activist Anna Hazare, a week before the start of the school. This was perhaps the first time that the aajis travelled beyond Tokawade, an adjoining village barely 10 km away from Phangane. Haunsabai Chindhu Kedar said, “When we met Anna Hazare and the another leader, Popatrao Pawar, the idea of going to school took firmer shape. The big world of great people, which we had only heard of, came closer to us.”

Yogesh Bangar
Yogesh Bangar

The day at Aajibainchi Shala begins at 2 pm — the two hours between 2 and 4 pm are all that the aajis can devote to class as they have chores at home. Class begins with the Sharada Vandana (prayer to the Goddess of knowledge) delivered by 87-year-old-Ramabai Ganpat Khandagle. Khandagle can’t hear properly, but she has a strong voice and so, it’s she who is the trusted prayer monitor. After the 10-minute assembly, class begins.

Alphabet practice on the blackboard and then onto the slates (via what the aajis call TV books) forms the core of the session. For the next three months, the only school teacher, 25-year-old matriculate Sheetal More (whose mother-in-law is also a student), will follow a timetable that matches the target — getting them writing and signing their names.
More was initially embarrassed to teach the aajis, all of whom are over twice her age. “The first day was tough. But I realised that they were childlike in the class. I could shout at them and they would not mind,” she smiles.

“When we face the Almighty and tell him about our main achievement, our prime gain will be our signature... we don’t want to die angthachaap (unschooled),” says Anusuya Savlaram Deshmukh, 86. She comes to class along with her sister-in-law. She says her grandchildren laughed at the idea of her going to school, but she has stuck to her resolve of becoming literate.
The race against age is obvious, but motivating the ladies requires single-minded devotion. Parvatibai Maruti Kedar (65) did not miss school even on the day of her son’s pre-nuptial haldi.

For Kamal Keshav Tupange (68) it’s about regaining a lost sense of identity. Married at 12, Tupange, came to Phangane at an impressionable age. With this school, it is her chance to reclaim her space. Her grandchildren are married and she wants her own time now, she says. Which is why she has substituted baithak (a sit-down session with a spiritual guru) with school time.

The exclusive student profile of Aajibainchi Shala calls for precedence of verbal communication as against rigorous writing exercises. Most of the 28 aajis are frail, some have weak eyesight and others are hard of hearing. Many have to be escorted on the 50 metres to 1 km distance from their homes to school as they cannot carry their bags.

Although the class is designed for aajis between 60 and 90, the ones in their late 80s far outweigh the others. Many don’t have birth records, but family documents and photo albums indicate their advancing years. When they fail to recall their exact age during formal introductions, they claim 65 as a suitable answer.

Aajibainchi Shala traipses over age-related physical handicaps by factoring in the wisdom and vocabulary that come with age. As most aajis have boisterous voices and a good command over the poetry of Maharashtra’s saints, it is decided to map these entry points into formal learning. Focusing on the ovis (poetic metre) of Varkari saints which women traditionally sing while doing household chores, aajis are urged to narrate Tukaramgatha or Chokhamela poems. The school is trying to see oral knowledge through a classroom prism, credit for which is due to Bangar, who hails from Murbad. His ‘Adult and Continuing Education’ ideas spring from his self-declared literacy mission.

“Their recap of saint poetry makes them overqualified for a pre-primary set-up. We have to merely prep them for reading and writing, for which we only need to enthuse them,” he says.

Aajibainchi Shala has made news because of its implausible geographical location. Phangane is among the remotest of the 206 villages falling in Murbad taluka. Dichotomous growth characterises the region, making it a picture of plenty and scarcity at once. A luscious green countryside (Malshej Ghat) and hill resorts for the urban sightseer is no solace to Murbad’s subsistence farmer growing rice and urad.

Ill-equipped primary health centres cannot be masked by the tree-lined bungalow schemes, advertised as second homes. Enlightening is the joke that villagers share about Murbad’s furnished villas with enticing names like Rose Meadows, Palm Village.

Real estate dealers get their clients for demo visits during the monsoons — the best time to shroud water woes.
Women in Murbad, also some from Aajibainchi Shala, cart water on their heads from the rivers. Tap water is a luxury and load shedding a reality; grocery and newspapers don’t come in every morning. Amid this lack of connectivity, Aajibainchi Shala offers a beacon of hope.

It is an industrious use of the twilight years — easily replicable because there is no dearth of unschooled aajis across Murbad’s 127 gram panchayats.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text

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