Anusuyabai, a grandmother from a small village in Maharastra, is 76 years old and isn't even thinking about her age-related ailments or being confined to a bed. She instead opted for a pink outfit with a school bag slung over her shoulder. She goes to a local school and proudly announces that she can now read and sign her name.
“Seeing my grandson drop an elderly person like me off at school was quite heartwarming. “I've been illiterate my whole life, so I wanted to learn to sign my name before I died,” Anusuyabai exclaims.
Many other grandmothers in her village, like AnusuyaBai, are occupied with math problems. Their universe is now centred on books and notes.
Yogendra Bangar, a Zilla Parishad teacher, is solely responsible for the establishment of a school for grannies in 2016. Yogendar has been running a free school for unliterate grandmothers in his self-created school since then. He teaches these grannies every day from 2-4 p.m. from Monday to Friday.
‘Aajibaichi Shala’ as the school is fondly called, are gracefully dismissing ageists and shattering stereotypes.
Shantabai, 72, joined at India's one-of-a-kind and most likely only school for grandmothers in 2016 with the intention of learning to read Dasbodh, a Marathi religious scripture.
“I was ecstatic to be able to wear a bright pink sari to school for the first time in my life, but I was afraid on the first day. It was wonderfully soothing to see my grandson drop off an elderly person like myself at the school entrance. The seventy-two-year-old grandma adds, "I've been illiterate my entire life and wanted to learn how to write my name before I died."
When we go to the bank, we feel self-conscious about leaving our thumbprint. People make fun of us because we can't sign our names. At the very least, I believe I should be able to sign my name. This is why I decided to go to school,' adds Kantabai, who is now eighty years old.
Drought wreaked havoc on Fangane, a parched community. Furthermore, it triggered a following farming catastrophe. With the launch of the shaala school in 2016, this inconspicuous tiny town sprang to attention. Media representatives from across the country flocked to witness the individual who believed that providing literacy to a group of elderly women aged 60 to 90 was critical.
As a primary school teacher, Yogendra Bangar was also involved in informing the villagers about government intentions to address basic water and sanitation issues. Yogendra was instrumental in supplying the neighbourhood with drinkable water via rainwater collection pits and civic water pipelines. His efforts gained him the title of local hero, and he was quickly accepted as one of them. “It all began in 2016 when on 19 February 2016, during the birth anniversary of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, old women of our village gathered to read the holy text of Shiv Charitra. These elderly women expressed their desire to read it. This caught my attention” recounts Yogendra.
“It was an accidental remark made by one of the elderly women that led to the establishment of a school. When I asked if they would be interested to learn basic literacy, they all enthusiastically agreed. The fact that some of them followed up with me the next day impressed me the most. Yogendra stated, “Their eagerness to learn and quest for knowledge grabbed my heart.”
When one of the villagers saw their excitement and efforts, he offered to provide his house for free to the school. Yogender then proceeded to hire a teacher named Sheetal, who was paid Rs 1,500 per month.
Previously, the grannies had protested that they had been denied schooling as young girls due to their gender. On March 8, International Women's Day, Yogendra chose to open the school.
Sheetal, who affectionately refers to the students at this unconventional school as "Ajji," or "grandmother," adds that teaching the elderly is extremely difficult.
“It takes a lot of patience to deal with ajjis. Their learning, comprehension, and grasping abilities are slow. They may even forget what they learned in previous classes. It's not easy to be strict with senior people I respect. Despite these issues, they do not miss classes,” Sheetal explains.
This school does not have grades or tests.
These grandmothers have come a long way now, they have aced basic abilities amidst the typical banter, homework, and classes. At ration distribution outlets, signatures have replaced thumbprints, making money transactions easier.
This school has has helped many grandmothers, like Shantabai, to bridge the generational gap with their grandchildren.
(Geetha Chandrasekaran is the founder of Powerful Teachers, an organisation that works for the elderly)