At 76, Anusuyabai is a grandmother who belongs to a nondescript village in Maharastra and she is not even really thinking about her age-related ailments nor is she confined to a bed. Rather, she chose to wear a pink uniform with a school bag hanging around her shoulder. She visits the nearby school and is proud to inform that she can read and sign her name now.
“It was really touching to see my grandson dropping an old lady like me to school. I have been illiterate all my life so I wanted to learn to sign my name before I die.” says a jubilant Anusuyabai.
Like AnusuyaBai, many other grandmothers in her village are busily engaged in solving mathematics. Their world is revolving around books and notebooks now.
All credit goes to Yogendra Bangar, a Zilla Parishad teacher, who came up with the idea of a school for grannies in 2016. Since then, Yogendar has been conducting a free school for unlettered grandmothers in his self-created school. He takes classes for these grannies from Monday to Friday between 2-4 pm every day.
All the grannies from this ‘shaala’ as the school is fondly called, are gracefully dismissing ageists and shattering stereotypes.
Seventy two-year-old Shantabai enrolled in the one-of-a-kind and likely only school for grandmothers in India in 2016 with the goal of learning to read Dasbodh, a Marathi sacred text.
“Although I was overjoyed at the prospect of wearing a bright pink sari to school for the first time in my life, I was terrified on my first day. Seeing my grandson leave an elderly person like me off at school gate was incredibly cathartic. I’ve been illiterate my entire life and wanted to learn how to write my name before I passed away.” says the seventy two-year-old granny.
This parched village, Fangane, was severely hit by drought. Moreover, it led to a subsequent farming crisis. This unassuming small village rose to prominence in 2016 with the opening of this school called shaala. Media persons from all across the country thronged to see the person who believed it was essential to provide literacy to a group of elderly women aged 60 to 90.
Yogendra Bangar was also involved in educating the villagers about government plans to address basic water and sanitation issues as a primary school teacher. Yogendra was essential in supplying potable water to the community via rainwater gathering pits and civic water pipelines. His efforts earned him the title of local hero among the people, and he was soon recognised 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 a casual comment by one of the elderly women that eventually manifested into a school. I asked them if they would be willing to learn basic literacy and all of them jumped at the opportunity. What impressed me the most was that some of them followed up with me the next day. Their willingness and thirst for education won my heart,” narrated Yogendra
Seeing their enthusiasm and efforts, one of the villagers came forward to lend his house for the school at no cost. With this beginning, Yogender went ahead to hire a teacher Sheetal with a monthly salary of Rs 1,500.
Earlier, the grannies complained that as young girls, they were denied education because of their gender. Yogendra decided to launch the school on March 8 International Women’s Day.
Fondly addressing the students in this unconventional school as ‘Ajji’ meaning grandmother, their teacher Sheetal says that it is really challenging to teach elderlies.
“Dealing with ajjis requires a lot of patience. Their pace of learning, understanding and grasping is slow. Sometimes they even forget lessons taught in the previous classes Being stringent with elderly whom I respect is not easy. But despite these problems, they don’t miss classes,” says Sheetal.
There are no grades and exams in this school and anyone aged 60 or above are eligible to join. Sheetal teaches alphabets and numbers in Marathi.
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)