Just after lunch, Kantabai Laxman More makes the short walk to her school – nothing but a thatched shed put up under a mango tree that’s much younger than her. And she is, sometimes, accompanied by her grandson.
All the other grandmothers from this village in Thane in the Indian state of Maharashtra join her in the hut for their daily lessons. And, their teacher is none other than her daughter-in-law, Shital Prakash More.
On March 8, Aajibaichi Shala – which means school for grannies – will turn one, and now, everyone in the village is literate.
On International Women’s Day 2016, the school opened with 30 grandmothers as students but one of them – the oldest at 92 –died late last year. It was founded with the help of Motiram Dalal Charitable Trust founder Dilip Dalal and by a local activist-teacher Yogendra Bangar.
Denied education when young, these grannies love the feeling of going to school. Having suffered the shame several times for being able to only make thumb impressions, these grannies have picked up a lesson or two. Most importantly, they have learned to sign, thanks to the daily two-hour lessons that start at 2pm.
At a public event last year, younger women in this remote village of Phagane recited from Marathi literature. While the grannies relished the verses, one of them came to Bangar, who had been teaching at a government school in the village, and asked why couldn’t he teach them to read and write.
Phagane, some 150 kilometers southeast of India’s financial capital of Mumbai, has no internet or cellular connections. Newspapers often do not turn up in the mornings and tap water is a luxury. Most of the villagers are farmers who lead a simple life.
Bangar, who is also an award-winning teacher, immediately felt, “it was our duty to teach them those who hadn’t seen school. We provided books, slate and even a uniform to the oldies.”
Bangar walks 6km a day to reach the village as it doesn’t have any public bus transport.
When the school opened, the grannies could hardly believe it and wondered what would eventually be the outcome. Now, they have no fears or doubts about reading and writing. As news spread about the grannies, a rural development official Shri Uday Chowdhary came to inspect the school and conduct a mock test.
They surprised and convinced him to set up solar pumps for the entire village. On Republic Day on January 26, the pink-clad brigade of grannies gave speeches stunning their audience.
When Bangar surveyed the village before starting the school, he found that only the grandmothers were illiterate. Shital Prakash More offered to change that. “I have been here for the past 12 years and this school makes me proud. I see my two children and mom-in-law help each other with their lessons. I am blessed,” she said.
The school opens six days a week and is closed on Thursdays when villagers have prayer meetings. Not only has hope taken root at the school, each student is nurturing a tree bearing their names, which they planted when they began their journey into literacy.
According to UNESCO, nearly 17% of the world’s adult population is still not literate; two thirds of them are women, making gender equality even harder to achieve.
The scale of illiteracy among youth also represents an enormous challenge, with an estimated 122 million globally are illiterate, of which young women represent 60.7%.
Star student Nirmala Baban Kedar, 66, shared her happiness with Asia Times: “When I was small, I was not allowed to go to school. After marriage, I settled in this village. After so many years, now, I get to learn.”
She proudly shows her signature. For Nirmala’s age, learning was not that easy. “It takes time to grasp, but slowly I am learning. I feel good.” Slates and large clay tablets are used to teach them. Her husband Baban said: “She completes her household chores by noon to rush to the school.”
Nirmala’s classmate Gulabbai, 64, shares her story of how she missed out on education. “Those days, the schools were too far. I was not interested in going to school then, though my brother went and learnt. When Aajibaichi Shala opened, I saw all the other grannies going and became interested. Even though I think it’s a little late, it’s better late than never.”
Kantabai More’s story echoes that of her classmates. “We were three sisters and two brothers. My father never sent us [sisters] to school. We sisters stayed home, washed vessels and did other household chores. I came to this village after marriage. Now, I am happy about it.
“Earlier, when I used to go to the bank, the official there would make me wait for hours just because I couldn’t sign my name and instead used my thumb impression.
“He used to say to me, ‘Granny, to give your thumb impression, you have to wait.’ It used to embarrass me. When the shala [school] started, I couldn’t wait anymore to learn to read and write.”
Not only have the grannies gained a new lease on life through education, the village is also reaping the benefits. Water and sanitation are among the services that many in the modern world take for granted, which this village is enjoying just recently.
Now, each of its households has a toilet and the most senior student 90-year-old Sitabai Deshmukh hopes Aajibaichi Shala will bring more change for good.
It appears this tiny village is fulfilling this year’s International Women’s Day theme – Be Bold For Change.