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Never too old to learn

Unique school for grandmothers promotes basic literacy in a small community near Mumbai.

Twenty-nine grandmothers aged between 55 and 90 years old are enrolled in the special school in Fagane in Maharashtra. Narendra Kaushik

Jnabai, 85, loves doing what her youngest grandchild was doing around a decade ago -- learning the alphabet of her Marathi language by repeating the letters as the teacher reads them out.

She is proud that after a year of studying, she can recognise the alphabet, sign her name on a slate and haltingly read books on Swami Samarth, an early 19th century saint who is revered across Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh states.

Jnabai is one of the success stories from the school for grandmothers, the only one of its kind in India, in Thane district adjoining Mumbai. She is a classmate of Hoshabai, another woman in her eighties who attends with her daughter Indu Vithal Pawar, 55.

Welcome to Aajibaichi Shala, the first grandmothers' school, which has taken up the task of making the oldest women literate in Fagane village, about 125 kilometres northeast of Mumbai.

Launched on International Women's Day on March 8, 2016, the school has 29 grandmothers aged between 55 and 90 years on its rolls. Housed in a five-metre-long long hut surrounded by a protective wall, the school is financed by the Motiram Ganpat Dalal Charitable Trust, a trust aligned with the Motiram Dalal business group in Ambernath, part of Mumbai Metropolitan Region. The group is engaged in various business activities including property development.

Run jointly by the trust and Yogendra Bangar, a government school teacher, the school holds classes every afternoon from 2 to 4pm. Prakash More, the husband of teacher Sheetal More, donated the land for the school.

Mr Bangar, a teacher in a government elementary school in Fagane, said the idea for the school came to him on Feb 19, 2016, the birth anniversary of Shivaji, a 16th century warrior king who is greatly revered in Maharashtra state.

"We had decided to do a study of Shivaji's life on the occasion in the government school and invited the village elders. Our illiterate grandmothers expressed a wish to know about the great king," he said in an interview with Asia Focus.

According to Mr Bangar, the trust provides for uniforms (pink saris), books, notebooks, slates, pencils and teacher Sheetal More's salary.

Classes are held in the afternoon after the grandmothers finish their household chores. When their work is done, they put on their pink saris, pack their Marathi alphabet books and slates in their school bags and set off on foot for the school with their grandchildren in tow. The grandchildren of 10 of the women are students of the government school.

Teacher Yogendra Bangar helped to establish the school, which holds classes for its senior students from 2-4pm daily. Narendra Kaushik

The school is just a few hundred metres from Fagane, a community of 70 households comprising different Hindu castes, Muslims and Buddhists. Most of the grandmothers are widowed and do farm labour for a living. Some stay with their sons while others like Jnabai live on their own as their sons have migrated to Mumbai or Thane to work. Hoshabai lives with her daughter who has married off her children.

The bamboo hut that serves as the school is located in natural surroundings. Each grandmother has planted a tree on the grounds, and last year the school won an award for having promoted forest cover. Large replicas of Marathi letters and numerals are painted on tiles arrayed on the ground near the school.

Mr Bangar says classes will continue until all the grandmothers become fluent in reading Marathi and gain a basic knowledge of the English alphabet. "We plan to start teaching them the English ABC soon," he said.

In October last year, the chief of the Thane district panchayat (local government authority), Uday Chowdhary, visited the grandmothers' school and was happy to note that all of the women enrolled there could sign on their slates.

It matters little that many of the elderly pupils are hard of hearing and that teacher Sheetal More sometimes has to shout to be heard. A common refrain among the grandmothers is that as their lives draw to a close, they are happy to have finally been given a chance to learn how to read and write.

With contributions from Mr Bangar and the trust, Fagane, a nondescript hamlet that does not even have its own panchayat, is on way to becoming a model village. All households now have access to drinking water, drainage and toilets.

A doctor conducts a medical checkup at the school for grandmothers in Fagane. Narendra Kaushik

Besides making its senior students literate, the school plans to impart some other skills, such as quiltmaking, said Mr Bangar. Ms More told Asia Focus that before Raksha Bandhan -- a Hindu festival when girls tie rakhi (threads) on the wrists of their brothers symbolising bond of protection -- in August last year, the grandmothers prepared 2,000 rakhi.

Dilip Dalal, head of the Motiram Dalal Group and the charitable trust, says grandmothers are part of India's heritage. He says the idea behind the school is that the grandmothers must get the respect they deserve in their families and the society.

Mr Dalal said the grandmothers' school had also inspired more children to take up studies. "We have 50-60 new students in the government school in Fagane since we started the grandmothers' school. Apparently, children are taking inspiration from their grannies," he said.

Apart from financing the grandmothers' school, the trust supplies teachers in around 35 government schools in Ambernath and surrounding communities.

Mr Dalal wants the school to run as long as there are grandmothers who want to learn. "When the present grandmothers are no more, new ones will take over from them," he said.

Surprisingly, despite noble intentions and the success of their first venture, the managers of the grandmothers' school have so far failed to replicate the experience.

"We tried in a couple of villages but found no takers among either the grandmothers or their relatives. But we will try again," Mr Bangar said.

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