Aajibaichi Shala is a school for grandmothers in Thane district, Maharashtra.
Dressed in bright pink saris, the grannies all sit together in a single classroom and learn to write, read and multiply, all in Marathi.
The school was opened on March 8, 2016, Women’s Day. It’s 27 grannies are aged 60 to 90. On Republic Day this year, they moved to a new, bigger plot.
Sitabai Deshmukh, 90, is the oldest student at the school. Her youngest granddaughter, eight-year-old Anushka, sometimes walks with her to the class. “Never in my long life had I thought I would get a chance to go to a school,” Sitabai says. “When I was young, my family was poor and girls didn’t have the chance to go to schools. I have had a new life for the last year.”
Her grandchildren also help her with homeworks. “We have fun studying together,” Anushka says.
On Republic Day, Thursday, the school moved to a new venue with bigger space and a garden, which made the grannies happy.
Here, they salute the flag at the Phangane zilla parishad School. They joined local kids at the venue and sang the national anthem together.
“I feel proud watching the grandmothers taking part in such an occasion, that too as students,” says Dilip Dalal, founder of Motiram Dalal Charitable Trust, which helped co-found the school with local zilla parishad teacher and activist, Yogendra Bangar.
“I started this school after one of the grandmothers said to me that she wished she could read at least the holy books. That’s when I felt the need to do this,” says Bangar. He built the single-room school with help from the Motiram Dalal trust but he buys all the supplies and pay for the utilities himself.
“I do not accept donations. It doesn’t cost much and I feel this is my baby and I should be one looking after it,” he says. “Also, I’m a teacher and this is my duty.”
The new space is larger and meant to urge grannies from neighbouring villages to join the school too. Eight more are expected shortly.
Shital More, 30, is the sole teacher at the one-room school. Shital, who is a Class 10 graduate, moved to Phangane after marriage.
“A year ago, when Bangar Sir asked me to teach the grandmothers, I was very happy,” she says.
“I teach them how to sign their names, read in Marathi and multiply,” More adds. “They are obedient and eager students,” More says. “My mother-in-law attends the school and my husband, Prakash More, has donated land for the new venue, so this school is very much close to my heart.”
The garden surrounding the new schoolroom has one tree for each of the grannies. Here, Kantabai More, 65, holds up the sign that will adorn her jackfruit sapling. The students are each responsible for their tree. “Now that all of us old ladies are in same class, we have a lot of fun gardening,” she says. “We also go on day trips. Dilipji has promised us a picnic that we are all looking forward to.”