They say it’s never too late to learn: Well one unique school in the Indian state of Maharashtra is proving there’s some truth to this old saying.
As Bismillah Geelani reports, the students at India’s first Grandmothers’ School are forging a new path, as they learn how to read and write, just a little bit later in life.
It’s early afternoon here in Maharashtra’s Fangne village and dozens of elderly women wearing bright pink saris are walking down the main street in single file.
Backpacks are slung over their shoulders and they’re carrying abacus slates in their hands
They’re on their way to the Ajjibachi Shala, or the Grandmothers School.
At 60, Kamlabai is the school’s youngest student and says she is reliving her childhood.
“I was just 12 when I was married off. My parents didn’t send me to school,” she tell me.”
“They were poor and had 10 children so they both worked in the fields to make ends meet. We also joined them later and nobody ever thought about school. But now I am here trying to make up for the loss. I can now read alphabets and sign my name. It feels so good. It is like being a child again.”
Kamlabai has 29 classmates, all with a similar background. According to the 2015 UNESCO Global Education Report nearly 70 percent of adults who are illiterate in India are women.
Like a conventional school, their day begins with an assembly prayer. After roll call they recite Marathi alphabets and multiplication tables in chorus.
The grandmothers’ school opened on International Women’s Day, in March last year. Social activist Yoginder Banger established the school, but the inspiration, he says, came from the women themselves.
“When I started working in this village some of these women said, ‘you keep on talking about the importance of education but what about us? We also want to be able to write our name like others and stop using thumbprints, but how can we do that?’”
Banger continued, “that got me thinking that they didn’t get the opportunity to go to school but are so eager to learn. So I decided to start the school for them.”
With help from a charitable trust, Bangar started classes in a makeshift bamboo hut. But on the first anniversary the school was shifted into a new concrete building.
Classes run for two hours in the afternoon, six days a week. They are timed to enable the women to complete their household chores before attending school. Sheetal Mure is the school’s only teacher. One of the students is her own mother-in-law, and she says teaching her elders is a daunting task.
“I teach each of them one alphabet a day,” Mure said. “We are going very slowly but many of them have weak memory and they forget, which means going through the lessons over and over again. Some of them are hard of hearing and I have to be louder. They are not like children you can shout at or scold. They are grandmothers and it requires a lot of patience.”
Most of these women are widows. The school offers much-needed respite from the restrictions and reclusive life that tradition seeks to impose on them. Even their pink uniform symbolizes a departure from the age-old custom that requires widows to wear white clothes as a sign of mourning.
Sixty-five-year-old Anusuyabai enjoys every bit of her time at the school.
“This is a good thing that has happened to us,” she said. “We are really happy about it. We come here, sit together, chat and enjoy the atmosphere and company of other women. It is fun.”
While women in India continue to lag behind in literacy, the government is trying to address the issue with a slew of programs exclusively focusing on women’s education.
That may improve the situation for younger generations, but many older women feel they have already missed out. For at least some of them, initiatives like the Grandmother’s School offers a rare chance to catch up on lost time.