Sheetal More (26), the sole teacher at ajibaichi shala or granny’s school located in Fangane village at Murbad in Thane district, says proudly, “All my 29 students can sign now.” One of the objectives of the seniors’ education initiative was to ensure all the students, women above 60, learn to sign, putting an end to thumb impressions on official documents. The school was started on International Women’s Day, March 8, last year by professor Yogendra Bangar. While the school had started out with 30 students, one of the “grannies” passed away last year.

The unusual nature of the school, that also has a 92-year-old student, demands unusual teaching methods. Sheetal, who had left education after she failed Class 10, is taking her SSC exams this year again. She says, “One of the things that I have to do is ensure I do not praise any student individually.”

Explaining the reason behind what would, at first glance, not come across as the best method, Sheetal says, “If I praise one aaji (granny), the other aajis feel bad and complain that if I would focus on them, even they would perform as well. Over a period of time, I would either praise the entire class at once, or not praise anyone. It has worked so far. I have learnt many aspects of teaching on the go.”

What further complicates things for Sheetal is that one of the first benchers in the class, Kantabai More, is her mother-in-law. “Sometimes I have to be strict with the aajis if they are not focusing. It would feel very odd to pull up my mother-in-law in the class,” Sheetal says, bursting out laughing before adding, “But you cannot get angry at them. They feel really upset.”

Other challenges Sheetal faces include the deteriorating senses of her students. “Some of them are hard of hearing so I go near them and explain things. Same is the case with some of the aajis who suffer from poor eyesight. The oldest student we have is a 92-year-old aaji. Her hand shivers when she tries to write something on a slate. In that case, I hold her hand while she writes. So far we are focusing on barakhadi (alphabets) and numbers,” she says.

The uniform at ajibaichi shala is a pink sari. “Some of them have lost their husbands hence they were not willing to wear green saris we had earlier decided on. Hence, we changed the uniform to pink sari,” Sheetal explains.

The structure from where ajibaichi shala operates is undergoing renovation. In the meantime, it operates from the only school in the village that teaches up to Class 5. It is run by the zilla parishad. The classes are between 2 pm and 4 pm on all days except Thursday when most “grannies” attend a satsang and, hence, cannot make it to school. Gangubai Kedar (65) says, “When we were at the age when most people went to school, we did not have the time to attend school. We had to wash utensils and clothes, and generally the atmosphere was such that no one wanted girls to get educated. So we are glad to get this opportunity to learn, even though much later in life.”

Sheetal adds, “I think the only reason we could run the school is that the aajis were so excited about it. Unless there is some work, none of them like to miss a single day at school.” The idea for opening the shala came to Bangar after he found that nearly all the women in the village were illiterate and unable to recite the epics on Shivaji Jayanti. The grandmothers too expressed interest in being taught so they could read epics and also sign their own names on official documents.

The grannies gather inside the school today and start with a poem, “Me mothi zhalyavar shalet jaaein dada barobar (When I grow up I will go to school with my elder brother).” Some of them forget the lines and all of them stop abruptly. When their teacher asks why they stopped reciting the poem, all of them start giggling, like schoolgirls do.