Just another week in India, really: tracking demonetization woes, with the north in the grip of a bitter cold wave; the southernmost state out on the beach to defend its cultural freedom; and a horrifying pedophile serial-killer finally caught. In the midst of these disturbing reports, a lovely story suddenly came my way about a school for grannies, the Aajibaichi Shala in Phangane Village, Thane, Maharashtra. Opened on March 8, 2016, on International Women’s Day, by the Motiram Dalal Charitable Trust and Yogendra Bangar, an award-winning teacher from Phangane Zilla Parishad’s primary school, the school has twenty-eight students between the ages of sixty and ninety. They wear pink saris as uniform and are learning to read and write. Their grandchildren help them with homework. Soon, it will be time for unit tests. Denied an education when young, these grannies love going to school. They are ashamed, for one, of having to make thumb-impressions at the bank.
It was very moving to hear their soft voices and see their happiness. Ramabai, 87, who lives alone in a thatched house said, “I am like a ripe fruit that might fall off the branch any moment. I couldn’t go to school as a child and remained illiterate all my life. But I don’t want to die illiterate”.
What a deep hunger for self-respect and dignity in that remark. The gift of vidya is priceless. Properly given, received and used, it alone can give us health and happiness. Indeed, the trust set up this school not only to empower the grannies but also to teach society to respect its elders.
This story brought back another moving tale. I heard it long ago from a Maharashtrian fashion photographer who had set out alone on a hike through the rugged green folds of the ghats to think over a family problem. It came on to rain and the sky grew dark. The young man looked around and spotted a hut. He found an old peasant there, who let him stay the night. There were a few chickens in the hut, and a goat huddled in a corner. The old man got back to pulling at a churn and the young man silently helped him. Next morning, when the young man offered his host money, he was gently refused.
“HE wouldn’t have liked it,” said the old man mysteriously.
“He was a great man. He came this way many years ago. I gave him water. Like you, he wanted to give me a gift, but not money”.
“Give me pen and paper”.
Intrigued, the young man produced them from his small backpack.
With great care, the otherwise unlettered old man wrote two words in Devnagari script. The words were neatly formed as though someone had written them out for him and he had faithfully copied this person’s handwriting.
“Maruti Smaran”, read the young man.
“It is my name. He said I should at least know how to write my name”, said the old man.
“And what was his name?”
Such pure and tender love amidst the encircling gloom is also our India.