FANGNE — It's early afternoon here in this village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra 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 tells me. "They were poor and had 10 children, so they both worked in the fields to make ends meet."

Kamlabai says the children joined their parents in the fields as soon as the were big enough to help. "Nobody ever thought about school. But now I am here trying to make up for the loss. Now I can read the alphabet 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% of adults who are illiterate in India are women.

Like a conventional school, their day begins in Fangne with an assembly prayer. After roll call they recite in unison the alphabet of the Marathi regional language, as well as multiplication tables. The grandmothers' school opened on International Women's Day in March 2016. 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.""

You can't scold or shout at them like children.

That got Banger thinking, and with the help from a charitable trust, began offering classes in a makeshift bamboo hut. On the first anniversary in March, 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 arriving. Sheetal Mure is the school's only teacher, and her own mother-in-law is one of the students.

"I teach each of them one letter 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."

She added: "They are not like children you can shout at or scold. They are grandmothers and it requires a lot of patience."

Most of the students are widows, and the school offers much-needed contact in otherwise reclusive lives 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 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 has launched several new programs exclusively focusing on female education. The aim is to improve the situation for future generations. And at least in the village of Fangne, the Grandmother's School also offers a rare chance to catch up on lost time.


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