It’s 8.30 pm and Masurkar is back home “early” today. She works as a teacher in a municipal school by day and moonlights as an assistant accountant at a gymkhana nearby. Between the two jobs and household chores, she, nevertheless, finds time to study for her doctorate programme. “I don’t sleep more than four hours a day. This has been the pattern ever since I was 18, when I joined a night school to pursue my education.
Masurkar has spent the past decade working towards altering her circumstances. “My father moved to Mumbai from Ratnagiri district for a job in the mills but had to return when the mills closed down. Other jobs were difficult to come by as he had not studied beyond Class II. Whenever he came across a newspaper or a letter, even a receipt, he would try reading it. Watching him, I knew that education was the only way out of our misery,” Masurkar says.
She worked as she completed school, followed by graduation and an MPhil. She attributes a large part of her journey — and that of many like her — to Maharashtra’s unique tradition of night schools. “Numerous children and countless people have managed to break out of the cycle of poverty by educating themselves at night schools while earning their living,” she says.
The first such night school in Maharashtra was started by reformer Jyotiba Phule in 1885 near Pune. In the 1950s, private trusts, with government aid, opened several such institutions in Mumbai for mill workers keen on education. They were also thronged by the many migrant boys who worked in the city’s numerous restaurants. “They would do the day shifts at work and attend night school,” says Ankush Jagdale, a former headmaster with a night school.
Monish Mirza arrived in Mumbai four years ago to help his family’s finances, wrenched out of his life with his grandparents in Saharanpur, UP. He began with odd jobs but soon realised that he would be stuck all his life unless he was “qualified”. Last year, the 16-year-old got himself enrolled at the Dyan Vikas night school in Kurla, where he is currently in Class IX. While his friends and classmates go back home after school for a meal and a good night’s sleep, Monish moonlights as an assistant to a carpenter, making frames for banners that he puts up across the city. He doesn’t dream too big. “For now, I just want to clear Class IX so that I can join a vocational course or become an insurance sales agent,” he says.
The city has a rich history of dreams coming true: the controversial “encounter specialist” Daya Nayak worked in an Udupi by day and attended school at night. Dalit writer and founder of the Dalit Panthers, JV Pawar, studied in one. Yet, the concept of night schools remains relatively unknown, and uncelebrated. “The only reference in mainstream popular culture came in Simmba,” Masurkar says, referring to Ranveer Singh’s latest film, where his character, an orphan and a petty criminal, joins a night school to become a police inspector and, much like Masurkar, believes he owes his career to the institution of night schools.
“At one time, Mumbai alone had well over 200 such schools,” says Jagdale. The city still houses close to 130, but, over the years, the network has come under stress. Several policy changes, especially over the last five years, have caused a crunch in resources. “The first big blow was in 2002, when the government stopped giving night schools the grant for salary as well as a chunk of non-salary expenses. The rents we had to pay to Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) schools became unaffordable. Other amenities suffered too,” says Jagdale, who now works with Masoom, an NGO that collaborates with the government to help create a sustainable model for night schools. In 2016, the government issued a regulation, taking away the “special school” status bringing them on a par with day schools. “But since many night schools don’t have as many students, the number of teachers assigned to night schools has been slashed. Schools with less than 20 students were also asked to shut down,” says Jagdale.
In Simmba, children gather in an open space under streetlights and a single teacher conducts all classes. In reality, night schools function in regular school spaces from 6.30-9.30 pm. They include Classes VIII-X and are attended largely by older, adult dropouts. “In Dongri, for instance, night school students are mostly conservancy workers and police constables hoping for a promotion. Any promotion or admission to a skill-training institute requires one to have cleared Class X,” says Jagdale, who worked as a night school teacher for over four decades.
At the Maharashtra Night School in Tilak Nagar, 35-year-old Nitin Bhalekar and his wife Poonam, a Class X student, watch their two children playing in the school courtyard. “They are an important reason why we both decided to rejoin school,” says Nitin, as he calls out to his 11-year-old son Jayesh.
A Class VIII dropout, Nitin started working with a power supply company as a labour hand when he was a teenager. Over the years, he picked up skills from electrician and engineering colleagues but did not have the education to apply for those posts. But it was the day that his son came back from his English medium school with a note that jolted him.
The note read: “The orals will be held in a couple of days”. “We spent the next two days asking people what ‘orals’ meant. We laughed at our own panic when we found out the meaning but it also made us realise that we will remain clueless about our children’s education if we don’t educate ourselves first,” says Nitin, who wants to apply for a better position in his office after clearing his Class XII exams.
The three hours of night school is the only time many of these students get to study. “But they are self-motivated. Also, the night school teachers are often more dedicated. They are aware that with neither the finances nor the time for tuition, the night school is the only opportunity these students have,” says Jagdale. These reasons, says Nikita Ketkar, a former IAS officer who set up Masoom, have resulted in a fairly good pass percentage, even if the number of students is dwindling. “The government’s no-retention policy up to Class IX led to a fall in numbers. In the last five years, both aid money and the number of teachers have reduced,” says Ketkar.
Each school, says Jagdale, is a case study of aspiration and grit. He cites the example of the Dyan Vikas night school, where the majority of students are from Rajasthani migrant families of cobblers and shoemakers. Since this part of Kurla did not have a high school nearby, most students would join the reputed night school after their primary education. Although that has changed now, Dyan Vikas continues to be popular. “That’s also because it allows the children to help their parents in shoemaking during the day,” says Ghanshyam Tripathi, the school’s headmaster, with over 25 years of experience behind him. Most of the students in this school are SC/ST, while Muslims make up 5 per cent. Many are first generation school-goers, and well over 40 per cent students are girls — a massive departure from the 1960s when, says JV Pawar, almost no night school in Mumbai had any girl students.
Meanwhile, Masurkar, who is doing a PhD on Hindi Dalit literature from Mumbai University, is working steadily towards a new life, intent on repaying a debt. “I had an offer for a job as a lecturer in a college but taking it up would mean less time to study. Until I finish my doctorate, I choose to teach in a day school five days a week. Once a week, I go back to my night school, to give back what I gained…education.”