All his life, 56-year-old Pratap Singh Bora has been sticking his thumb in ink to sign documents. He didn't go to school when he was a kid. Little did he know that he would learn to write his first words at a coronavirus lockdown center during a global pandemic.
Bora is a construction laborer working in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. He was returning to his native Nepal in late March when India announced a three-week coronavirus lockdown (the lockdown has since been extended to May 3). The government shut off public transport and sealed borders. Like tens of millions of migrant laborers across India, Bora was stuck.
On April 10, Indian authorities housed Bora and dozens of other stranded migrants in a school converted into a relief camp in the town of Tanakpur along the India-Nepal border. India has set up more than 20,000 camps across the country to provide food and shelter to poor people affected by the lockdown.
But at the Tanakpur relief camp, residents get something extra: an opportunity to learn.
It's one of 10 centers in Uttarakhand's Champawat district where authorities are running literacy programs for illiterate migrant workers. About 200 inhabitants are learning to read and write for the first time, says Ramesh Chandra Purohit, chief education officer for Champawat district.
"We wanted the laborers to get something out of the lockdown and not just kill time," says Purohit.
Purohit explains that Champawat sits on the Indo-Nepal border and sees a huge influx of poor, illiterate laborers. Bora was one of them. He came to India nearly two decades ago to find work and usually goes back home twice a year to visit his family.
When the relief camp organizers first tried to get him enrolled in the literacy program a few weeks ago, Bora was hesitant.
"He was embarrassed that he was the oldest of all the students in the class," says municipal official Prema Thakur who teaches the laborers. Most of the students are in their thirties, says Thakur. "He used to say, 'what am I going to do learning to read and write at this age?'" says Thakur.
But Thakur and her colleagues motivated him. They brought notebooks and pencils for their students. And after just two days of classes, Bora was able to write his name in Hindi, Thakur says. In fact, he learned faster than many of his younger classmates, including his 30-year-old son, Thakur adds.
"It felt really nice [when I wrote my name]," Bora says. "When I was a kid, we used to live in a hilly area and there was no school nearby."
Bora says his family was also too poor to send him to school.
"We feel like kids again when our class begins and the teacher comes," says 26-year-old Navidad, who's also staying at the Tanakpur facility. "We feel like we're in school."
Navidad, who goes by one name, learned to read and write when he was a kid but dropped out in middle school. Now, he's helping his lockdown classmates with their homework.
"The teacher tells others to come to me if they have any doubts after class," Navidad says.
In addition to literacy programs, the relief camp also has yoga classes and an initiative to help the migrant workers quit tobacco, says Purohit. The camp organizers screen movies and encourage those who are literate to read magazines and newspapers that they provide. In the evenings they play a popular Indian singing game called antakshari, in which participants have to sing a song that starts with the syllable that their competitor's song ended with.
That's different from how laborers stranded in some other parts of the country are coping with the lockdown.
In India's financial capital Mumbai, hundreds of migrant workers defied curfew earlier this month and thronged a railway station. They were demanding that the government allow them to go back to their villages. In the end, police used batons to disperse the crowd.
Purohit says entertainment activities conducted in their relief camps help avoid a similar situation by keeping the workers engaged.
Utilizing the lockdown time to teach migrant laborers how to read and write is a great idea, says Vachaspati Shukla, assistant professor at the Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research in Gujarat, India.
"If possible, it must be implemented wherever migrant laborers are staying [in camps]," Shukla told NPR in an email.
Shukla says laborers mostly come from states that have very low adult literacy rates. India has more than one-third of the world's illiterate adults.
Literacy programs for adults in temporary settings like relief camps are not new. Refugee camps have had similar programs for years. But conducting reading and writing classes in facilities for people stranded due to the coronavirus is a novel idea. Such shelters in many parts of India lack basic sanitation let alone learning opportunities for their inhabitants.
Purohit says he and his colleagues are planning to conduct a short examination at the end of the lockdown for the laborers who've learned to read and write. Those who pass will be awarded a certificate as a sign of their achievement. He hopes they will continue to study after they leave.
Thakur, the teacher, says she's observed personal growth in all of her students. She's now teaching them numbers and the English alphabet. One 19-year-old has already filled his notebook, she says.
As for Bora, Thakur says, he's become enthusiastic. And not just about studying but also in activities like singing and dancing.
"It's like the inner child in him is awake again," Thakur says.