Usha Teacher clearly remembers the incident at the Sivapuram Higher Secondary School in Iritty, Kannur district in the 1990s. A school student had a mental breakdown in class, her behaviour changing completely. In most places back then, especially in rural areas, mental health issues were misunderstood, with many falsely believing that a 'ghost' had possessed the human body. Even as worried teachers gathered around the student wondering how to calm her down and whispering among themselves about a 'ghost', there was one voice of reason. It belonged to Physics teacher KK Shailaja, who clearly articulated that the child may be having psychiatric issues. The child’s parents were also convinced and she was referred to a psychiatrist.
"That's how Shailaja has always been- practical, logical and grounded," says Usha Teacher. K Usha has known Shailaja since she was in class six. Just a year apart, they both studied at the Madathil Higher Secondary School. They then went on to become teachers at the Sivapuram Higher Secondary School, where Kerala's Health Minister worked for 23 years, before she took voluntary retirement and became a full-time politician.
Though politics became her full-time vocation only in 2004, Shailaja Teacher, as she is known, grew up in a house that literally breathed politics. Her biggest influence was her maternal grandmother MK Kalyani, a matriarch who wielded a lot of influence among the small population in Iritty.
"She was a staunch Communist who helped many Communist leaders hide during the British era. When smallpox was killing people across states, it was people like Kalyani who helped the public in many ways. She encouraged quarantining even then," says K Bhaskaran, Shailaja Teacher's husband and fellow Communist.
Shailaja Teacher remembers her grandmother with pride. "I used to go with her when she went out, I used to be in awe of the respect she commanded. Even alcoholics in the village used to be scared of her, she used to pour water on them," she reminisces with a smile.
Shailaja Teacher, who was raised by her mother, her grandmother and her aunt Muthu, grew up listening to stories of her two grand uncles - MK Ramunny and MK Krishnan. Ramunny who was part of the Red Volunteers was jailed during Left struggles against the zamindari system and was severely injured in custodial torture. He passed away after being released from jail, much before Shailaja Teacher was born.
She, however, remembers her other uncle well. MK Krishnan was arrested in 1950 for being a part of the farmers' struggles. He was lodged in the Salem Central Prison on February 11, 1950, when the police shot down 22 prisoners, who were members of the Left, for protesting against their ill-treatment in jail. Krishnan was one of the prisoners who was shot, but managed to survive.
"A bullet grazed his head. He had health issues until he died. I grew up listening to their stories," says Shailaja Teacher.
Born into a Communist family, it was perhaps only natural that Shailaja Teacher became part of the Students Federation of India in her school. She later became a member of the Kerala Socialist Youth Federation which became the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the party’s youth wing, in 1980. Shailaja Teacher and Bhaskaran Master worked together in the DYFI- while he was district committee president, she served as a member of the committee. They married in 1981 and later moved closer to the Pazhassi school in Mattannur where Bhaskaran Master taught for years till he retired as the headmaster.
For almost two decades, she climbed through the rungs of the DYFI and then the CPI(M). She also became the Editor of Sthree Shabdam, a monthly publication and the official mouthpiece of the Kerala State Unit of AIDWA (All India Democratic Women's Association), an independent, Left-oriented women's organization.
“Many of us teachers who worked in the school believed in the Left ideology. There were a few like Shailaja who were very active, even in organising protests. I remember this one time when the then Chief Minister Karunakaran came to Kannur for the youth festival, Shailaja and others raised black flags at him and were detained,” Usha Teacher says.
Shailaja Teacher contested for the first time from the highly volatile Koothuparamba constituency in 1996, just two years after the Koothuparamabu firing in which five DYFI activists were shot dead for protesting against a minister.
After being elected as an MLA in 1996, Shailaja Teacher took leave from school. However, by 2004, she opted for voluntary retirement. “The party wanted me to serve full-time and therefore I had to leave teaching,” Shailaja Teacher says.
In 2006, she won from the Peravoor constituency, but in 2011, lost the seat to Congress leader Sunny Joseph. It was after her victory in 2016 from Koothuparamba that she was inducted as the Health Minister in the Pinarayi cabinet.
Her work as Kerala’s Health Minister is well documented - the meticulous fight against the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018 and COVID-19 first wave in 2020 won her international acclaim. But no one who has known Shailaja Teacher over the years found this surprising. “She was always a problem solver. Someone who knew how to think logically and tackle an issue,” says Akhila, who was her student for three years, from 1987-1990.
Akhila adds that Shailaja Teacher inspired many like her to take up teaching as a profession. “She was an inspiration. She was also very invested in ensuring that girls were educated. I remember this one girl whose parents wanted to pull her out of school, but Teacher convinced them that her education was important.”
Bhasakaran Master says everyone asks the family their reaction to Shailaja Teacher’s achievements. But he points out that the question arises from a lack of knowledge on how Communist families behave. “The party is like our body part, we live with it and for it. When Shailaja does all these things as a Health Minister, we only think that she is doing something for the good of people and we feel satisfied on their behalf,” he says.
This election has once again ignited the debate about poor representation of women in the Kerala Assembly. After all, the state, which boasts of a matrilineality among some communities, has never had a woman Chief Minister. Both Shailaja Teacher and Bhaskaran Master are clear in their dismissal about such a debate.
Bhaskaran Master asks whether Kerala ever thought of Nayanar when EMS was an active politician. “Same way, there is no need to think of who is next,” he says.
“Only one person can become the Chief Minister. If there is a situation where there is only one woman in a group who is capable of leading the rest, she will step in as the CM. Here, in Kerala, at present, we have Pinarayi Vijayan, and so, the question of a female CM is not relevant. He led the state through the pandemic and other challenges. He has bold decision-making power and is capable of protecting the people of Kerala,” says Shailaja Teacher.
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