Muttom in Cheppad village is no different from the hundreds of other verdant settlements that can be found by the backwaters of Alappuzha. About an hour’s drive from Aleppy town, it is a settlement that falls under the Cheppad Grama Pachayat. However, a recent turn of events that involves a particular enrolment in the state government’s literacy drive has made Muttom the talk of town. Three months ago, 96-year-old Karthyayini Amma was enrolled in the district’s literacy mission programme, making her the oldest student in the whole of Alappuzha, and perhaps even the state.
“It was during one of the surveys done for the state’s drive to achieve 100% literacy that lead to Karthyayini Amma being identified,” said Ullas Kumar, the bespectacled, serious-looking secretary of the Cheppad Grama Panchayat.
In January 2018, when the panchayat’s formidable literacy brigade arrived at the doorsteps of Laksham Veedu Colony, a government housing scheme, where Karthyayini Amma resides, several of the aged and illiterate ladies of the settlement nervously giggled, shied away or busied themselves in order to escape being noticed. In the midst of this mayhem, the 96-year-old emerged out of her room and volunteered to enrol, stumping in equal measure the residents of the colony and the literacy workers.
“She was eager to study and we enrolled her in the primary level. When the lists were prepared and sent to the State Literacy Mission office, she caught their attention and subsequently caught the media’s attention. Now she is a superstar,” says Sathi, a talkative Prerak in-charge of the ward, which includes Muttom-Chittoor.
Although the literacy mission claims to have identified her, Karthyayini Amma’s dream to study was reportedly sparked two years ago when she saw her 60-year-old daughter, Ammini Amma, pass the literacy mission’s course, which is equivalent to Class 10 in the formal education system, with flying colours.
“Every Sunday, Karthyayini Amma would see her 60-year-old daughter pack her bags and leave for school. This intrigued her and she too decided to study,” says Sathi.
Today, Karthyayini Amma sits by the doorstep of her house and learns Maths and Malayalam. Her academic tasks this year include learning the multiplication tables up to 3 and mastering the Malayalam alphabet. Including her, Laksham Veedu Colonyhas over 30 aged residents, who work as domestic helps or engage in agricultural labour, enrolled in the literacy programme. And although most other 60-70-year-old students head to the nearby government school for their weekly classes, Karthyayini Amma is accorded special consideration and is tutored at her house, owing to her age.
“She grasps her lessons despite suffering from a slight memory loss due to her age. We have classes 5 days a week. Sometimes, when we feel overloaded with academics, we sing old thiruvathira songs or she shares stories about her life,” says Lekha Raju, Karthyayini Amma’s tutor and next-door neighbour.
Recollecting her childhood, Karthyayini Amma said that her father, late Krishna Pillai was a well-known educator, who taught several prominent figures from Kerala. He initiated his young students into the world of academics, teaching them write the Malayalam alphabet – Hari Shri – on dried palm leaves and sand. Karthyayini Amma too claims that she learnt from her father up to Class 4.
“I used to watch my father teach 50-odd children how to read and write. Back then, each student had to pay 4 chakrams (Travancore currency) to enrol with my father,” she says with a close-lipped smile stretching across her face.
On turning 12, she, unlike her two sisters, reportedly gave up studying and went to work at nearby temples to wash vessels and sweep the premises. Six years later, at the age of 18, she got married to her husband, also a Krishna Pillai, and gave birth to 6 children. When their youngest child was reportedly just 28 days old, her husband died, leaving her to fend for the family. Thus, Karthyayini Amma resumed her work at temples, bidding farewell to her dream of receiving a formal education.
It was only several decades later when life almost came a full circle that she found the opportunity to re-start her academic journey, thanks to the Kerala Literacy Mission, and her folks couldn’t be more happy for her. The residents of Laksham Veedu Colony, including Karthyayini Amma’s teacher, Lekha, are positive that she will breeze through her education
“She is very alert and agile, unlike many in her age. Ask her to walk and she will rival PT Usha. She’s that fast,” chuckles one of her neighbours.
However, Karthyayini Amma brushes aside these comments about her remarkable good health and reveals that she has stopped eating any rice-based foods due to an age-related loss of appetite. To this, her 64–year-old daughter Ponamma promptly retorts that her mother only doesn’t eat rice, but devours all bakery items including cake, Milk Bikis, neiappam and even Horlicks.
“Cheppad has achieved the record of enrolling the most number of students this year – we are 54 from Muttom-Chittoor itself. Nearly 80% of them are above 70 years old. However, Karthayini Amma is the oldest student we have ever enrolled in the history of this panchayat and even the district,” says Sathi
In the coming year, Karthyayini Amma will turn 97 and enter the state’s Class 4 equivalency course, a big milestone in her academic journey. This will introduce her to English, which will be integrated into her syllabus. However, Karthyayini Amma has her future chalked out and doesn’t plan to stop at Class 4.
“If I don’t die before that, I want to complete Class 10, just like my daughter,” she chuckles, revealing her shiny gums.