On the penultimate stop on the bus service between Sholayur and Moolagangal in the Attapady region of Kerala, the driver stops for barely a few seconds in front a bright blue and yellow building.
As we descend from the bus, a middle-aged man with white hair is chasing a small child into the building before turning to close the gates. A group of fifteen students, who have been watching the chase with interest, scurry back in as soon as the man slams the gate shut.
They quickly immerse themselves in the first book they can get their hands on, and sing out a synchronised chorus of “Good Morning Sirrrr”, when the man walks into the room.
We are in Vellakulam, a nondescript hamlet tucked away on the edge of Attapady, almost spilling into Tamil Nadu. It is one of 192 hamlets in the region, all of which look similar, with fading, ramshackle houses and goat-sheds surrounded by farmlands.
The blue and yellow building that stands brightly out from its surroundings is a school – the only school in a 15km radius. Unlike its counterparts in the district centre of Palakkad, this school has just one classroom and one teacher, teaching all students from the first standard to the fourth standard at the same time. For the students of the adivasi community, who study here, it is also the only viable chance to get an education.
With the nearest school located 15 kilometres of non-existent roads away in Sholayur, 39-year-old Ramakrishnan took it upon himself to gather five-year-olds in Vellakulam and begin teaching them the basics of reading and writing.
"In 2000, I used to work without a guaranteed salary at the Sholayur school when I saw that children in Varakampady, Vechappathi and Vellakullam have never seen paper or pencil,” he says.
Back then, the school ran out of the goat-shed of one of the houses in the ooru. Ramakrishnan’s first teacher’s chair was an ural, a traditional grinding stone used to grind cereals like ragi and rice.
For the first year, Ramakrishnan had to turn into a shepherd to open the school in the mornings. “A person in the village allowed us to use his goat-shed. So, I would take the goats out for grazing in the morning and then start classes, before bringing the goats back in the evening," he explains.
"In a year, people in the village got together to build a small bamboo shelter that stood for eight years. We received a Rs 25,000 honorarium from the Panchayat for building it," he adds.
By 2003, 24 students had been enrolled into the school. For their midday meals, Ramakrishnan would prepare Kanji (rice gruel) every day. Today, thanks to the government’s midday meal programme, Ramakrishnan is able to provide his pupils with rice, dal and vegetables every day. “We also get eggs once a week and milk twice a week now,” says Ramakrishnan
The school had no infrastructure to speak of either. “There were no benches so everyone sat in a circle, face-to-face and this meant there was more interaction between students. We would sometimes do it outside” says Ramakrishnan.
Of the many duties he has, Ramakrishnan has often had to chase after naughty students who run away from the school during break time. With the school sitting against the backdrop of picturesque hills and lush green slopes, the children often want to run off to roll tires down the hill or take baths in the creeks running along the valley.
"Children are a nuisance sometimes. During breaks, they run outside and I have to go, catch them and bring them back to the shed. But this is to be expected. Who really wants to study?" he asks with a smile.
Given the circumstances in which he teaches, Ramakrishnan has often had to invent new teaching methods – one innovation is the use of picture cards to tell stories that teach. One card, for instance, depicts pictures of a kooman (owl), a kozhi (chicken) and a kurukkan (fox). After the students have learned the three words, they each have to form stories connecting them.
Ramakrishnan says that he adapted this method from the Rishi Valley, a boarding school started in Andhra Pradesh that pioneered alternative teaching methods. His method, Ramakrishnan adds, promotes understanding of concepts and their application, and allows children to do things and learn by themselves.
In 2008, Ramakrishnan’s school finally got a concrete building to replace the precarious bamboo structure. Ramakrishnan, though, has continued to remain the sole pillar of support for his students. Besides being teacher, guardian and cook for the students, he also does every other necessary task himself, like bringing water to the school for students to wash themselves with.
It is thanks to Ramakrishnan and 22 other such multitasking teachers in 23 single-teacher schools that the children of Attapady’s many tribal hamlets have a chance at a basic education.