Of the many shades of helplessness that dazed him when he
first came to Edamalakkudy, desolation was the strongest. How does one run a
school alone in an impenetrable forest? How does one teach a people who do not
He wanted to turn back, return to the world he came from, but a voice from within led him on. He had to do this. “I studied in a tribal school where I had to wait months for a teacher to come. And when they came, they always wanted to go back as early as they could,” he says. “I did not want to be one such teacher. But even then I never thought I would be in the kudy (tribal settlement) 15 years after coming here.”
In June 1999, P. K. Muraleedharan—a short, wiry man of the Malayaraya tribe and a self-confessed devotee of wilderness—was appointed as a District Primary Education Project (DPEP) volunteer. Then 29, he was assigned the task of setting up and running a Multi-Grade Learning Centre (MGLC) single teacher school at Nenmanalkudy, one of the most remote tribal settlements in Edamalakkudy in northwest Kerala.
A cluster of 28 tribal settlements (two of which are uninhabited) scattered in the 106.19 sq km reserve forest area between Pettimudi in Munnar, Kerala, and Nallamudi in Valparai, Tamil Nadu, Edamalakkudy comes under the Munnar Division of the Kerala Forest Department. The settlements are inhabited exclusively by Muthuvans, a reclusive tribe zealously loyal to their ancient codes and customs. In 2010, Edamalakkudy became Kerala’s first tribal gram panchayat. It is also the panchayat with the least number of voters in Kerala.
To reach Edamalakkudy, one has to first travel 18 kilometres by jeep from Munnar to Pettimudi through Iravikulam National Park, and then by foot from Pettimudi to the various settlements. A road connecting Edalippara—the first of the 28 settlements—and Pettimudi is under construction and is expected to be completed before the onset of the monsoon.
Elephants, bison, wild boar, venomous snakes, including king cobras, leeches and other wild animals lurk as constant threats on the way. Fear is as thick as the forest here.
Nenmanalkudy, the settlement to which Muraleedharan—Murali Maash
(Maash is a Malayalam term of endearment for a teacher), as he is known
among the Muthuvans here—was posted lies near the Tamil Nadu border, almost 35
kilometres from Pettimudi. It is a kudy considered to be remote by even
those Muthuvans who live within 10 to 20 kilometres from Pettimudi.
Elephants, bison, wild boar, venomous snakes, including king cobras, leeches and other wild animals lurk as constant threats on the way. Fear is as thick as the forest here. The path is dizzying: you climb strenuous inclines; slither through rocky ravines; and cross rickety bridges (including ropeways) over the river Manalaar, which in the monsoons is an unforgiving spectacle of nature’s rage.
By the time Muraleedharan reached the kudy, he was drenched in red mud, but that was not his greatest concern. He had to find a way to make the people in the kudy understand why he was there.
hough there were a couple of single teacher schools run under the state government’s Integrated Tribal Development Programme (ITDP) at Edalippara and Parappayarkudy, and a Lower Primary School at Societykudy—the hamlet that is the virtual capital of Edamalakkudy, Societykudy, derives its name from the Girijan Co-operative Service Society that functions here for the distribution of ration products—the concept of education had not till then reached the far-flung settlements. It was in this context that DPEP Kerala decided to establish single teacher one-room schools here. Of the 446 such MGLCs set up in remote tribal areas in the districts of Kasargod, Wayanad, Malappuram and Idukki, 13 were at Edamalakkudy. (Muraleedharan’s wife, who died seven years ago, was also appointed to run one of these schools at Irippukalkudy, a settlement around five kilometres from Nenmanalkudy.)
The teachers—they are officially designated as volunteers—were paid ₹750 per month in the first five years of the project after which the salary was raised to ₹3,000. (The kitchen staff in charge of the noon meal scheme is paid ₹200 per day. However, in Edamalakkudy, noon feeding too is the responsibility of the teacher who runs the school.)
“When I reached Nenmanalkudy, my first challenge was to make the people realise what my task was,” says Muraleedharan. “I did not understand their language, nor they mine.”
I tried to teach them the importance of hygiene. They seldom changed clothes or bathed; the stink was awful. I told them the first lesson was cleanliness; soon they started following my instructions to the core.
With great effort and after long hours of sign language communication, he finally managed to convey his objective to Mayilsami, Nenmanalkudy’s thalaivar—the headman of the settlement. The thalaivar then made arrangements to convert a tiny, ramshackle shed of twigs and mud for storing paddy into a school. He also made sure that 18 children in the age group of five to 15 were brought to this school as students.
“I was lucky Mayilsami had some knowledge of the outside world. Had it not been for him, I would have had to go back.”
t took a further couple of months for Muraleedharan to introduce the idea of education and school to his students. Since the education department had not provided him with any teaching or learning materials, he had to devise his own methods. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the process helped him to establish a personal bond with the students. Instead of confining himself to the school, he chose to be led by his students into the wild, a decision prompted as much by the pragmatism of a resolute teacher as by the compulsion of circumstances.
“Once I got the space for school, and the students to teach, my initial fears were to a great extent put to rest. I was now determined to make this project a success and for that I knew I first had to earn their acceptance. I went fishing with them and joined them in their games: grabbing crabs, trapping birds and rabbits and roasting them. That way, I learnt the fundamentals of their language which helped me communicate better.
“In between, I tried to teach them the importance of hygiene. They seldom changed their clothes or bathed; the stink was awful. In fact, they were walking, talking nests of lice and flea. I told them that the first lesson was cleanliness; soon they started following my instructions to the core.”
During those days, he used to stay with his wife in a makeshift room attached to the school she was in charge of at Irippukalkudy. She had similar stories to share, and together they would discuss and design ways to make their schools a second home to the students. They realised early that to be successful they needed to embrace the culture of Edamalakkudy—including its food habits—and try in every possible way to be one among the Muthuvans. “It was not actually a very difficult thing to do,” Muraleedharan says with a smile. “To survive, we had no other option.”
Murali Maash could have very easily stayed in the school room with two or three students. Or he could have chosen to come to the kudy once in a while. No one would have questioned or blamed him.
He also had to face the migratory nature of Muthuvan
settlements. One day when he reached the kudy after a weekend, he found that it was deserted; only the huts remained. “They had moved
to Vazhakuthukudy, a higher region where the soil was more conducive to
farming. I now had to start all over again, right from locating the new kudy.”
(Years later, they returned to the original site when Vazhakuthukudy was
ravaged by wild elephants.)
Despite the struggles, Muraleedharan now remembers those days as some of the most gratifying of his life. “Once I found the way to the new kudy things were a lot easier. I went from door to door and managed to get 48 students—from four-year-olds to 18-year-olds—enrolled. People were more welcoming, and the students, instead of viewing the school as something thrust upon them, started showing a keen interest in studying. They found it a very enjoyable activity.”
Soon he was regarded not just as a teacher from the outside world, but as one of their own. “Murali Maash could have very easily stayed in the school room with two or three students. Or he could have chosen to come to the kudy once in a while. No one would have questioned or blamed him,” says Sivadas Balan, a student of the first batch. “But for his single-minded, selfless efforts, people like me would never have known what a school is like.”
Sivadas was the last of the 48 students to enrol. He was reluctant even when everyone else in the kudy had joined. But eventually Muraleedharan won him over through a musical procession conducted as part of a language class that dealt with festivals. He had instructed his students to pass through places where Sivadas was likely to be present.
“All my friends had gone to the school and I was feeling
very lonely. But I was still afraid of school. Then, one day I saw my friends
moving like a procession through the kudy: singing, whistling and
dancing, blowing pipes and horns. One of them told me that this was part of the
class and I thought, if school was so pleasurable, why should I
alone stay back?”
he first Muthuvan settlers of Edamalakkudy arrived in 1952. They were a group of seven who had come from Chengulam in search of a new, isolated habitat because a dam that was being constructed at Chengulam was perceived as a threat to the exclusivity of their social order. Later, their families and relatives joined them, and in time subsequent generations spread out into various settlements.
Each kudy has two elected officials—thalaivar and kani. The thalaivar deals with matters of administration while the kani deals with intra-community matters. There are 2,886 Muthuvans living in 730 houses at present, in 26 settlements.
Every settlement has exclusive sleeping huts for boys and girls where they have to spend the nights from when they are nine or 10 years old till the time they get married.
Spread out in Idukki, Ernakulam and Thrissur districts of
Kerala, and Coimbatore and Tirupur districts of Tamil Nadu, Muthuvans trace
their early history to the Tamil epic Silappathikaram. According to the
legend, when Kannagi set fire to Madurai, a petrified section of the dynasty’s
loyal subjects fled the kingdom and moved west into the
forests across the borders of modern-day Kerala. It is believed that during this migration, they carried on their backs the idols of the golden Madurai Meenakshi, and therefore the Pandya rulers named them Muthuvans which means “hump backed”—Muthuvan women still carry their children on their backs in folds of cloth.
An alternate version of the myth says that it was Kannagi, and not Madurai Meenakshi, whom they carried; a more sophisticated rationalisation interprets Kannagi and Madurai Meenakshi as the same deity. Yet another version of the same myth frees their backs of the divine ladies, and replaces it with the burden of the dethroned king. An altogether different myth describes them as the guards of Sita during Rama’s years in the forest.
In course of time, the migrants branched out into 21 clans and settled in various parts in the Western Ghats. The descendents of those who settled in Kerala are called Malayali Muthuvans or Naadan Muthuvans, while those who settled in Tamil Nadu call themselves Tamil Muthuvans or Pandi Muthuvans. Although their customs remain the same, they can be distinguished through their dialects.
The Raja of Poonjar, an erstwhile princely state, recognised them as subjects and granted them consent to establish settlements in the forests. They speak both Malayalam and Tamil, but their mother tongue is a tribal Dravidian language that bears the name of their tribe. The patois is a debased form of Tamil.
The settlements usually consist of 10 to 40 families with their huts bunched together. The traditional two-room huts are constructed with bamboo, reed, forest wood and mud. The walls of the huts are made by first arranging the bamboo and reed in rows and columns which are then held together and buttressed by a thick paste of mud and clay. The roofs are thatched with bamboo leaves. Fences and trenches are built to protect the houses from wild animals.
Every settlement has exclusive sleeping huts for boys and girls where they have to spend the nights from when they are nine or 10 years old till the time they get married. These bachelor dormitories are considered to be emblematic of the emphasis Muthuvans place on community life. The sleeping hut for the girls is called thinnaveedu or kumari madam while the one for boys is called sathram or chavadi. Old men and women too sleep with the boys and girls while couples stay and sleep in their own huts. Visitors are given space to sleep in either the thinnaveedu or the sathram. Menstruating and pregnant women have to stay alone in a separate hut called valappura which is isolated from the rest of the kudy.
Traditionally farmers and gatherers of forest resources, Muthuvans cultivate cardamom, ragi, plantain, tapioca, maize, sweet potato, rice and lemongrass. But a mix of factors—regular destruction of crops by wild animal raids, decline in soil fertility, a system of farming that is entirely organic, and the absence of a viable marketing and distribution system—has led to a sizeable drop in productivity. This, in turn, has led to their migration to other areas like Adimali and Mankulam that are more connected with the mainstream world, and where they don’t have to suffer from the exploitation of middlemen.
Those who have stayed back now prefer community farming. “A sense of collective responsibility helps us to minimise the damage,” says Murukan, a cardamom farmer. “We make sheds on treetops and stay through the night to protect our crops.”
Though there is a primary health centre at Edamalakkudy, it does not have a doctor. So they have to carry the patient on a cot made of bamboo and walk for hours through the forest.
Kudumbashree units too are now active in community farming. (One of the largest woman-empowering projects in the country, Kudumbashree was launched by the Kerala government in 1998 to wipe out absolute poverty from the state through concerted community action.) Ramani Arjunan, the chairperson of Edamalakkudy Community Development Society (CDS), a fraternity of Kudumbashree units, proudly says that the 34 CDS units functioning in the farming sector have—against all odds and against even the expectations of their own men—managed to earn more than ₹4 lakh. “We can do even better if we have a proper marketing system in place. For that, we first need to have a road at least till Societykudy.”
The road that is now being built from Pettimudi to Edalippara is viewed by the people with great expectations. Once it becomes fit for jeep traffic, they hope that they can finally buy the rice provided under the public distribution system at `1 per kg, the price at which it is supposed to be sold. At present, they have to buy it at `11 per kg because `10 has to be paid for transporting a kilogram of any commodity on head from Pettimudi to the Girijan Consumer Society.
“We are not asking for a situation where everyone can come to the forest, mess with our culture and loot the resources of our forest. What we want is a jeep track where entry is strictly restricted,” says Ramani.
They also hope that the road will provide relief when they have to take someone to hospital. Though there is a primary health centre at Edamalakkudy, it does not have a doctor. So they have to carry the patient on a cot made of bamboo and walk for hours through the forest: a sad, farcical re-enactment of the myth to which their history is traced. However, having suffered these privations for so long, they are now almost inured to their plight, which is a subject of black humour.
Sample this: “A group of eight is carrying an old man who has high fever. First a snake kills two, and then an elephant kills the remaining six. But the old man is still alive and he still suffers from high fever. Who will now take him to the hospital?”
t was Edamalakkudy’s stark isolation—and the consequent development challenges—that spurred the state government’s decision to convert it into a tribal panchayat. Ironically, the panchayat has only served to compound the problems. Since Edamalakkudy does not have power supply, and since there is no road to it, the panchayat office at Societykudy is now an abandoned building.
Instead, the office functions at Devikulam, about 48 kilometres from Edamalakkudy. Prior to the formation of the panchayat, it was the first ward of Munnar panchayat, which was just 22 kilometres away.
Kaniyamma Sreerangan, the president of the panchayat, is the only illiterate gram panchayat president in the state. A head-load worker, she insists that she will be literate by the time her tenure comes to an end; as a first step she now has a signature of her own which she puts on the government files with great pride. But she is not sure if she will ever come to terms with the whims and quirks of the bureaucratic Malayalam she has to deal with.
According to Muraleedharan, who translated Panchayat Raj rules into Muthuvan for Kaniyamma and other panchayat members, the chasm in communication between elected panchayat representatives and the panchayat bureaucracy has reduced the self-governance experiment to a sorry absurdity.
“It is almost as if the officials mock these members with their prim and proper Malayalam. The members are in no position to explain and communicate their ideas, which means nothing ever happens at Edamalakkudy. `5 crore was allotted when the panchayat came into existence. But since the panchayat failed to submit a project plan, the amount lapsed,” he says.
“The training classes organised by Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA) also matter little to these members. They go there and attend the classes, not having a clue about what is going on.”
In 2013, P. K. Jayalakshmi, the Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Tribes, announced a special package of ₹10.35 crore for Edamalakkudy. But the task of implementing the projects under this package—including the road that is now being constructed—was given to the forest department, not with the panchayat.
n the realm of ostensible theory, Muthuvans follow a matrilineal clan system, but in the domain of everyday practices, the society is patriarchal and male-dominated: even now, most Muthuvan women walk away briskly with bowed heads at the sight of other men. Theirs is a social structure steeped in a non-negotiable ideology of cultural elitism. They consider themselves to be superior in race and caste to others, and any member of the tribe who violates the prescribed code of conduct—for instance, marrying outside the tribe—is promptly cast out.
This obsessive adherence to tradition is often cited by both the younger generation and teachers like Muraleedharan as the biggest deterrent to the advancement of modern education in Edamalakkudy.
“Everyone told me to get educated. But once I come back from my school in the town, I have to forget everything I learnt. I will even have to change from my churidar to the traditional attire of the kudy and arrange my hair in the conventional way (the hair is rolled up, tied tight and decorated with a bush and ribbon) from the moment I start walking to the kudy from Pettimudi,” says a 20-year-old woman who requested anonymity. She has passed Class 12 from a school in Munnar, but is now readying herself for the chores of a married life to be spent in unquestioning servitude to household duties. “The only practical use I have had by studying till twelfth standard is that, unlike most other girls here, I did not have to get married when I was 14 or 15.”
The fear of living in a valappura makes women take the oral contraceptive. Since the valappura is usually far from the kudy, there’s no one to help even if they are attacked by wild animals.
Vijaya Lakshmi is her teacher and has been in charge of the ITDP-run single teacher school at Edalippara from 1997. With Muraleedharan, she is revered by the people of Edamalakkudy for their selfless commitment to their jobs. “Many of my students,” she says, “both boys and girls, have gone out from the kudy to pursue higher education. But when they are in the kudy, they have no option but to follow the customs. And nobody, not even those who are educated, wants to go out and seek a life elsewhere. They are all habituated to the way of life here. I always wish that one day one of them comes back wearing a churidar, or sporting a new hairstyle. But the system here is so rigid and so entrenched that one cannot really blame them for not showing the spunk to defy the norms. I myself have not done so in all these years that I have been here.”
But Vijaya Lakshmi has not yet given up hope. “It may take time, but eventually the system will have to yield. That is what education does. After all these years here, I can say with conviction that change is already under way, more so from a woman’s perspective.”
That keeps her going; that motivates her to stay in the kudy with her students for months on end, forfeiting the comforts of the “outside world” and her own family. Hers is the most successful school in Edamalakkudy with more than a dozen of her students having passed Class 12, and a couple now pursuing graduation.
And yet, for all her efforts and for all her unflagging
optimism, the future she so longs for might never arrive—the tribe might soon
be wiped out from Edamalakkudy. Their population has been declining at an
alarming rate in the last 20 years, a phenomenon
ascribed to the excessive consumption of oral contraceptive pills by both married and unmarried women to prevent menstruation.
It is the fear of living in a valappura during the menstrual period and pregnancy that makes women take the oral contraceptives. Isolated from the kudy, valappuras are devoid of even the most basic amenities. “It is a nightmare for the girls and women here. They have to stay all alone in that dingy shed, and since the valappura is usually far away from the kudy, there’s no one to help even if they are attacked by wild animals,” says Vijaya Lakshmi. The few women who do conceive usually end up with an abortion. “Either steps should be taken to abolish the system, or the government should build valappuras that are safe and have facilities.”
It is the second option that seems to have found favour, with the government announcing the construction of 10 secure valappuras. A couple have already been built.
Mala-D—the oral contraceptive which the women of Edamalakkudy consume constantly now—was introduced by the health department two decades ago for promoting birth control: those were days when each family had nine or 10 children. Now, the same department is campaigning hard to tell women about the consequences of unchecked use. But the impact has been minimal because the women on the pill are perfectly aware of the consequences. If they still consume them, it is because the dread of a community’s prospective death stands no chance against the horrors of spending a night all alone in a valappura.
The health department has now stopped the supply of pills through its primary health centres. But they are available at medical shops in Valparai. There also exists a racket that makes reasonable profit from buying the pills in bulk from Valparai and selling it to women here at rates much higher than the market price.
Many, including women, in the kudy, however, feel it’s not the custom that needs to be blamed, but the way it is practised. According to Ramani Arjunan, chairperson of CDS, effective awareness campaigns and provision of better facilities at valappuras are sufficient to deal with the menace.
“Every tribe is defined by unique customs. If our tradition is taken away from us, it is as good as killing us,” she says, and adds that Kudumbashree has been actively endorsing and conducting awareness campaigns. “If the valappura is the reason for these women to take the pills, then why have they not stopped using it even after the government built new valappuras? The women are now addicted to Mala-D. We need to make them aware of the fact they are addicted, and then find ways to reverse this addiction.”
The teacher is a facilitator; children themselves engage in the learning process, selecting the learning card commensurate with their level of perception.
A world from which children are fast disappearing has had its obvious, and most profound, impact on the schools to which those children once flocked with joy. If Muraleedharan had 48 students at Vazhakuthukudy 15 years ago, he now has four at Olakkayam, the kudy where he runs his school. The Edamalakkudy Government Lower Primary school at Societykudy has five teachers and four students.
n 1997, the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), a controversial World Bank funded project—premised on learning from on lived experience and not classrooms—set up MGLC single teacher schools at remote tribal colonies in Kerala as an experiment. Its objective was to bring education home to children who had to travel long distances through deep forest to reach the nearest school, if they went ever.
After much deliberation, the system of schooling in the Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resource (RIVER), Andhra Pradesh, was adopted as the model. As per this model, children in the age group of five to 15 sit together in the same class. The curriculum transaction is effected through Self Learning Materials (SLM) in the form of cards. The cards are marked with symbols that indicate whether they belong to language, mathematics or environment studies. They are classified under four heads in accordance with the learning proficiency of the students—cards requiring full support from the teacher; those requiring partial support; those that can be learnt through peer group support; and those meant for evaluation. There are also cards set apart exclusively for drawing, miming, acting, puppetry and manual activities.
Under this, the teacher is a facilitator; children themselves engage in the learning process, selecting the learning card commensurate with their level of perception. They carry out a process of self-evaluation based on a learning ladder each rung of which is marked with a learning card symbol. All they have to do is to identify the card that corresponds with their learning level and choose the same from a variety of cards arranged in a proper form in the MGLC.
Both teachers and students vouch for the model’s efficiency.
Muraleedharan says, “It encourages students to seek and learn on their own. Most importantly, it takes away the fear. In tribal areas, the most important challenge for a teacher lies in convincing students about the significance of education. What am I supposed to say if a student asks me why he or she should study these textbooks? Card system ensures that this fear of textbooks is eliminated totally.”
Sivadas, Muraleedharan’s student from the batch of 1999, agrees. “If I had to go to school to study big textbooks, I would never have gone. But learning through cards was fun. We never felt it a burden. We even enjoyed taking examinations.”
To further vindicate his argument, Muraleedharan refers to the failure of Edamalakkudy Government Lower Primary (LP) School. It started in the late Seventies as a residential school, but was shut down following complaints about beef—proscribed by religious norms, beef is anathema to Muthuvans—being served in the hostels. In the Nineties, it was revived, but teachers who were posted seldom stayed on. There have been instances when a headmaster drew salary for a whole academic year without once coming to school. But even when teachers are present, as they now are, children are reluctant.
“Conventional schooling will not work in tribal areas,” Muraleedharan says. “That is a system designed for a society whose cultural dynamics are entirely different. Tribal areas need models that are in sync with the way of life in the forest.”
Muraleedharan’s argument cuts no ice with M. D. Princemon, the present headmaster, who thinks it is the mindset of people that has to change not the system of schooling.
“What is required is an effort to change the mindset; to let them realise the importance of education. Along with educating the children, it is as, if not more, important to create awareness among their parents too. If the card system is so great, why have most of these students not continued with higher education?”
If in the night we want to piss, all we can do is hold back. It might be to a wild elephant or a bison that we open the door.
It is a question that vexes Muraleedharan. Every year, he takes his students to schools at Adimali or Munnar for upper primary education, but few go beyond seventh standard. He attributes it to the difficulty they face in arriving at an accommodation with the ways of a world that is alien to them. “In a way it is the price they have to pay for the exclusivity they so dearly preserve. It is very difficult for students from the kudy to survive even in tribal schools. All want to come back, even if it is a life of hardship that awaits them here.”
Of the 28 students in the LP school, only four attend regularly. Every morning, teachers run helter-skelter after Ramaswamy, the only child in Societykudy, and on most days they fail to catch him. An expert crab-fisher and hen-catcher, Ramaswamy slinks into the forest and disappears with effortless ease.
Ironically, the school, in effect, now functions as an MGLC: all four students sit in the same room though they belong to different classes. The sight of four teachers teaching four students in one classroom makes for surreal viewing.
According to Princemon, the school needs to be converted into a residential school to attract more students. It is not reasonable, he says, to expect students to walk long distances through dense forest. “A hostel will provide accommodation to teachers too.” At present, they stay in the school, converting the classrooms into living spaces once the students leave.
“If in the night we want to piss, all we can do is hold back. It might be to a wild elephant or a bison that we open the door”, says Gokul Raj, one of the teachers, with a helpless smile.
n spite of its success, the card system was abandoned in 2010 with the Right to Education (RTE) Act. When DPEP was scrapped in 2003, MGLC schools were brought under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) which continued to run the project with the ideals originally envisaged.
With RTE, MGLCs were transferred from SSA to the Directorate of Public Instruction (DPI). Instead of cards, books returned. “How can one teacher teach different books at the same time?” asks Muraleedharan.
An LP school within one kilometre and a UP school within three kilometres of a student is one of the most significant provisions of the RTE Act. To fulfil this, the government has decided to upgrade MGLCs to LP schools; according to a recent order, 111 of the 320 functional single teacher schools will be upgraded this year, leaving the future of teachers at these centres uncertain. Two of those schools are in Edamalakkudy.
This is what we have been assigned to do. It’s not as if we were told we would be paid ₹20,000. “I don’t see any point in cringing about pay now. If you do not want to do the job, leave it. But if you want, do it properly.
Sheeja P. V., in charge of the school at Vellavarakudy, one of the upgraded MGLCs, doesn’t know what to do if she loses her job. “All these years, we have been working in the hope that one day we will be given permanent jobs. What we get is just ₹3,000. We have never complained about anything. We live in the same hut where we have to run the school, and every day we spend here, we live in fear of elephants and snakes. (Lisy Joseph, the teacher in charge of the centre at Kunjppara, Idukki, was killed by an elephant in 2012.) What can we do if one day if are asked to leave just like that? Doesn’t the service we provide matter one bit? Doesn’t it matter that we took education into this forest at a time when no one wanted to come here? ”
But the people of Edamalakkudy are not too concerned. According to them, save for Vijaya Lakshmi and Muraleedharan, the other teachers fall short of expectations. They appreciate the plight of the teachers and their hardships, but are unwilling to accept them wholeheartedly. “They come here, stay five or six days, and go back. But if some official inspection is there, they all will be present. That’s not how Vijaya Lakshmi teacher and Murali Maash work. They are here throughout,” says Thangappan of Kavakkattukudy.
The constant comparison with Muraleedharan and Vijaya Lakshmi hurts Sheeja; she wonders if the true gravity of a crisis can ever be understood if the perspective chosen frames only the response of certain extraordinary characters. “True, we might not be here throughout like Murali Maash or Vijaya Lakshmi teacher. They are truly great people. But that does not mean we are shirkers. We do what we can. But with a salary of just ₹3,000, how can you expect us to live here, cut off from family? Are we not entitled to a normal life?”
Neither Muraleedharan nor Vijaya Lakshmi is willing to buy that line, preferring instead an altruistic worldview. “This is what we have been assigned to do. It’s not as if we were told we would be paid ₹20,000,” says Muraleedharan. “So I don’t see any point in cringing about the pay now. If you do not want to do the job, leave it. But if you want the job, do it properly.”
Neither is active in the Alternate School Teachers Association (ASTA), a union that works for the rights of MGLC school teachers. ASTA, according to Lisy Joseph—the association’s secretary who runs an MGLC at Manippara, Idukki—is now preparing to go all out to get its demands sanctioned: permanent jobs in LP schools for teachers whose centres are being upgraded, and an increase in salary for those who continue to run the centres.
Though enthusiastic, she admits victory is unlikely. “It’s not as if we are an influential vote bank. What happens to us does not matter to the political class.”
he most famous man to run a single teacher school in Kerala
is a fictional character. For Ravi, the protagonist of O. V. Vijayan’s Khasakkinte
Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasakh)—one of the greatest modern Malayalam
novels that spawned a generation of pretenders who mimicked its ethereal
style—the bucolic hamlet of Khasakh where he sets up his school was a last
refuge from the existential guilt inflicted upon him by ideological alienations
of many kinds: the middle class debauchery of post-Independence urban
modernity; the self-perpetuating crises of Marxism; and the hollow salvations
of a hip
It’s not as if I have made a sacrifice for these people. I wouldn’t have stayed here if there wasn’t something that gave meaning to my existence. If I go away from the kudy, I will always have to live with a void inside me.
Muraleedharan, a voracious reader, has never gone beyond two chapters of Khasakkinte Ithihasam. “I could never connect with such a state of mind,” he says. Life, he says, is complicated only when complications are a luxury one can afford.
“I have two options: one, I can go on blaming my fate; two, I can do something that can make life a little better for me and those around me.”
Even the solitude brought on by the heartbreakingly early death of his wife didn’t dampen his morale.
Radhamani Muraleedharan, once his love, then his wife, and now his “eternal companion”, died seven years ago, three weeks after their second child was born. He was in the kudy when she was admitted to hospital, and it was only after a week that he got the news. She breathed her last hours after he reached hospital.
Even after all these years, Muraleedharan seldom sits idle. After school, he roams around the forest, walking from one kudy to another, chatting with those he meets on the way; sometimes sharing a beedi; sometimes taking a dip in the river with them. “It’s not as if I have made a sacrifice for these people. I wouldn’t have stayed here if there wasn’t something that enriched me infinitely; something that gave meaning to my existence. If I go away from the kudy, I will always have to live with a void inside me.”
Wherever he goes he is offered a place to stay; even the women of Edamalakkudy, who are reticent in communicating with people from outside, share jokes and personal problems with him, as with an intimate family member. He helps people fill forms they have to submit at various offices, and informs them about new schemes and projects coming up. “These days, there are so many cards one should possess. So that too keeps me busy. Besides, most people are unaware of the various schemes—distribution of solar panels, or farming subsidies, or various forest department projects. Officials loot a lot of money that way by fooling these people.”
Of all the places in Edamalakkudy, Muraleedharan’s favourite destination is Chinnathampy’s tea shop at Irippukalkudy. But the small mud hut on the edge of a cliff from that gives you a panoramic view of the settlements in Tamil Nadu is no ordinary tea shop.
A worn paper board on its fissured front wall reads: “Akshara Arts and Sports Club, with Library and Reading Room, Irippukalkudy, Edamalakkudy”. It is a library, but there are no dusty racks or long corridors. The books, around 160 of them, are stacked in two rice sacks. On days when the library functions, Chinnathampy, the 73-year-old librarian, places a mat on the floor and arranges the books on it.
From the works of great writers like Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, M. T. Vasudevan Nair, Zachariah, V. K. N., and Madhavikkuty, to the political books of Thoppil Bhasi and Dalitbandhu, and from Silappathikaram to books on psychoanalysis and black magic, it is a weighty collection.
Chinnathampy maintains a register that keeps a record of the books taken, the persons who have taken them, and the dates on which they were taken and returned. Thirty-seven books were taken in 2013. Membership costs `25, and the monthly fee `2. A glass of strong theyila—black tea without sugar comes for free.
Chinnathampy and Muraleedharan are soul mates. Despite the 29 years that separate them in age, theirs is a frolicsome comradeship. Like two teenage buddies, 73-year-old Chinnathampy and 44-year-old Muraleedharan rib each other, share their sorrows, and conjure up great dreams together.
The library is a culmination of one such dream. Muraleedharan had pitched the proposal of a library to the panchayat many years ago. After a long wait he realised that it was pointless to expect the panchayat to take the initiative, and decided to set up a library on his own. When he suggested the idea to Chinnathampy, he offered his tea shop, and thus was the library born.
The present collection is made up of books from Muraleedharan’s personal collection, and the ones his friends give him. Both Muraleedharan and Chinnathampy are hopeful that the panchayat will at least now take up responsibility and transform the library into a bigger institution with better facilities.
“People here want to read. Of course, they take a much longer time than readers elsewhere. But even if it takes three or four months, those who take the books do read them,” says Chinnathampy.
For the last few years, Muraleedharan has been working relentlessly on his other big dream: to develop a script for Muthuvan language. At present, Malayalam or Tamil is used, but neither, according to him, is sufficient to capture the peculiar nuances of the language.
“The language is not Malayalam or Tamil, but a mix of the two with a lot of unique characteristics of its own. It needs its own script. Otherwise, the language too might die.”
After years of research on languages and their scripts, he has succeeded in drafting a rudimentary version which he hopes to fine tune. A regular diarist, Muraleedharan now pens his entries using this script. He also makes it a point to teach it to people of the kudy. Around 30, including Chinnathampy, can now follow the script. A poster on the inner walls of Chinnathampy’s tea shop has the details of Edamalakkudy panchayat described using it.
“Isn’t literacy all about knowing how to read and write one’s own language?” Muraleedharan asks. And once they learn to read and write their own language, he hopes to see Chinnathampy’s library filled with Muthuvan books, for there are countless stories waiting to be told, countless dreams waiting to be written.