"Goooood Mooorningg Siiiirrrrrrrr"
By Prajwal Bhat and Rahul Menon
You can drive to Vellakulam, but you shouldn't unless you are with a trained professional, and not even then.
Map of Attapady, Palakkad, Kerala
Your next bet would be hitch-hiking a lift on a jeep or a pick-up truck traversing the winding roads connecting the oorus (hamlet), carrying supplies for one plantation or another.
Your last and safest option is the newly started blitzkrieg bus service from Sholayur which stops for barely few seconds in front of a bright blue and yellow building, that sticks out among the fading, ramshackled ruins that make up the rest of the ooru.
A white haired man is chasing a small boy into the building even as a group of children are watching the scene play out with interest. As soon as the man slams the gate shut, the children scurry inside the building and immerse themselves in the first book they can lay their hands on.
As the white haired man walks in, the children break into a loud and synchronised "Good Morning Sirrrrrrrr".
Nothing about the rest of the morning is synchronised.
The cacophony of noise erupts before the students settle into their benches and it takes ten minutes of thankless pandering to make them quiet again.
The lull lasts for a few seconds and before the white haired man can begin teaching, a short pony-tailed girl in the first bench pushes the girl sitting next to her, in a dispute over a pen and the rest of the class slides into pandemonium again.
We are in Vellakulam's only school where the white haired man - Ramakrishnan, teaches students from first standard to fourth standard at the same time in the one-classroom school.
With the nearest school located 15 kilometres of non-existent roads away, 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.
Then, the school ran out of the goat-shed of one of the houses in the ooru (hamlet) and for the first year, Ramakrishnan had to turn into a shepherd to open the school in the mornings.
"A kind 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.
"Within a year, people in the village got together to build a small bamboo shelter."
Yet Ramakrishnan, and his students, often preferred to study, sitting in a circle outside the school. “There were no benches so everyone sat in a circle, face-to-face and this meant there was more interaction between students,” says Ramakrishnan.
The bamboo shelter made way for the brick-and-mortar classroom in 2008, that stands to this day.
Inside the classroom, the pandemonium dies down and the class continues.
Ramakrishnan takes out a picture card and asks the students to identify the pictures of a kooman (owl), a kozhi (chicken) and a kurukkan (fox). After learning the three words, each student has to form stories connecting them and tell it to the rest of the class.
"This kind of picture cards are used along with the mandated textbook teaching, to unlock the creativity of each student. Every student has to connect the pictures and tell their own stories to the class", he says.
Picture-cards were used in Rishi Valley, a boarding school started in Andhra Pradesh, that pioneered alternative teaching methods.
With the 11 o'clock break approaching, the students are growing restless again and coerce Ramakrishnan into ringing the imaginary bell early.
During the break, children run off to roll tires down the lush green slopes and picturesque hills that surround the school, or climb trees or take bath in the creeks running along the valley.
The class re-assembles after a fifteen minute hiatus. They are short of one student, and soon a troop is formed to recce the immediate area surrounding the school. But before they can set out for their search-and-rescue mission, the missing boy walks in through the main gate, carelessly stepping on a puddle of water on the way. He is asked to wash himself before entering the classroom again.
Ramakrishnan is not new to search-and-rescue missions. "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?" asks the teacher with a smile.
He decides to have the 11'o clock session outside the classroom.
Obediently the students sit in groups on tiny plastic chairs, perusing over addition problems while a gentle breeze blows against their faces screwn up in concentration.
"Six plus two equals eight, five plus two equals seven", Anjali mumbles to herself. The question seemed simple enough.
"Six plus four equals ten. That is zero. Five plus two equals seven". Anjali seems less confident this time.
Ramakrishnan takes the book from her and explains how one carries over when you add Six plus four equals ten.
Over the next hour, the students tackle progressively tougher questions.
Sathish, who was caught cheating off Anjali's book, wore an anxious look on his face when Ramakrishnan announced that they will be adding three-digit numbers.
Another hour slips away in erasing Sathish's worries about adding three-digit numbers. At the end of the class, Sathish manages to add
With help from Anjali, that went unnoticed.
Ramakrishnan halts the class for the lunch break.The students scurry back into the classroom and sit in a circle in front of the benches.
Ramakrishnan, walks to a nearby house and fills a pot of water. He then hoists the pot up on his shoulders and walks back to the classroom. After ensuring every child has washed their hands, he begins serving food with help from a maid. Rice with dal and a helping of Bhindi.
After serving the students, Ramakrishnan takes a large helping of bhindi for himself and sits with his students. "Now, what do we study in the afternoon?," he asks. The students look down at their plates and keep munching on the bhindi.
Ramakrishnan is one of thirteen multi-tasking teachers in the tribal oorus of Attapady in Kerala. He remains the sole pillar of support for children in the remote tribal hamlets of Moolagangal, Vellakulam, Vecchapathy and Varakampady, ensuring that batch-after-batch, children in the villages learn to read and write in Malayalam.
A version of the story first appeared in The News Minute, a digital news platform based in Bengaluru. We thank them for supporting rural journalism.