Kozhikode: Karthyayani Amma is 97. She has never been to a hospital and has never once taken a pill. She doesn't even require a reading glass. She washes her own clothes, and cleans the small courtyard in front of the house everyday. It is this discipline that marks Karthyayani's efforts to realise her new ambition. Qualify class four equivalency examination with high marks. After that, class seven and then class ten. It is never too late to start dreaming. It is this undying spirit that has made the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) recognise the lady, just three years short of 100, for her achievement.
COL awarded a certificate to Karthyayani Amma which stated that she has become a beacon of inspiration for lifelong learning. "You have shown that education and learning can be a joyous activity, defying age and circumstance. Your performance in the Aksharalaksham project implemented by Kerala State Literacy Mission Authority has been brilliant and will motivate millions of learners across the Commonwealth," it stated.
Karthyayani Amma became the darling of the Malayalis when she was one of the oldest to sit for the 'Aksharalaksham' qualifying examination organised by the State Literacy Mission last year. The nonagenarian from Muttom, near Haripad in Alappuzha district, surprised everyone by scoring a record score of 98 out of 100 in the state. Education Minister C Raveendranath gifted her a laptop, and the great grandmother is now learning the English alphabets so that she can type words in the laptop. She already can type her name in English.
“The minister came here and gave me this laptop, Manju Warrier (the Malayali actor) gifted me with a Krishna's photograph. I am so happy," Karthyayani Amma said. But she is not carried away by the attention. "Now, I want to pass the fourth standard's exam also (the next level of equivalency exam is for class four). My great grandchildren are helping me to study. Now I know how to type my name in the laptop in English,” she said, her voice clear and confident.
The elderly woman's granddaughters Rajitha and Sajitha and their children – Anjana, Ashwin and Aparna - are helping her learn the new textbook and computer. Class nine student Ashwin is her computer teacher.
“These days, children are helping her to learn painting on the laptop. And she is picking up fast. Her sight is so perfect that Ammamma (maternal grandmother) does not use spectacles. Her grandchildren and even her great grandchildren need them. She has also learned to type her name in English in the laptop,” says Sajitha Manikandan, daughter of Karthyayani Amma's daughter Ammini Amma (Shyamala).
One of the six daughters of Kudi Pallikkoodam (pre-school) trainer Krishna Pillai and his wife Kalyani, school education was a distant dream for Karthyayani Amma. Her life was also too tragic to think of education. As was usual in those days, Karthyayani was married off at a very young age to Krishna Pillai. Incidentally, her father and husband shared the same name. They had two sons and four daughters. Hardly a month after youngest daughter Ammini Amma was born, Krishna Pillai died. Tragedy followed her like an unending curse. Her two sons and two of her daughters too died. After her husband's death, Karthyayani Amma served at a nearby temple as a helper to bring up her children. She was too caught up in the daily struggle for survival that the desire to learn remained firmly suppressed.
But the dormant yearning sprang up quite late in life. “Though she was illiterate, grandmother used to write on the sand. We thought she was drawing pictures. It was last year, when Sathi teacher (Literacy Mission's prerak) came here to collect data about illiterates that grandma expressed her longing. That's how her education began,” said Sajitha.
Initially, her children and grandchildren helped her read the study materials. But once she learned the Malayalam alphabets and numbers, she started reading and learning on her own. Her grandchildren are amazed, even a tad jealous, of her commitment to studies. They say she studies all the time.
If anyone is looking for longevity clues in Karthyayani Amma's daily routine, especially her diet, be adequately warned. She gets up around 6 am and would immediately have a black coffee. After that she is ready to drink as much tea as she wants, a trait considered sacrilege by those obsessed with healthy living. She is also reluctant have solid food. One dosa or chapati is the maximum she eats a day. However, she sleeps early. Her daughters say she has a camel-like endurance, that she can be without solid food for five to six days and never fall weak or sick.
Her zeal for learning has inspired college deans. “Recently, when she was invited to Amrita School of Engineering in Vallikkavu, one of their deans, a non-Malayali, spoke a few words in Malayalam, as a mark of respect for her. He was saying if she can learn at this age, what stopped him from learning Malayalam now,” said Sajitha.
Literacy Mission officials are happier that Karthyayani Amma's passion for learning is inspiring the illiterate to take up education.