Published: 22nd November 2019
What's on Kerala's 105-year-old student Bhageerathi Amma's mind: Cracking Class X exams and an Aadhaar card
The Literacy Mission's new ambassador speaks about her love for education and why it took her so long to decide to go back to school and clear her exams
As a child, school was a distant dream for Bhageerathi Amma. Belonging to a traditional ‘upper caste’ family, most of her days were spent looking after her 5 siblings, working on her father’s farm and helping her mother with housework. At the age of 105, not only have her dreams come true, they have also ignited those of many others like her. The native of Prakkulam, Kollam is the oldest person ever to enroll in the Kerala Literacy Mission Programme, having written her 4th standard exams this year.
Pradeep Kumar, the Kollam District Coordinator of the Kerala State Literacy Mission says of her undaunted enthusiasm, “Her spirit has been undeterred by age. Her husband passed away 35 years ago, her children themselves are 84 and 70. She used to attend classes three days a week without missing a single one. She told us that her inspiration was 96-year-old Karthiyani Amma from Alappuzha who held the previous record by securing 98 per cent in her exams.”
The exams were held in Prakkulam Lower Primary School. The district collector celebrated her journey at the Gram Panchayat with an award ceremony. According to Pradeep, they have officially declared her as the brand ambassador of the Kollam District Literacy mission for their forthcoming initiatives, especially the 10th equivalency drive.
Those who know her are not surprised by the feat. Her neighbours and friends remember gathering outside her home to listen to her Oonjalpattu (a type of poetry) in her earlier days. So engaging were the tales that she spun that people would only reluctantly leave at 9.30 in the night when they had to catch the last boat back home.
She's got the groove
“She certainly has a way with words,” says her daughter Thankamani A Pilla, who is 70 years old. It was Thankamani who apologetically answered my first call to their house. Bhageerathi Amma was so immersed in her favourite nighttime serials, that answering another interview was the last thing she wanted.
When I rang back early in the morning, Amma’s enquiring voice answered. She tells me why she waited so long to learn. “I didn’t really think that I had the option of going to school. Back in our day, parents don’t want to see their daughters in high positions, we’re just married off to good families. I had four girls and a boy to look after. I had received some land from my family and I used to work as often as I could to put my children through school and pay for their marriage. I never begged or borrowed for anything,” she declares with a touch of indignation.
Bhageerathi Amma's next big love after learning and TV serials is cricket. “I used to watch cricket a lot with my youngest grandson. I moved to Mumbai with my daughter and used to look after him. I would push him to finish classes fast so we could watch a match together. When I came back to Kerala, we had no TV, so I would watch Gavaskar bowling from my neighbour’s house. I stopped watching after he left the team!”
Learning till the last sigh
It was these frequent visits that put her in touch with the Literacy Mission as well. One of their neighbours worked for the Mission and she saw the love for learning in Bhageerathi Amma.
Amma tells me that she’s very happy with herself, with a note of affection that people usually reserve for close family members. “But I need to get an Aadhaar card,” she says. “I was denied benefits from the Samoohya Suraksha scheme because I don’t have one. All the other women collect their pension on time, I want to do it too. This is my next mission. After that, I want to write my 10th standard exam.”
Clearly, she's got her life goals sorted!