At the Harmony Silver Awards, Rishi Majumder found himself besotted by Ayesha Chelekkodan, a woman who passed Kerela’s version of the SSC examination at a mind-boggling 84 years of age
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Ek Din Mit Jayega Maati Ke Mol, Jag Mein Reh Jayenge Pyaare Tere Bol. Dooje Ke Honthon Ko Dekar Apne Geet, Ek Nishaani Chor Phir Duniya Se Dol.
84 year old Ayesha Chelekkodan leans forward to catch Nitin Mukesh’s live performance of this ’70s classic originally rendered by his father. Pulling back the head scarf her over-attentiveness had caused to slide, she squints observing her fellow audience. With activist, alternating socialite, alternating politician, alternating industrialist, the guest seating at the Harmony Silver Awards undulates as would the result of a Google Earth scan for India’s socially relevant. Unlike other awardees present for their contributions to mankind, Chelekkodan, an impoverished village woman with six great grand children, has been zoomed in on and broadcast for a purely personal pursuit. Having enrolled in the Kerala Government’s literacy drive when she was 66, Chelekkodan has this year passed her Class X school-leaving examinations, garnishing this qualification with a computers diploma as well.
Before the awards, Chelekkodan performed herself, before an endless throng of TV and print journalists, punctuating Malayali comebacks with shrill peals of laughter. “She knows Hindi and English, but not enough to speak fluently,” explained her grandson and translator on this trip, Abdu Rahiman. Chelekkodan is no stranger to the media circus. Picked up as poster girl for state literacy by the Kerala Government soon after her enrolment, she was chosen in the 990 to announce to the world Kerala’s 100% literacy status in Mananchira Maidan, Kozhikode. An impressed Kerala Chief Minister, E K Nayanar, had befriended Chelekkodan during this campaign and continued to write to her till his death in 2004. Having been featured by every major Indian media group since, she continues to regard cameras amusedly, her charm spilling out in between a grin and a giggle. Questions followed here, on the significance of a recent Gandhi Jayanti. After quoting inspiring instances from the Mahatma’s life, expounding on the Calicut Salt Satyagraha and discussing the pros and cons of the misunderstood Khilafat movement, Chelekkodan ascribed her own achievement with religious modesty: “Allah brought me to this level.” This takes us back to her days of early learning, when on being asked to say a few words during an important function, she merrily summoned up two: “Allah Hoo.”
“During the British regime, we Malabaris didn’t have many schooling facilities,” Chelekkodan remembers, continuing her conversation with us during the show. “So the only language I learned to read and write was Arabic at a Madrassa.” Independence didn’t alter this situation much either. With most of her family and friends being illiterate as well, and money for a tutor being a joke, Chelekkodan’s dream of one day being able to read bus sign boards, newspaper headlines and doctor’s prescriptions remained, for long, just that. “I felt such nervousness while finally writing my KG level exams,” she smiles. “It meant so much to me.”
What does passing her Class X at this age mean to her then? “I feel nothing is impossible,” she points out. “Aside from what it taught me, it has opened other windows of learning.” Chelekkodan’s example along with the government’s truly affirmative action has also rubbed off on her family: “My generation and my children’s were not qualified, but my grand children are, and my great grand children will be.” A key criticism leveled against the Kerala government once was that it was thrusting down its citizen’s throats degrees which didn’t translate into jobs, or worldly success. Chelekkodan’s grandson Rahiman, who is a medical representative, agrees to this once being the case, but insists things are better today: “The importance of communicative skills and confidence over abstract knowledge is being stressed upon.” Chelekkodan supplicates this, by saying that while Urdu and mathematics were her easiest subjects, and Hindi and science her toughest, her fascination always lay with English: “This is the language for future opportunity and progress; there is no denying that.”
The awards over now, Chelekkodan trudges to the dinner room, her arthritis, asthma and cataract jointly combining to slacken her pace. The same diseases cast shadow on her aspirations for further formal education. Rahiman assists her with one hand, holding her award with the other, as they stride, a little in their own world, next to Parmeshwar Godrej and Anil Ambani. “She says she would have been a teacher if she had been educated sooner,” Rehman translates in reply to our final question. “She says she would have taught people not just from books, but also from life, to build their character.” Chelekkodan grins, giggles, and trudges on to enjoy the rest of her socialite evening.
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/3afz