How to make friends in Malayalam

How to make friends in Malayalam

A new generation of migrant students is flowering in Kerala’s government schools.

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Language No Bar: Seth Kumar and Muhammad Ashique from Motihari, Bihar, at the Binanipuram School. (Photos: Vishnu Varma)

“When I heard the language for the first time, it felt like someone was shaking a glass full of stones,” says Vikas Kumar, with a chuckle. Vikas is a Class X student at the Binanipuram Government High School in Edayar, an industrial neighbourhood on the outer fringes of Kochi — one of the many migrant children who make up 45 per cent of the school’s strength. Four years ago, he moved to Kerala from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, with his family. His father, Sanjay Kumar, works at a two-wheeler repairing shop in Eloor, a few kilometres away.

At first, Vikas spoke only with children from the Hindi-speaking states. Then he began conversing with his Malayali classmates, picking up words here and there. “Understanding Malayalam was a hurdle. But my teachers were patient and understanding. I began with the alphabet, and then moved on to words. In two years, I had learnt enough to understand and speak,” says the student.

At the entrance to the school, a poster of a smiling boy — held up as an example to Vikas and others — greets students. Similar posters stare back at you on the streets of Edayar. They read, “Congratulations to Dilshad. He came as a guest but became our pride.” A month ago, the quiet neighbourhood buzzed with excitement when Muhammad Dilshad, a student at the school and the son of an illiterate Bihar migrant, topped his school in the Class X board exams, securing A+ grades in all subjects. That the 16-year-old wrote his exams in Malayalam made his achievement more remarkable.

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A girl from Odisha reading a Malayalam poster.

Dilshad’s success is sweet vindication for Kerala’s public education system, which has largely welcomed the children of migrants, even when barriers of language are pressed against them. Kerala is home to an estimated 3.4-million strong inter-state labour force that powers its major sectors, from construction to cashew, fishing to footwear and garment to hospitality. When native youth left the state in droves looking for better job opportunities in the Gulf in the 1990s, lakhs of workers flowed in, largely from the country’s east and northeast. Kerala offered the best wages in the unorganised sector in addition to a largely peaceful social environment and superior health and educational facilities.


While no official government data exists on the number of migrants who live in Kerala with wives and children, there’s no denying that a considerable number have now settled in the state. Children of these workers are largely enrolled into the state’s public schools.

To help students like Vikas and Dilshad, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has appointed resource teachers who can speak the mother tongue of the migrant children in schools where they are present in significant numbers. There has been criticism that finding such qualified teachers is a challenge, given the meagre salaries. In schools with Bengali and Odiya students, there are also efforts to source textbooks in these languages. The present Left government also introduced the “Changathi” (friend) programme in December 2016, as a part of the literacy mission to teach Malayalam to inter-state workers. Classes are held in the evenings, and on Sundays, when the workers would be free.

In Ernakulam district, where the Binanipuram school is located, a special programme called “Roshni” was initiated as a pilot project in October 2017. The brainchild of former collector Mohammed Y Safirulla, it involves 90 minutes of extra classes, in the morning, to help migrant students gain language proficiency in Malayalam, English and Hindi. Currently on in 40 schools in the district covering 1,300 students, it also aims at slashing dropout rates among the children. “There are initial hassles in getting inter-state kids introduced to Malayalam, but after a while, they are able to pick it up. Some of them are doing very well, better than even some of the Malayali students,” says Sajitha, who has been the “Roshni” trainer at the Binanipuram school for the past two years.

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In Ernakulam district, where the Binanipuram school is located, a special programme called “Roshni” was initiated as a pilot project in October 2017.

But the question of assimilation — and how welcome they are in the larger Malayali society — remains. Sudhi TS, the school’s mathematics teacher who played a big role in mentoring Dilshad, says while he was happy at the number of migrant students going up, he found it discomfiting that parents of Malayali children were not enthusiastic about sending their wards to what are dismissively called “bhai schools” (migrant workers are referred to as bhai by the locals).

Seth Kumar, from Motihari in Bihar and currently in Class IX at the Binanipuram school, has helpful advice for the “Hindi-walas” who seek admission in primary classes. “Don’t make the mistake of mentioning your father or mother’s name to your classmates. If they are funny-sounding ones, that’s trouble for you,” he says, with a laugh. Over time, though, the animosity melts into friendship, he adds. Besides, he’s learnt enough cuss words in Malayalam to give it back to them, says Kumar. “From day one, my father told me that if I had to live here, I had to learn Malayalam. And I did,” says Kumar, whose father is a contractor at a fodder factory.

During summer vacations, he travels with his family on Raptisagar Express to Motihari, where he spends his days playing cricket and running through the fields. “My mother says if a person studies in Kerala, he can progress. The same can’t be said of Bihar,” says Kumar, who wants to join the army after school.

Muhammad Ashique, a year younger to Kumar and also from Motihari, describes going through the same travails when he joined the Binanipuram school before he conquered the language. “Yahan bachchon ke beech pyaar bahut hai (There’s a lot of love between kids here),” says Ashique. Now, they are not just koottukar (friend), added Ashique with a laugh, but chunks, a millennial Malayalam term for soulmate.

Lissamma Isaac, just a couple of weeks into her new role as the headmistress of the Binanipuram school, said she couldn’t feel any difference between the two sections of students. “There is a lot of assimilation. They teach each other Hindi and Malayalam,” she said. As the headmistress, she says, she has to reach out to more migrant parents to persuade them to send their children to school. The dropout rates are alarming, Isaac says, and it’s difficult to even contact them as they go very far away. “Among children of factory workers, there’s a lot of exploitation as well,” says Isaac.

The future, nevertheless, looks good for migrant children, she said, as Kerala continues to invest in the public education sector. “Viplavakaramaya maattam undavunundu (There are revolutionary changes taking place),” she says, especially after the current Left regime was voted to power in 2016. Last year, government statistics showed a rise of over 40,000 new admissions into public schools from the previous year. “Proposals for upgrading schools are getting cleared fast. Classrooms are going hi-tech. It’s a positive sign that more and more students are coming back to government schools,” she says.