In her poem, Spelling, Canadian poet and novelist, Margaret Atwood writes, “How do you learn to spell?/ Blood, sky & the sun, / your own name first,/ your first naming, your first name,/ your first word”. But the passage to a room of one’s own, as generations of women will attest, has never been easy, pockmarked as it is by the politics of class, caste and gender. Which is why, the story of Karthyayini Amma in Kerala’s Cheppad, Alapuzzha — the oldest person ever to take part in Kerala’s literacy examination — is such a heartwarming tale of the triumph of individual will.
After a lifetime of working as a sweeper at local temples and households while raising children of her own, the 96-year-old grasped the opportunity of taking part in the state government’s literacy test in August this year. Now, she has not only aced the exam, scoring 98 out of 100, but has also expressed her desire to continue with her primary education, and to make up, perhaps, for the two marks, whose loss she rued when she was given news of her achievement.
The census 2011 data pins Kerala’s female literacy rate at 91.98 per cent, the highest in India, but the overall female literacy level in the country is still oddly tilted against the woman, despite an ongoing campaign to “save and educate” the girl child. Notwithstanding the frailties of her age, Karthyayini Amma’s zeal to lay claim on an agency that she had missed out on in her childhood — access to education — is the sort of fairytale that every rebel girl and woman needs, to strive for a more enabled individual and communal life. As Atwood writes in the same poem, “A word after a word/ after a word is power”.