I hail from Ponpathi, a remote village near Gingee in the northern part of Tamil Nadu, and I have a short story to share about K. Kolanchiammal, my amma. On October 22, amma completed 24 years of service as a government teacher. Her journey is more important than my connection with her. She was the first graduate of her generation and had earned two master’s degrees.
K. Kolanchiammal was born in a sleepy village called Somanathapuram in the undivided Viluppuram district. Even before her arrival on earth, her father had died by suicide due to unattended mental health issues. A small piece of land the family owned and that was due to her, was also appropriated.
Amma’s mother and my aaya, R. K. Saroja, was unlettered. So were all the strong women who had raised her. They went to faraway places, such as Mangalore, to find work. They bent their backs by doing whatever jobs that came their way. My amma grew up with little care and had a turbulent childhood. The mid-day meal scheme in school offered her some succour.
When she was fifteen and about to write her SSLC examinations, tuberculosis and jaundice struck her. She failed in her exams and suggestions of child marriage were mooted by the villagers. She refused to quit. Despite the fact that there was literally no one to take care of her or to guide her in the family, she still scored well in her next attempt.
She wanted to be a doctor. Due to poverty and lack of guidance, she ended up in a teacher training course. She fought her way there. Old book shops and unvisited college libraries became her abodes. She learnt whatever was denied to her for years.
An incident from her college life had entered our bedtime stories. Amma was a physically frail woman and used to look like a schoolgirl. There was a district-level competition. College guys were teasing her as she rose to speak. But she won the hearts and minds with her oration. Amma went on to conquer as many stages as she could. Till date, whenever she goes on a stage, her speeches enchant the audience as well as students.
At the age of 23, she married my appa. Next five years, they struggled a lot. Under a thatched roof harboured by snakes and seeping rains, they dreamed of greater things and aimed for peaks. Amma enrolled herself in a Bachelor of Literature course at the Annamalai University in Chidambaram.
Appa ensured all household chores were taken due care so she could study. The scene of appa sweeping the home and decorating the front yard (vaasal) with kolam is one of our evergreen memories. Amma kept on reading and striving hard. She was appointed as second grade teacher by the Tamil Nadu government on October 22, 1996. Since then it has been a different journey altogether.
Her brief stints as a teacher in Maruvoor and Palapattu earned her name and fame. Villagers protested before government offices when she opted for a transfer for personal reasons. Teaching had never been a salary earning endeavour for her. It was her mission and she immersed herself into it with dedication.
In the process, amma shook many societal disadvantages in a gentle way. Many Dalit students enrolled in the government school during her tenure in my village. Further, students from other religions found it comfortable to study under her tutelage.
She had to bear the wrath of village strongmen many a time. A number of cases and witch hunting followed. They wanted her to tender an apology as they felt she had voted for a non-dominant caste candidate in her postal ballot. She refused to oblige. After a long battle, the cases were quashed. She came out unscathed. The parents of students who had benefited by her faithful discharge of her duties were her comrades in the fight.
Amma spent most of her earnings on her students. She held them close to her heart as if they were her family members. Marks weren’t the ultimate destination for her. My small home was always filled with students preparing for stage plays, sports events, debates, quizzes and artistic performances.
In this 24 years of journey, health issues have weakened her body. Still, her soul has been unrelenting. Teaching and being with students still gives her energy and inspiration. If there is one thing that defines her, it is the fearlessness that she taught us. ‘Criticise something after you have read about it’ is her message that echoes forever. Happy work anniversary, amma! For the greater times and finer moments to come.