Granny Tales: In Conversation with the Super Grandma Karthyayani Amma!

Greeshma Sukumaran
Published: May 2019

At the prime age of 96, super grandma Karthyayani scripted her name in the annals of history after a stellar showing in Kerala State Literacy Mission Examinations. After setting her sights on the next examinations amidst domestic and global tours, she finds time in her packed schedule to talk to Greeshma Sukumaran about her incredible feat and life after acing the examinations.

Sometime in October 2018, TV screens flashed with their now ubiquitous breaking news alerts, while both the local and national dailies put aside their fascination with political happenings to splash images of Karthyayani Amma, soon after she was declared the topper in literacy examinations.

Conducted under the aegis of the Kerala state government, she sealed a stellar 98 marks out of a possible 100, and ever since, just about everyone has been eager to find out the talent that blasted her way into history books beating even younger candidates. And why not, Karthyayani Amma has been a sensation in the country and beyond, drawing admiration from both the young and old alike.

The sight of her wrinkled face with a charismatic smile oozing confidence as she relishes all the attention has since remained etched in everyone’s recall.

At the age of 96, Karthyayani Amma has achieved what she could not when she was younger, an education, and something many dream but may never live to realise. So when we decided that the next issue of the magazine would be a Women’s Day special dedicated to women across the world who made a difference, I didn’t have to think twice on who would fit the bill.

But when the call went out to the super grandma for an interview, it wasn’t easy to get her on the phone for the simple reason that she doesn’t have one. It was through the district Saksharatha Mission and authority that we finally managed to get the contact of Sathi K, Amma’s teacher, Literacy Prerak in Cheppad. In the afternoon, I dialed Sathi teacher and fortunately, she was already at the event with Amma. After she handed the phone to Amma, you could feel the voice on the other side was fully elated. In a husky voice, she responded with a big hello.

“We are at an event and we just came out for lunch,” Amma said, “Are you calling from Bangalore, please allow me to join my hosts for lunch and then we will surely talk. I hope you don’t mind!” She seemed elated and genuinely thrilled about the call.

I wasn’t expecting her to be so composed to confidently take the phone and talk so freely to a stranger. But that is what stardom does. More than her, I was excited and thrilled to have been able to talk to her even if it was just for a fleeting moment.

Since she was in the midst of an event with disturbance at her end, I disconnected the call with a promise to reach her the following day. Checking up on their availability for an interview, Sathi teacher informed that Amma would be unimaginably busy in the coming days with scheduled appearances at Women’s Day programmes and interviews. So when I placed the next call after two days, it was a wait well worth every word.

Amma, who hails from Haripad in Alappuzha district, Kerala has since the declaration of the results, been engaged in a host of events.

Talking to her, you immediately come to the conclusion that she is the epitome of simplicity, confidence and uncanny determination to do well in anything she does. Simply stated, she is a living example of the saying, ‘age is just a number’.

Unfazed by all the attention she is receiving, when we finally got time to go ahead with the interview, Karthyayani Amma sat through like an obedient child listening to her elders.

“It all started in January 2018 when the crew of Literacy Mission visited Laksham Veedu Colony to enroll potential persons as part of the literacy drive in Cheppad district,” Sathi K, a teacher and coordinator for Saksharatha Mission opens up the conversation. Sathi teacher was amongst the literacy crew that went to Karthyayani Amma’s house seeking registration for an upcoming test.

To everybody’s surprise, Karthyayani Amma expressed her willingness to write the examination perhaps buoyed by the success of her 60-year-old daughter, Ammini Amma who passed the literacy mission’s course a couple of years ago. Since that episode, she always dreamt of one day writing the same. Here was an opportunity staring her right in the face.

Once she was enrolled, teacher Sathi took upon herself the task of giving her home tutorials in preparation for the test.
“I knew I would pass,” Karthyayani Amma says in her husky yet buoyant voice. “She could grasp the teachings and nothing deterred her not even the age frailties,” that was Sathi teacher giving insights into the learning curve of the 97-year old.
“I always wanted to study. But sending six of us to school wasn’t possible for my father. So, we ended up going to the temple in the locality to clean and scrub the hallways,” recalls Amma with a tinge of disappointment.

After almost seven months, Karthyayani Amma sat for her examinations in August last year.

According to Sathi teacher, Amma’s enthusiasm grew stronger by the day. “It was difficult for her to attend classes so she opted to take the classes at her home.”

As many as 43,330 people took the Aksharalaksham examinations in August 2018 and Amma was the oldest in the list. She aced the exam; scoring 98 out of 100. The state-run Kerala State Literacy Mission Authority (KSLMA) also ratified her mark as a record.

“Everybody helped me to prepare for the exam and the result was not surprising for me,” that is the confidence and positivity Amma exudes. “She was equally disappointed that not all that she studied was asked in the examination,” the teacher chimes in. “After the result came, I was wondering where I lost those two marks,” Amma interjects still moaning the lost marks.

“The examination focused upon three core areas: reading, writing and mathematics and she topped the test with 38 out of 40 in writing, and cent per cent in reading and maths,” Sathi teacher talks proudly about her student. “Mathematics was my favourite subject,” Amma adds with her toothless chuckles. Intriguingly, Amma can memorise the multiplication tables, poems and more.

The nonagenarian’s life has seen a sea change after the result was announced. “Until then, I had never travelled anywhere away from home, boarded a bus or a train,” while that was Amma, Sathi teacher takes over immediately, adding, “Imagine, now she is preparing to travel to the Kingdom of Bahrain in April to attend her felicitation programme. How many of us can even think of doing that at the age of 97? She is a dreamer, believer and achiever.”

After she received her certificate from Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister of Kerala, she has been flooded with various awards and accolades.

She is now learning to use the computer with the help of her grandchildren and Sathi teacher, the latter an integral part of Amma’s entourage. It’s either Sathi teacher or Amma’s daughter who take her to events and programmes.

“After she was seen expressing her alacrity to learn computers, she was given a laptop by none other than the State Education Minister, C Raveendranath,” the teacher adds with a smile. “I know how to type my name as well as the alphabets now,” an expressive Amma declares with remarkable confidence.

“Her enthusiasm and perseverance deserve a salute. When we take her around to give interviews and attend programmes, even if we are all worn-out and fatigued from the long day, Amma can still be seen strutting around the house.”

It seems like Sathi teacher cannot get enough of Karthyayani Amma. “Earlier it used to be just four or more cups of tea that takes her through the day. We now, try to give her wholesome meal at all times.”

“If anybody is ready to give me a job, I will take it, but who will give one, looking at my age?” That is a declaration from nonchalant Amma, who is not affected by anything. “She has already expressed her willingness to sit for SSLC equivalent examinations and then she will have hit a century,” Sathi teacher cannot stop laughing. “But I am sure she can and that is the courage and seriousness she shows.” Under Sathi and other trainers’ watchful eyes, Amma is convinced that she will pass the test with ease.

I am made aware too that Karthyayani Amma will be sitting for her second examinations come September. The preraks and trainers of the state literacy mission’s ‘Aksharalaksham’ programme are all geared up to give her all the assistance she needs. They are optimistic that Amma will once again make them proud. With a promise that I will go back to cover her success in the coming examinations, I reluctantly bring to a close my chat with a heart still bustling with irrepressible joy.

Margaret Eleanor Atwood, a Canadian poet in her poem “Spelling” wrote:

A word after a word
After a word is power.

Karthyayani Amma is surely an inspiration. Her mettle will inspire generations after generations who straddle this earth.