Malayalam hai, bhai

P Anima | Updated on January 08, 2018

Letter by letter: Malayalam learning classes are held every Sunday across Perumbavoor

Hamari Malayalam

Kerala is helping migrant labourers learn Malayalam and their rights

Hamari Malayalam is an unusual textbook. So are its intended readers. Halfway through the book is a large image of the traditional Kerala sadya served on plantain leaf. A sadya leaf typically teems with a dozen dishes; the inevitables — rice, sambar, thoran, avial, fries, ghee and pickle — are duly named in the photograph. Right below are images of two other Kerala staples — kappa-meen (tapioca fish curry) and biryani.

At a time when food is politics, Hamari Malayalam consciously speaks the language of differences and inclusion. An initiative with little precedence, it is the Kerala State Literacy Mission’s attempt to teach Malayalam to the State’s sizeable migrant population. Migrant workers from West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand and other States form the mainstay of Kerala’s workforce today. The mission’s Changathi (Companion — Migrant Labour Literacy Programme) acknowledges their pivotal contribution to society. Changathi aims to reach out, befriend, spur conversations and dissolve chasms of language.

Much of this happens against a background of isolation of migrant workers by the mainstream. Instances of violence against them are not unheard of. Changathi initiates change by not just teaching Malayalam, but also putting the onus of its success on society. Its end is not merely to enable a worker from Assam to read a hotel menu in Malayalam, but also create a society accepting of outsiders.

A literate migrant worker is the intention, an educated one the mission. Hence, Hamari Malayalam begins with Part III of the Constitution — Fundamental Rights. It tells people who have journeyed thousands of miles from home for a livelihood, and remain on the fringes, that they have rights — of equality, freedom against exploitation, of religion.

“Social literacy has been a purpose of our initiatives, but it gets a lot of prominence in Changathi,” says PS Sreekala, director of the mission.

Perumbavoor, in Ernakulam district, has one of the largest migrant populations in the State. A pilot project was launched here by creating support groups, ward-level organising committees and roping in all who matter — politicians, police officials and social workers. Student volunteers of MES College, Marampally, conducted a survey of the migrant workers at their workplaces — plywood, timber and plastic factories, small hotels, and at homes.

The findings were an eye-opener. A workforce that was lumped under the umbrella term “bhai” was shown to be anything but homogeneous. First of all was the realisation that they are not well-versed in Hindi. “We had thought they all speak Hindi. But most were illiterate in it,” says EV Anil, State coordinator of the mission. The workers described their everyday struggle with the local language and wanted to learn enough Malayalam to read bus boards, buy rice and engage affectionately with Malayalis. They needed enough words to see them through their jobs.

Back in Thiruvananthapuram, the mission officials tasked with putting together a textbook had their work cut out for them, but few models to go by. They were making a learners’ guide for adults with specific requirements. Interactions on the field convinced them to include sections on human and Constitutional rights. “They were hardly aware of their rights. We realised the need to promote a sense of fraternity between the migrants and Malayalis,” says Anil. Sections on health, hygiene, environment, pollution and diversity worked itself into the textbook.

Hamari Malayalam is split into 25 key sections — all aspects of a migrant’s life in Kerala. It ranges from a visit to the bank, hospital, cinema or restaurant, to seeking school admission, calculating savings, booking train tickets, and employment rights.

Additionally, Changathi was a community effort. When Hamari Malayalam was ready, MES College students pitched in again. Forty undergraduates and a dozen other volunteers were trained to teach the text . Over 400 migrant workers of Perumbavoor registered for the six-month course.

Unlikely spaces have become classrooms since August 15. Inside factories and auditoriums, anganwadis and union offices, libraries and shelters, classes are held every Sunday across 17 wards. Tiny Vijayan, a schoolteacher, remembers the first time she drove into a timber factory campus for her class. She initially felt intimidated by the sight of scores of migrant workers. “I almost turned back my scooter. But they came forward and spoke to me. That’s when I told them I’m their instructor,” says Vijayan over the phone from Perumbavoor. After three classes, Vijayan admits her apprehensions are wearing off. She recollects their excitement when each of them received a copy of Hamari Malayalam. “They wanted to write their names in Malayalam. I did so, and have asked them to learn it,” she says. Their desire to learn is clearly apparent. “Almost 40 of them turned up for the last class. I have asked them to bring along their wives for the next.”

Gouraharadas spells out his name in English over the phone. He works at a plastic factory in Perumbavoor and has attended three classes so far. “ Bahut accha laga (It was very good),” he says of the experience. After a decade in Kerala, he is looking forward to being able to read bus routes. As Changathi gets on track in Perumbavoor, the mission is to spread it across Kerala. “Surveys are underway in other districts,” says Sreekala.

Kerala, meanwhile, is warming up to “ cha” for “chawal”.

Published on October 20, 2017

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