“English” said the children in the class. We had just asked what their favourite subject was. Not the smartest question to pose in an Indian classroom. If the first two kids say “English,” then every tyke in the room will likely say the same. When you see the first two victims give an answer without being punished for it, you know this is the way to go.
S. Vijaylaxmi – teacher extraordinary
But this isn’t just any place. It’s the single-teacher Integrated Tribal Development Project school in Edalippara. It’s located in Kerala’s remotest and only tribal panchayat, Edamalakudi. And nowhere outside the school can you hear English spoken. It’s hard to find any boards, posters or even signage in that language. Yet it was, the children said, their favourite subject. Like many other schools, this one in Idukki district runs classes 1-4 combined in a single room. Headed by a truly wonderful teacher, severely underpaid, heavily overworked, battling impossible conditions, but dedicated to her flock.
And there is a dissenter. “Maths,” said one brave little fellow, standing up. Show us your math, we demanded, placing him on the burning deck. He did, puffing up his tiny chest and racing through tables 1-12 without a pause for breath or applause. I think he was into a second round when we had to put a lid on him.
We turned to the separate bench near teacher with five young girls, obviously the intellectual elite of the class. Their special seating arrangement suggested as much. The oldest might have been 11. The rest were nine years old or less. The boy had put his math where his mouth is, we pointed out. Now it was their turn to deliver on the claim of English being their favourite subject. Let’s listen to some English, then, girls.
The singing quintet – also clearly the ‘intellectual elite’ of classes 1-4
They were a bit shy, as anyone might be finding their classroom invaded by eight unknown and strange-looking men. Then teacher S. Vijaylaxmi said: “Sing them a song, girls.” And they did. We all know that Adivasis can sing. And these five Muthavan girls sang beautifully. Perfectly in tune. Not a syllable out of sync. They were still shy. Little Vaidehi kept her head low and looked at her table rather than at her audience. But they were terrific. The lyrics, however, were off the wall.
It was an ode to a potato.
They do grow yam somewhere in the Idukki hills. But I’m not sure the potato is grown anywhere within a hundred kilometres of Edalippara.
Anyway – and you can listen to it yourself – the song went:
Oh, my dear Potato
I like the potato
You like the potato
We like the potato
Potato, Potato, Potato
It was so nicely sung, exalting a humble tuber we weren’t sure they’d ever consumed. (Maybe we were wrong. A couple of villages near Munnar are said to have begun potato cultivation. They would be about 50 kilometres away). But the lyric stayed with us. Weeks later, most of us still hum the song. Not because we’re lovers of the super spud – which all eight of us, I think, are – but because they just mesmerised us with that crazy, but seriously-delivered lyric. And with that utterly charming performance.
The students and teacher Vijaylaxmi just outside their single-classroom school
But back to the classroom. After much applause and persuading them to repeat the song for the video cameras, we turned on the boys. They’d been outclassed, we insinuated. Could they match that performance? They rose to the challenge. Theirs was more a recital than a singing. And while very good, they were no match for the girls in delivery. But their words were far more bizarre.
This was a 'Prayer to a Doctor'. A kind that could only be written, recited or sung in India. I’m not going to spoil you by telling you all the words – nor fix their doctor video onto this post. That would be too much of a good thing. And this piece is for the Fab Five: Anshila Devi, Uma Devi, Kalpana, Vaidehi and Jasmine. However, I can reveal that the Prayer to A Doctor had classic India-only lines like “My stomach is paining doctor. I need an operation, doctor. Operation, Operation, Operation.”
But that’s another song. And that video will have to wait for another day.
For now, peel your potato song.
This article originally appeared on P.Sainath.org on June 26, 2014.
Photos: P. Sainath