Good morning, chetta!

I work as a teaching volunteer for an NGO called Make A Difference (MAD). Every weekend, around a hundred of our volunteers head to shelter homes across Trivandrum to teach English and Maths. Our objective is simple, yet daunting: to provide after-school support to the children in these shelter homes so that they can acquire the necessary certification to pursue higher education or career opportunities. In simpler terms, we want to ensure that our kids clear their tenth standard board exams with grades that enable them to fulfill their ambitions.

You might be wondering, ‘Why are tenth standard grades so crucial?’ Children in shelter homes are often forced to leave when they turn eighteen. They don’t always complete their schooling by then. Boys who leave shelter homes, more often than not, become drivers and watchmen whereas girls are often forced to take up jobs like tailoring or data entry. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? No, a steady salary of say, Rs. 10,000 a month seems okay at the age of eighteen. But what happens once you get married and have kids? It’ll be that same salary that’ll have to feed a family of four because regardless of whether you’re a fresher or have a lifetime of experience, your salary as a watchman is going to look more or less the same. The prerequisite for almost any steady job with salary increments now is a tenth standard pass certificate.

In the words of Renjith, one of our volunteers, ‘These kids have been through more traumatic situations than you and I could possibly even imagine. Considering what they’ve been through, it’s not surprising that education is probably the least of their worries. It’s more about getting on with their lives. It’s about survival.’ Coupled with a malnourished upbringing, it’s not altogether surprising that many of the children that we teach have learning disabilities to varying degrees.

The government schools that these children attend often don’t have the resources to provide them with the support and training needed to overcome these disabilities. I’ve also been told that the policy at government schools is to promote students up until tenth standard regardless of their actual progress at school. I can’t imagine that any sane government would actually implement such an absurd policy! I’ve also heard that it’s possible to score marks by answering the English paper in Malayalam! I guess that’s what it takes to muster an SSLC pass percentage of close to 90%. If this is the situation in Kerala, India’s most literate state, you can imagine how appalling things must be elsewhere!

As a result, the ninth standard kids that I teach didn’t even know the meaning of simple three letter words like ‘fat’ at the start of this academic year (before we started classes). Their school syllabus is pretty demanding; they are expected to study short stories like ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ by Alexander Baron. The gap that we’re trying to bridge, between where they stand and what is expected of them, is huge, and it’s nigh near impossible for us to set right years of apathy with regards to these kids’ education with just three hours of intervention every week.

Teaching them a short story is relatively easy while poems are tougher to digest. The toughest part for them however is answering the textual questions in English. Even though they might know the answers, getting them to put it across in English is very difficult, considering that most of them still have trouble reading. However, we’re making progress, slowly but surely. My kids have now learnt how to frame simple sentences. If you ask them a question in English now, they’ll be able to give you an answer in English, albeit sometimes missing an auxiliary verb or an article.

The most rewarding moments as a teacher aren’t always curriculum-related. When I started out this year, I noticed that there was a girl named Krishna in my class who was extremely reticent and lacked confidence. She was very hesitant about answering questions because she wasn’t as competent as her peers. But over the past few months, my co-teachers (Ajith, Ameya and Lekshmi) and I have managed to coax her into answering questions in class. Krishna now wears a smile on her face when I walk into class. She recently said that I looked like a junglee, because of my afro, much to the amusement of her classmates. Last week, she even asked if Ameya could help her out a bit more with spelling and reading. It’s moments like these, that keep us going back to class, week after week.

At times, the work that we do can get immensely frustrating. Sometimes the reality of how our weekend class actually pans out might be in stark contrast to what we plan. We might not see results that are proportional to the efforts that we put in but sometimes all it takes to make a difference is being able to tell my kids, ‘Mole, chettan adutha aazhchayum padipikkan varuum.’  And I can feel it every Sunday morning, when I’m greeted by eight smiling faces and their chorus of ‘Good morning, chetta!’

fReaKerZ oF kEraLa!!

If you live in Kerala, chances are that you cringe every time you hear the Malayalam word ‘freaker’. In case you’re wondering, freaker is the common name given to a new subspecies of human beings (scientifically classified as Homo sapiens freakus malabaricus) found predominantly in urban settlements across Kerala. Although genetically similar to normal human beings, they have an irrational affinity towards gaudy clothes in fluorescent colours. They are known to take photographs in these clothes and upload them onto Facebook. It is also said that they attack unsuspecting Facebook users with messages like: ‘Heyyy broowiie, plz liek my pro pik!’ Etymologically, the Malayalam word ‘freaker’ is a corruption of the English ‘freaker’. In either language, the meaning is more or less the same. Freakerz are also commonly referred to as chullanz, mwonjanz and hip-hop boyz.

Now, whether you like it or not, chances are that you’ve come across some of these freakerz on Facebook atleast, if not in real life. If you’re in Trivandrum, just head to Kovalam or Kanakakunnu Palace on a Sunday evening and you’ll be able to see them first-hand.

Tamy, an engineering student from Calicut, had this to say about how freakerz originated, ‘I don’t even know how it all started. There’s the influence of Malayalam movies, in which the actors look ridiculous sometimes. Wonder who works on their make-up and costumes!’ Like most fads, it’s hard to pinpoint when or where the whole freaker culture exactly started. Freakerz however did gain mainstream attention through Malayalam movies like Honeybee, ABCD, Da Thadiya and Ustad Hotel. Sreenath Bhasi, through his movie roles, has come to be seen as the quintessential Malayali freaker: someone who speaks an amalgam of Malayalam and English, unnecessarily peppered with terms of endearment like bro, machaan and dude.

If taking selfies and posting them on Instagram is a symptom of narcissism, freakerz take it to the next level. At the same time, they’ve perfected the art of amassing Facebook likes and comments for their photos. There are a few who see it as an attempt at amateur modelling but most people seem to dismiss it as attention seeking behavior.  Sarath, an engineering student from Kochi, is of the opinion that they do it to gain attention and to be different from what a normal Malayali would be like. There are a few similarities between freakerz in Kerala, and goths & emos in the West. They’re all manifestations of the same urge for personal expression but push the limits of what is acceptable in society. And of course, there’s the superficial similarity of excessive eye-liner use.

As a state, Kerala has always welcomed non-conformists and rebels. More people know about Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix here than probably any other state in India. Unfortunately, the interest isn’t strictly musical. Che Guevara is also very popular. Adopted as the poster boy (literally) of the SFI, his face adorns the walls of almost every college here. So it’s not altogether surprising that the freaker culture has taken root so quickly in Kerala. Being a conservative state, this is also probably one of the only ways by which young adults here can push the rigid limits imposed by society.

Anurag, an engineering student from Kannur, had this to say, ‘I find it repulsive but it’s not wrong. It’s just another way of life and you can’t question it. They have their freedom of expression while we have freedom of thought. They think it looks cool and we all choose to make fun of them. Kerala is a state where the actual progress into the so called ‘western culture’ is much slower than the teenagers here would like it to be. So they express these emotions in multiple ways, portraying themselves as better, cooler and hipper.’

There are also others like Anova, an architecture student, who are more open to freakerz, ‘I’ve come to realise they are, in many ways, much nicer than people like you and me. We all have phases in our lives where we do peculiar things, imitate people or styles. It’s something that we all do, to varying degrees.’

At the end of the day, freakerz are not doing anyone any harm so I think we should just let them be. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong in all of us wishing them a speedy mental recovery.

With inputs from Alaka, Keerthi, Ashok and Anju.