In 2001, when many of his compatriots sought refuge in India's cramped metros, Bihar native Pramod Kumar and his family made the long journey down south – to Kerala, a land which, he heard, offered better prospects for his family. Kerala topped the literacy rate in India, while Bihar lingered at the bottom.
Nineteen years down the lane, his bold move appears to have paid rich dividends. Kumar's daughter, Payal Kumari (21) recently bagged the first rank in BA History and Archaeology examination of Kerala's Mahatma Gandhi University, scoring 85 per cent.
Now, as showers of praise rain on her, it is easy to forget the many years of hardship that paved the way for this moment. Onmanorama caught up with Payal to know the inspiration behind her success, the dreams she harbours and her favourite movie star.
On early struggles
“We moved to Kerala in 2001. It was after my father learned of the possibilities that Kerala bestowed. He knew that my two siblings and I could have a future here because of the quality education system. It is far better than everywhere else,” Payal said.
But it was not an easy move. The family of five – Kumar, his wife Bindu, Payal and her two siblings – did not know even a single Malayalam word. To compound it all, they did not know anyone here or anywhere to go to, not at first.
“Though there were difficulties at first, it was nothing that we could not handle. Everyone was very kind and ready to help. It did not matter if we had money or no money or whether we could speak the language or not. We were treated as equals. For me, that is something endearing about Kerala,” Payal said.
“If not knowing the language is your most difficult problem when moving to another place, then you are okay,” Payal said.
Payal and her siblings now speak fluent Malayalam. But at home, they prefer to speak Hindi. They now live at a rented house near Kalamassery in Ernakulam.
Late to pay the fees
“The problem that we did have, we brought that with us – we did not have enough money. There was even a time when paying the annual college fees of Rs 3,000 was difficult. Once, I even considered dropping out so that at least my siblings could have a future,” Payal said.
Kumar, adamant about giving his children the best education possible, juggled several jobs and tried very hard to make ends meet. Even when hardships befell them, Kumar would insist that Payal only concentrated on her studies.
“My parents could not study well, but they knew quite well how empowering education was. They wanted to give the best education for us. They struggled really hard to see to this. Their struggles pained me, but they kept me focused,” Payal said.
But her perseverance saw her scoring 83 per cent mark in Class 10 examination and 95 per cent mark in Class 12.
Yet, some hardships were difficult to shake off. Payal was late to pay college fees on multiple occasions. The college authorities who knew Payal's capabilities were very concerned. On learning her plight, they decided to help.
“I was able to continue my studies because of the generosity of many, especially my teachers. They were very supportive,” Payal said. “This success belongs to them too. I hope they are proud.”
On education in Kerala & culture
Part of the success belongs to Kerala too, according to Payal.
“I often wonder what our lives would have been had we stayed in Bihar. Moving to Kerala has certainly changed our lives for the better. It is not just that there's good infrastructure here, the very culture is a pleasant one. Girls have more freedom here. They are encouraged to learn, take up jobs, and make the best of their lives,” Payal said.
“Also, I could walk the streets after dark and encounter no problem, my parents won't have any need for concern,” Payal added.
During her time at St Martin School in Palarivattom, and later at Ananda Chadrodayam Sabha Higher Secondary School (ACSHSS) in Kaloor, Payal was never made to feel like an outsider. “I had many friends. I was never made to feel any less, any different – not then, not now,” Payal said.
“I wonder if this would have been the case in Bihar had the circumstances were reversed. Bihar has many things to learn from Kerala,” Payal said and went on to add that her favourite festival is Onam and that she is eagerly looking forward to devouring the sadhya.
On pursuing Archaeology, and more
Despite scoring high marks in Class 12, Payal decided to pursue Archaeology for graduation at the Mar Thoma College in Perumbavoor. And she was often asked why she chose that “niche” a subject. Onmanorama too repeated the question, but Payal graciously answered it.
“I am very much interested in Archaeology. I know not why there are not enough people pursuing it. Everyone seems to blindly follow what is now expected of all – either engineering or medicine. But archaeology is an equally admirable field with an abundance of scope abroad,” Payal said.
When it seemed not convincing enough, she elaborated further.
“Our culture is a rich one, and our history, diverse. It fascinates me to learn that the first cities ever were ours: Harappa and Mohenjo-daro – part of the Bronze Age's Harappan civilization. Never mind the present-day borders. Imagine what that means to the larger world narrative?” Payal posed the question, then continued.
“Our history is a much wider one than what we associate with now – it dates back centuries, maybe longer. It is beyond the British, the colonisation, the Mughals. It is fascinating. Everyone is interested in it. Everyone except us. If we don't learn and embrace our own history, who will?” Payal asked. It is evident from how Payal speaks that her love for the subject is heartfelt.
Payal then goes on to describe the time she did her on-the-job training at Hill Palace Museum in Tripunithura. “It was a marvel,” she summed up the experience.
“Also, stories of our freedom struggle and later, how people like Gandhi and Ambedkar, with what few they had, rose to great heights, is a font of inspiration for me. It imbibes me with hope.”
“I intend to continue my studies. I have applied for a post-graduation course in History and Archaeology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi,” Payal said.
The 21-year-old whose hobbies include drawing and listening to music also intends to attempt the Civil Service exam. “It's a dream. It is an opportunity for me to return the favour, help the community that has taken us in so fondly,” Payal said.
Now, in the days of lockdown and isolation, Payal spends her time listening to the radio, raring for the days when she can go see her favourite actor Mammootty on the screen again, or walk the quaint streets of Fort Kochi, her favourite haunt.