The Land of the Thunder Dragon may be 3,000 kilometres away from God’s own country, but from the 1960s onwards, Bhutan has had a special place in the hearts of many Keralites who have taught there.
Till the 1950s, monasteries on jagged hilltops doubled up as schools in the reclusive Himalayan nation. After a new government policy was introduced to change this situation, a Bhutanese delegation came to Kerala in 1962 to recruit teachers.
Among the first to be recruited were V. James and his wife Kochuthresiyamma, who started their teaching career in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, but later went on to work in tougher terrain like Wangdue Phodrang, a district in central Bhutan. Their daughter Saji Thankappan recalls her father setting up schools in difficult regions. “My mother had to even wash up the kids before bringing them to schools,” she reminisces.
Venunadhan PiIlai’s turn came in the 1980s. Bhutan came to him as an experience to cherish, starting with his first trip to reach his workplace in Pawgong in the southwestern part of the country; it involved a 70-hour train ride, some off-roading, and plodding on tracks along steep gradients. In that remote locale, he found a new life, made new friends, and learnt to relish delicacies such as Bhutan’s national dish, the fiery Ema Datshi that he still makes, albeit with less spice.
“The kids spoke Dzongkha, the native language, and we spoke English. What linked us was their innocence and our enthusiasm to reach out to them,” Mr. Pillai recalls. His memories of his 10-year term in Bhutan are in the process of being recorded in a book.
Now teaching at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, Devadas Rajaram’s memories of his Bhutan stint include his meeting with the former king who had a high regard for teachers from Kerala. “We feel the love even now; recently, I was added to a social media group of the students I taught 29 years ago,” he says.
Pradeep K., returning to school after holidaying with family in Kannur, is among the thinning force of Malayali teachers still in Bhutan, which now boasts of 99% educational development rate at the primary school level.
“It may now be time for some Indian States to learn from Bhutan’s efforts to improve the quality of schooling,” V. Santhakumar of Azim Premji University and researcher Phuntsho Choden say in their paper titled, ‘Improving the quality of schooling: Some observations from Bhutan’.
“If in the 60s, the Keralite teacher headcount was about 60% of the workforce, now it is around 30%,” says Mr. Pradeep. The Bhutanese curriculum is being revamped to be inclusive as per a new baccalaureate system in which the Keralite teachers too are participating.
There may be fewer teachers from Kerala in future, but most Bhutanese youth have fond memories of their childhood years spent with the Malayali teachers who taught them Maths and English. One such student was Choki Wangchuk, who now runs a travel agency in Paro, in eastern Bhutan. “Times were tough yet they gave us the best. I hope they took back good memories,” he says.