Many of us learn to read by the age of six or seven, however some people aren’t so lucky. In India, a woman has made headlines for learning the skill a century or so later; at the age of 104, to be exact.
In a country that is improving its literacy rate steadily but where only two-thirds of women can read, Kerala resident Kutiyamma had never had the time nor the resources to learn how to read until recently, when she began classes with her neighbour, who works as a teacher.
Kutiyamma’s life without reading
The literacy question that we face today is not whether we can read, but HOW we read. Paperback books play second fiddle to electronic devices: adults are now more likely to consume online content as diverse as restaurant reviews and responsible gambling guides, than settle down with a Charles Dickens classic.
For Kutiyamma, however, even traditional print was out of her reach for over 100 years of her life. Her routine over the course of a century simply didn’t involve books, as she cooked, cleaned and fed animals in her village of Thiruvanchoor. The centenarian comes from a low caste family, which in India means a life of poverty with little or no education, especially for women.
As the daughter of farm labourers, life was tough for the young Kutiyamma. She took care of her 11 siblings while her parents worked: she cooked for them, washed their clothes and kept the family’s hut clean. She married a shop owner at 16 and had five children – once again, she was expected to do domestic duties while her husband worked, and her busy life meant books were out of the equation.
Yet, Kutiyamma was always curious. In an interview with the UK’s The Guardian newspaper, she spoke of how she used to try and spell out the alphabet to herself as she did her daily chores. A passion for reading was burning deep inside her, until a neighbour who worked as a teacher helped her set it alight.
How reading has changed her life
Indian villages tend to have close-knit communities where residents do each other favours, or trade in goods between each other rather than using money.
In Kutiyamma’s case, a friendship with neighbour Rehana John, a literacy trainer, led to regular evening classes. After months of teaching and sustained progress, Rehana signed her elderly student up to the Kerala state literacy exam in November – the oldest-ever woman to do so. Kutiyamma passed with flying colours.
Her teacher put the achievement down to hard work, saying that her now-famous student “always has her textbook, notebooks and pens ready’ before each class”. To return the favour, Kutiyamma brings along homemade delicacies for the two of them to enjoy.“She is my mother now” says Rehana, “we are sharing a rare kind of camaraderie and relationship.”
Now Kutiyamma spends two hours a day reading through the local paper and keeping up to date with current affairs. As a state politician said when told about this remarkable feat: age is no barrier for knowledge.
Kuttiyamma is 104, and she never went to school
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) December 6, 2021
Other late learners
Kutiyamma’s story is an inspiration to anyone hoping to learn something late in life, and many other people have made headlines for achieving key skills over the age of 90.
In the UK, motor association Motor Easy shared details of the oldest people to apply for provisional driving licenses in 2021. Among them was a 99-year-old learner driver who clearly wanted to spend her hundredth year becoming more mobile, while the records also showed 96- and 97-year-old learners.
Yet it’s not just learning skills that the very old can amaze us with; they sometimes come up with feats of endurance, too. Take Fauja Singh, who didn’t start running until the age of 89. He ran his first marathon the following year and continued them until he turned 100, including the London, Toronto and Hong Kong races. His efforts inspired many people, so much so that an author decided to write a children’s book about him which challenges stereotypes about age.
So, whether it’s reading a book, driving a car or even running 26.2 miles, it all boils down to one simple fact: age is just a number.