Minutes after the 35-odd children settle around a brown table mat that runs lengthwise on the corridor outside the classroom, Kumari ayah's hands get full.
The toddlers in the group want her to open their steel and plastic lunch packs. While a majority in the group dig into the food, Kumari ayah takes turns to feed three children their lunch – beetroot mixed rice, idli soaked in sambar and some lemon rice.
In between come the calls and complaints: “Ayah-amma, water bottle tharanthu thanga,” asks one boy. “Deva sapada mattengaran,” shouts another. She handles every request of the kindergarten students even while, with a stern look, telling the children to finish their lunch quickly.
This is a routine lunch hour practice and M. Kumari and other ayahs at the Chennai Primary School, Saidapet have mastered the art of managing children over the years. “In fact, these children are much easy to handle now than when they first come to school. We had to feed every child or they would not eat,” says Kumari, working as an ayah for the last 20 years.
From cajoling first-time school goers to toilet training them, ayahs or helpers aiding primary class teachers play a crucial role in removing the fear that children usually have when in a new environment. The ayahs are the first to reach school and among the last to leave. They are at the beck and call of every kindergarten class teacher and know almost every child by his or her name.
For 26 years now, L. Rajeshwari (54) has been running errands for teachers and children at The Hindu Senior Secondary School, Indira Nagar. She and the other ayahs in the school say the work is not monotonous as it is a new batch of students they get and requirement varies. “Today's children know a lot more etiquette than the previous years, so our work is much easier,” says Rajeshwari.
“We have to take care of children who are unwell and yet to learn toilet habits, they say. The worst is when the child has a stomach upset and we have to manage them. It is not an easy task,” say R. Nisha and Govindaamma, ayahs at a Chennai School.
The ayahs in the government school, who discharge their duties with a smile, however, are upset that their service is not acknowledged. There are sore about their salaries. An ayah who started with Rs.700 in 1985 now draws Rs.3,000. Those in private schools start from Rs.2,500.
Getting an invitation from an old student is the biggest surprise they take pride in their job. “We do attend their marriages when invited,” they add. While age and experience does count in handling the pressures of the job, quite a number of schools only recruit young women who can multi-task. As P.Kiruba (39) working in a private school in Anna Nagar, says “When I have problems at home, I am upset. But, I cannot show it on children as they will not come to school the next day. Moreover, when you are with children you learn to forget your own worries,” she adds.