Dr. Ramakrishnan Palat is the founder of the Prasanthi School for Children with Special Needs, based in Kozhikode, Kerala. Established in 2000, Prasanthi has received numerous accolades for its efforts in the field of autism and special needs education. During his academic career, Dr. Palat also received great acknowledgement for his work in the conservation of forest architecture.
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” – Khalil Gibran.
Dr. Ramakrishnan Palat’s memoir Mundakkottukurushiyil Ninnu Ivide Vare (From Mundakkottukurushi till Here) came out earlier this year. Filled with memories, anecdotes and lessons, it’s a token of the many souls Palat touched in the 76 years of his life.
Born in Kozhikode, Palat received his doctorate in Zoology from Calicut University. During a career of 34 years as an academician, Palat received great acknowledgement for his tireless efforts in the conservation of forest architecture, particularly in Silent Valley and other regions of the Western Ghats. He also presented numerous papers in India and abroad, on the flora and fauna of the forests of Malabar region. For his students, Palat was more of a friend and a guardian and not just their professor.
But Palat perhaps wrote the most important chapter of his life in his retirement. The last two decades of his universe has revolved around his children of Prasanthi.
Established in 2000, Prasanthi holds the distinction of being the first institution in Kerala, and the only one till now, to receive the prestigious Spandana award for excellence in work in the field of autism, in 2014.
The school received the Best Special School Award from the Kerala Social Welfare Department consecutively for two years too, apart from numerous other recognitions over the years. Prasanthi particularly focuses on working with children with developmental disabilities from economically backward families.
The Birth of Navajyothi and Prasanthi
A visit to a student’s home towards the twilight of his teaching career led to Palat’s decision to take the road less travelled by.
The student and her mother lived in piteous conditions. The mother’s wages were barely enough to fulfill their basic needs, let alone pay for the girl’s college fees. But what shook Palat more was noticing two small boys tied to a tree with rope at the back of the house.
The mother told him that the boys were “mentally retarded”. The neighbours had complained of their nuisance and threatened to get the boys admitted to a mental hospital. The mother had enquired about schools that took care of such children in the city, but their fees were more than what she earned in a month. She was left with no choice but to do this.
“The incident affected me deeply. I had been pondering for a while about my life after retirement. It was clear to me now that I wanted to do something for children with special needs. So, I joined for a B. Ed course on special education at Bharathiar University, Tamil Nadu,” he looks back. It was quite hectic for him to manage his work and course at the same time, but he was determined to go through with it.
Right after his retirement in 2000, he came to know about such a place called Navajyothi, near Mathara, Kozhikode. The school took care of only six children and was about to close down due to its limited infrastructure and facilities.
Palat decided to take over Navajyothi and make it more organised. The non-profit organisation Navajyothi Charitable Trust was registered in the same year and the school was renamed to Prasanthi School for Children with Special Needs.
“This was at a time when our society was so ignorant about conditions like Autism and Down’s syndrome. Specially-abled children were addressed as mentally challenged or retarded’,” he says.
A Phase of Learning and Challenges
Prasanthi was intended to be a caretaking facility for those few children at first. The children came from economically struggling families, so food was arranged for them at the school. The family’s income certificate had to be presented mandatorily and the admissions always started from those families which were economically the weakest.
Palat smiles with amusement as he recalls his trips to the market every morning to get the vegetables for that day’s meal at the school. “My wife used to tease me that I was never this dedicated to running things at home.” He acknowledges fondly the immense support his wife, Prof. Seetha Ramakrishnan, has provided him over the years in his journey with Prasanthi.
Talking about how they made sure no family was pressured to pay up hefty admission fees, he adds, “The family could pay Rs. 5,000 annually as expenses for their child and had an option to do so in instalments too. For those who couldn’t afford that as well, we sought donations from outside. But we never denied a child admission because of the lack of money.”
From Baby Steps to Big Strides
In Navajyothi and Prasanthi’s two-decade-old journey, every time they felt they had reached a dead-end, someone came along and helped them overcome the challenge. Dr. Krishnakumar has been such an influential figure for the institution since its early days, Palat notes.
“Dr. P. Krishnakumar was the Director of IMHANS (The Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences) then. A few months into Prasanthi’s establishment, he visited us one day, having heard of the school through someone. Impressed by our intentions and ethics, he asked if he could join us. We were thrilled to have someone like him, of course,” he recollects. Dr. Krishnakumar currently serves as the chairman of the advisory body of Navajyothi.
He also advised them to get a more systematic process in order; have a detailed file for each child in the school, analyse their conditions and help the children accordingly. The trust decided to hire more specialist teachers too. A psychiatric specialist from the medical college visited the school every month, to assess and review the children’s progress. Dr. Krishnakumar also invited the teachers at Prasanthi for related seminars and courses at IMHANS.
By 2007, the number of students had gone well past 50 and Prasanthi was forced to relocate to Karaparamba. This was when all the members of Navajyothi unanimously agreed that getting their own land and building was inevitable. And while Palat and others narrowed down on a place at Pantheeramkavu, money was again an issue.
“We procured the land nonetheless and moved on to building our school there with a lot of hope, but not a great deal of money at hand,” Palat laughs while thinking of those days. They faced many hiccups as expected, but at every juncture, received help from some source.
Thus, Prasanthi finally moved to its land and building in the middle of 2009, one of the happiest moments for everyone associated with the institution, he proudly recalls.
Even when he had used up his savings and his monthly pension for running Prasanthi many a time, the thought of turning back from this plan never occurred to him, Palat says.
They noticed quite early on that the children with special needs that came to Prasanthi fell into two groups broadly. Those who could be trained on the basic, day-to-day things, enough for them to be self-sufficient in future. The others, despite the training, might need support throughout their life. Prasanthi focused on providing them with various forms of therapy – physio, occupational, speech, etc. As time passed, the school progressed from basic training to more advanced activities, like teaching the students to read and so on.
The lack of awareness in the parents was another challenge altogether, Palat says. “We told them at the beginning itself never to address their child’s condition as a ‘disease’.”
Palat acknowledges that when he and the others started, they had little knowledge about the nuances of the different conditions in the autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While the interactions with the experts in the field and the seminars have helped them, they couldn’t be compared to what they learnt through their experiences with the children, he feels.
Palat vividly recalls one such early experience. “A small child, who was usually rather calm, started behaving very agitatedly one day. We tried to pacify him but to no avail. Eventually, Dr. Krishnakumar dropped in for a visit and after observing, asked a teacher if she wore the same bindi every day. She was baffled by the question but replied that she had indeed worn a larger one that particular day. He asked her to take it off and go to the child again. And just like that, the kid stopped crying!”
“We don’t learn such things just by reading books, do we?” Palat muses.
The school has always maintained a system of one teacher for every eight children. More teachers have been regularly appointed as the number of students increased at Prasanthi, but they never compromised on this system.
“We make all these points clear to the parents too at the time of admission,” Palat says. “We share our observations about a child to the parents and we expect them to provide their feedback by the next day and attend the PTA meetings without fail. We hold counselling sessions for the parents regularly too. But if they don’t put in the necessary effort, we make that point across strictly,” he further explains.
Being a Child with Special Needs
“These children are often victims of sexual abuse. Since it is difficult for them to comprehend what had happened, it’s difficult to get them to share with us,” Palat says, his voice faltering as he talks about some of the issues the special needs children face from our society. A medical expert is also involved to provide the therapy and counselling, he adds.
Many a time, it was observed that the perpetrator was someone closely associated with the family. When the school urged them to get a medical test done and file an official case, the parent(s) would hesitate to do so. Coming from difficult socio-economic conditions, the family was either dependent on the same people responsible for the heinous act and/or worried about the adverse cascading effect it would have on their life.
“These situations make us feel so helpless too.”
Work exploitation was another issue that Palat had personally witnessed Prasanthi’s children facing after they left the school.
Palat feels that things have indeed transformed for the better in this century. Earlier, the parents of an autistic child were unwilling or embarrassed to take the kid along with them for a function, and would even lock them up in a room when guests visited.
“These things have certainly changed though. There are lesser misconceptions in the society and the conditions and the families are willing to educate themselves more,” he notes.
Prasanthi has a long-standing tradition of taking the students on an annual three-day tour. Only the staff and the children are part of the trip as a rule. The parents are always worried sick the first time, Palat says. But the first trip was always enough to assure them. This, along with the occasional one-day trips within the city, provided much-needed exposure for the children.
But there’s something he has noticed over the years that has bothered him deeply too. In many families, when a differently-abled child is born, the responsibility almost always falls on the mother to take care of them. Due to ignorance or lack of empathy or both, the mother often gets blamed for the “problem”. Some are divorced, thrown out of the house by their husbands and don’t get the support of their own families as well.
An Uninvited Guest
While Palat’s journey with Navajyothi and Prasanthi was not bereft of impediments in any manner at all, he always took them in stride. But just as the school was finding its feet, it was time for him to face a new challenge, an “unexpected guest” as Palat refers to in his memoir – in the form of cancer.
“There were signs from time to time, but I was too busy with the school’s activities and ignored them. I was diagnosed with Lymphoma (lymphatic cancer) and started my chemotherapy in late 2009,” he recalls one of the most demanding periods in his life.
While many practical difficulties had sprung up along with initiating treatment, the presence of Palat’s well-wishers, but most importantly his loving pupils, helped him wherever he went.
Prasanthi was on its own land by then and its10th-anniversary celebration was also around the corner. While Palat had refrained from visiting the school during his chemo time, he encouraged the plans to still be on track.
“Mujeeb Rahman, the school’s Principal, and Dr. Krishnakumar took care of the administrative things in my absence. Everybody else took on more responsibilities because they didn’t want me to worry at all,” he remembers warmly.
But despite all these genuine efforts, the long-drawn and regular chemo sessions were draining him physically and emotionally. Mujeeb – an important part of Prasanthi – also got a government job during this time and had to leave. This forced the members of Navajyothi trust to sit together and discuss the future of the school.
A Change That Was Not to Be
There were many suggestions, Palat says, but finally, they decided upon ULCCS – a successful construction firm – who was interested in taking over the management of this non-profit organisation. As the next step, five members of the Navajyothi trust resigned and were replaced by those from ULCCS with Palat being retained as the Director. One of the first conditions he had put forward before initiating this change was that none of the teachers should be replaced or let go, which the ULCCS management had agreed to.
But things started taking a drastic turn soon enough, Palat recollects.
“The culture of Prasanthi was being forcefully transformed,” he says. “We realised that for ULCCS this seemed like ‘token charity work’. The staff who had been with us for so long also became discontent with the shift in the environment.”
The new management also made proposals to the government to start self-financing courses – for physiotherapy and others – at the institution. Palat realised that their long-term plan was to transform the school from a special needs school to a self-financing centre like umpteen others.
“This was the final nail in the coffin. Within six months after they took over in 2019, it was complete chaos. I finally put in my resignation from the trust as I knew I couldn’t continue there with good conscience.”
Soon enough the new management started feeling the impact of their actions though. Many of the parents who had approached the institution because of their belief in them withdrew their children. The numerous well-wishers and generous donors who were in this journey because they believed in Palat’s and Prasanthi’s ideologies, slowly distanced themselves. The indifference was apparent and ULCCS started feeling the pressure.
Eventually, the management contacted Palat, acknowledging the conundrum they were in. They wished to return the administration to Palat and his team as before. The ULCCS trust members resigned by the end of the year and Navajyothi’s previous members were reinstated.
“While their management was flawed, I did have a good rapport with their chairman of the trust. And before they left, they had made sure the finances and the other stuff were in order. So, I’m glad we ended on a good note,” he says.
Experiences – Sweet and Sour
It’s hard to pick the most special memories about Prasanthi and his children, as he affectionately refers to them, in these years, Palat feels. There have been instances in which children, whom their family and others expected to not talk at all, learned to do that gradually. Another time, a child at Malarvadi, ate a full meal by himself. His mother told them in tears later that the child’s father, working abroad, was overjoyed when he saw a video of it. These moments are all equally special to them, he says.
As much as Prasanthi found support and encouragement during this two-decade-long journey, it wasn’t always a smooth sail either, Palat admits. Palat and others have had to stand tall many times against those who tried to demoralise them and disrupt their efforts purposely.
The Journey So Far
When they started 21 years ago, he had barely Rs. 7,000 in hand, the septuagenarian reminisces. Fast forward to now, the school has 146 children and 22 teachers to look after them. There are also seven “special staff”, who are ex-students of the school. Three years ago, the school also started Malarvadi, a special pre-school for children aged one to five. There’s also a centre for vocational training for those aged above 18. The trust has also expanded with over 20 members in it.
Palat has travelled extensively inside Kerala to raise awareness about autism and other conditions through the example of Prasanthi. He has also presented papers on the subject in institutes in Delhi and Kolkata among others.
Dr. Krishnakumar and Palat were invited at Cardiff University to present a seminar on how a government and a private institute (IMHANS and Prasanthi respectively) could work hand-in-hand for the education of children with special needs. They were also invited to universities in Australia and New Zealand to talk about the same. “In all these places, they were curious to know how I, a Zoology professor, got interested in this field,” he laughs.
Palat reckons so much more can be done if society changes its mindset. “I want everyone to know that children with special needs don’t need sympathy, but empathy from this world. They deserve the same rights and love as other children around us. We need to hold them close; walk along with them on their journey and not lead the way and ask them to follow us.”
The school had to be shut down along with the rest of the country due to the Covid pandemic last year. While other schools have opened up in the state, the special needs schools hadn’t received permission for so long. But the long wait for this big family will be finally over as the school will be reopened by the second week of December.
He hasn’t travelled a lot in the recent past, the pandemic being one reason, but also due to his deteriorating health. His trips are restricted to taking out Kannan – his pug – these days, Palat says, petting the pup.
“Well, I don’t know what the future holds for Prasanthi and me. A lot has happened in these years. When I look back, all I can think of is a poem by N.N. Kakkad – Saphalamee Yathra (A Journey Fulfilled).
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