Sometime in 2001, deep inside the Nilambur forests in Kerala, little kids from the Cholanaikkars, a community of former cave dwellers, were out playing when they saw a man approaching them. Sensing trouble, the children ran away. They climbed trees and hid inside caves to escape. However, two of them — six-year-old Vinod C and his friend Rajimol — could not get away. They were swiftly picked up by the man and much to their horror, put in nearby tribal schools to study. Seventeen years later, Vinod (now 23) laughs as he recalls this fond memory of his accidental brush with academics.
“I used to see my brothers being sent to school and they would return only three months later for vacation. Staying away for so long was a nightmarish thought. But I was lured with the promise of bananas and new clothes,” says Vinod.
The Cholanaikkars are one of the few existing communities of cave dwellers in Asia – a tiny and elusive populace of 300 odd people living in South India’s tropical forests. These days, most Cholanaikka families of Nilambur have moved away from caves and only go back during rains or wildlife threats, according to Kerala Institute for Research Training & Development studies of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (KRITADS) Deputy Director Pradeep Kumar. Nonetheless, they are still unaware of the ways of the urban world and for most parts, live a secluded life.
Earlier this year, Vinod became the first Master’s degree holder from the Cholanaikkars after graduating in Applied Economics from CUSAT (Cochin University of Science and Technology). 'The man' in his memory is Vishwanathan Nair, the former director of the KIRTADS, who visited the forest to send the children to school.
Today, Vinod is ever so grateful to have been discovered by Vishwanathan Nair and put in school. However, what does it take for a boy or girl from such a secluded community to earn a masters? Vinod says that his academic journey was a bumpy ride with loads of challenges, helpful mentors, ever supportive friends and hard work.
“From Class 1 to 10, I studied in IGMMR in Manjeri, a model residential school for tribal children. Classes were difficult in the beginning as I was not exposed to Malayalam. Back home, my friends and I used to speak Naikkan, our mother tongue which is a mix of Malayalam, Kannada and Tamil and understanding pure Malayalam was quite hard. It took me 10 years to speak the language. In class 10, I slowly started learning it as my friends and I used to tease each other using Malayalam words, ” Vinod says.
More than the other subjects, Vinod was fascinated by the social sciences during his school years, an observation which drew him to take humanities in class 11 and move to Pathanamthitta, where he secure admission in another residential school. The move was heartbreaking, as his family could not imagine him moving to another district in Malabar.
“They thought I was going away to a faraway land. I had to tell them that it was just 5 or 6 hours away by train. It almost felt like I was Tony Jaa from Ong Bak 2 as every household in our community scraped up whatever little they could and gifted it to me before I left. I saw kids running around collecting Re 1 coins to give me. It was heartbreaking,” he says.
The journey to Pathanamthitta was only a few hours, but life as he knew it ceased to exist as he moved districts. The town and his school were a constant source of wonder and sorrow. The new place, culture shock and exposure to urban life inspired and awed him in equal measure, he recollects.
“Most times, I was awestruck by everything around me. I am sure I was a source of wonder for many around me too. They hadn't seen too many tribal students then,” he says.
But, with this sense of wonder came small financial troubles, which were a source of great distress at the time.
“During plus 1 and plus 2, I was asked to carry multiple pairs of uniform in my circular. But I only had one and this worried me greatly. I got by thanks to some good friends who would take me home and share their uniforms with me. Now it all seems so funny but back then, I couldn't bear it. There were a lot of everyday financial troubles that I faced in the town which I couldn’t even conceive when I was back home” he says.
With time, he settled into the new town life and even enjoyed it. However, returning home during vacations was a conflicting experience, he says.
“I would go from a polluted city life to a quiet forest. My folks would still move to the caves when there were wildlife threats and during the rainy months. I never took my friends home as that involved getting permission from the forest department. This was a bit confusing, but I knew I enjoyed the unpolluted life back home too,” Vinod says.
Financial troubles persisted through these years. And Vinod would find odd jobs back home and work through the holidays to pay for his expenses during the school years.
On completing class 12, he enrolled for a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Economics at the Sri Vivekananda Pathana Kendram in Malappuram, sponsored by the owner and manager of the institute. Three years flew by quick, and in 2015, he joined CUSAT for his Master’s degree in Economics, a stint that allowed him to travel him to different parts of the country for competitions and offered him exposure like never before. But balancing academics and extra-curricular activities wasn't such an easy task, he says.
"When I chose my course, I wanted to do a branch of Economics that did not involve math. I was clueless about the subjects and picked up Applied Economics. But to my horror, the course was all about math. Now I have mastered that as well, but getting there was tough,” he says, laughing.
Today, Vinod is not the only one in his family pursuing an education. Following his footsteps are his four sisters - in classes 6,8, 9 and 12 - studying in different schools in Nimambur and Malappuram. But ask his parents, Mannalla Chellan (56) and Vijaya (40) if they are proud of their son for setting an example, Vinod says that they are secretly happy but never overjoyed about it.
“Perhaps because they were not exposed to formal education, they think that I just love to study (and not work). They are never overjoyed about my degrees. But I find that quite endearing,” he says.
As he prepares for his third degree - an MPhil in Applied Economics, Vinod knows the future he wants to carve out for himself. He wants to do a PhD in a subject that would contribute to the welfare of kids in his community and other tribes which were termed ‘primitive’ until very recently. He wants to become a professor and a guide to tribal students who want to excel in schools and colleges.
“I'd like to offer the tribal children something that is lacking in my community - academic guidance. The government provides all the financial aid needed for these kids and I want to be their mentor and help them with whatever inputs I can offer,” he says.