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Road Less Travelled: How a 24-yr-old Became the First to Pursue a PhD from Kerala's Cholanaikkan Tribe

Chellan Vinod (Image: News18)

Chellan Vinod (Image: News18)

The 24-year-old trailblazer is the first among his tribe, categorised as a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) by the government, to pass the plus two, graduate, pursue a post-graduation and an MPhil.

To reach Karualai, the nearest town from his native, Chellan Vinod, the first from the Cholanaikkan tribal community to pursue a PhD, has to pay Rs 1,800 for a taxi as his native Panappuzha in Manjeeri tribal hamlet in Nilambur Taluk in Malappuram district is almost 25 kilometres away. It is a rough, long walk to the town braving the dangers of the wild, including elephant attacks.

The 24-year-old trailblazer is the first among his tribe, categorised as a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) by the government, to pass the plus two, graduate, pursue a post-graduation and an MPhil.

The community, an ethnic group that traditionally resides in the Karulai and Chungathara forest ranges in the district, is called Cholanaikan as they inhabit the interior forests called ‘Chola’ or ‘shola’ meaning 'deep evergreen forest', and ‘naikkan’ meaning 'leader' or 'King'. They are said to have migrated from Mysore forests. In the Manjeeri and Alaykkal hamlets, the Cholanaikkan population has a population of less than 500 people.

Vinod who is pursuing a PhD on the socio-economic background of the Cholanaikka at Applied Economics department of Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) told the journey was never smooth. “Even now, our people live in rock-cave shelters, especially during rains as it is safer than homes. While it was never a smooth journey, there was always someone to lift me. It was through news reports that I realized that I am the first research student from the community in Asia,” he said.

He is the third of eight siblings. He was born to Mannala Chellan and Vijaya. He has two brothers and five sisters. His elder brother Vinu, 30, has studied up to plus two and is a tribal promoter.

Until the late 1960s, the community was leading a secluded life with minimal contact with mainstream urban society. Since then, Cholanaikkans' traditional lifestyle has changed. "The food style has changed, and unlike in the past, we need money to buy food materials. We get only limited materials and have to buy from outside due to our big family. Traditionally, we have a system where we have the right to collect materials from a particular area in the forest. My family, Panappuzha, can collect from Panappuzha area only. We cannot collect from areas under other families. Which is why we preserve our area," Vinod says in Malayalam laced with English. Traditionally, the community among the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes of the region, speaks the Cholanaikkan language, which comes under the Dravidian family.

Though Vinod thought of quitting studies, his teachers and friends encouraged him to continue studying.'I thought of giving up because it was too much to fight," says Vinod.

After completing plus two with 70 per cent marks, Vinod joined graduation at Sree Vivekananda Padanakendram, Palemad. The college manager, KR Bhaskaran Pillai, adopted him.

“For the three years, I studied living at his home. Teachers like Unni and Fasila and people like Bhaskaran Pillai Sir never allowed me to give up. My friends from various backgrounds made me feel that I should move forward,” Vinod said. He then went on to pursue his post-graduation and M Phil from CUSAT.

The road in front of him, less travelled by his tribe people, has been difficult due to disjunction posed by urbanisation in the education system. Unlike many other communities's the call of the wild is irresistible for most among Cholanaikkans'.

While experts state, their origins can be traced back to the Deccan, due to their close attachment to the forests the tribe has continued to lead a self-sufficient nomadic life in forests gathering honey and minor forest produces. In the last few decades, many members of the community who pursued education eventually dropped out of school. One among them is Balan, Vinod's uncle who dropped out shortly after passing his Class 10 in 1997. While students from tribal regions manage till Class 10 as they study in schools where tribals are the majority, Vinod says it is difficult to continue higher education as its difficult for them to stick to an education curriculum which is yet to adapt to the tribal way of living or traditions.

Only a few tough like Vinod resisted the call of the wild to tide against the wave. "It was very difficult for me to adjust to the habits of the city. I thought I could not cope up with the many things, especially the food. It would be better if I say I had to adjust. As I delve deep, I am a Cholanaikkan who belongs to the ooru (native)," said Vinod.

Dreaming of becoming an IPS officer, he said he is aware it is difficult. "I have an offer for assistance and I have told them that I have a big gap to be filled," said Vinod in a modest but firm voice.

To make things better from the hamlet which has issues of electricity and connectivity, he has taken a rented house at Pookkottumpadam, almost 30 kilometres away. He stays with his wife Sumitra, who is studying at an ITI, and his elder brother Vinu and his wife. "We are paying a rent of Rs 3,000. Though the stipend is there for the studies, it will take some time to be allotted. To be honest, it is tough to manage. Education results in financial problems as it modifies the nature and style of living. We study in cities where we can't live without money. Then the children may feel that their family is not supportive enough," he explains the daily economics from the fresh perspective of a being the first in his generation learning about financial planning.

Vinod is well aware that he has to tread a strenuous track to accomplish his goal. However, his assertiveness hints that he will hunt down his aspirations like his forefathers did for a living. "The people who I meet instil confidence in me," he said.

first published:November 16, 2020, 19:54 IST