Given a choice between pursuing his dream of becoming an officer in the Indian Police Service and the Chola Naikkar’s traditional hunter-gatherer way of life, 18-year-old Vinod C. says he would have chosen to follow the footsteps of his forefathers.

But he cannot. Over the years, the hunters have become the hunted.

“Trees are cut, wild animals attack our tribes and there is scarcity of food. We feel cornered. So I found that getting an education and leaving the forests will be the best option. But there are days when my mind goes back to the forests, to my ooru [native place],” he said.

Vinod is the first person from the 360-strong primitive Chola Naikkar tribal population in Kerala to pass the Plus Two examination. He procured 70 per cent marks in the exam this year.

He is a native of the government-built Manjeeri colony for Chola Naikkars in the Nilambur forests of Malappuram district. His ooru comprises 38 families.

With a father, who is a manual labourer, and three sisters, Vinod, who finished his Plus Two in Economics at Vadasserykara Model Residential School in Pathanamthitta district, said continuing his studies was a matter of will.

Karulai, the nearest town from Manjeeri colony, is a 22-km walk through the forests.

On Tuesday, he received a cash award of Rs. 5,000 from State Minister for Welfare of Backward Communities P.K. Jayalakshmi at a function conducted at the Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development Studies of Scheduled Castes and Tribes (KIRTADS) complex here as a recognition for his academic achievement.

“Because I had to meet the minister today, I took a taxi from Manjeeri to Karulai. The fare was Rs. 750. By the time, I return to Karulai, it will be night and I have to take a jeep. That will cost me another Rs. 750,” he said.

M. Balan, Vinod’s uncle, who accompanied him, said very few children from the Chola Naikkar tribe remain in school; the call of the wild is irresistible for most. He admits to be one of them. He dropped out of school shortly after passing his Class 10 in 1997.

“If you displace a city-bred man and put him in the forest… How long would he last in the wild? I say, a month at the most. Similarly, a child born in the forest would want to go back. It is called kaadukeruga (return to the forest) among us,” Balan, who works as a forest guard in the Nilambur range, said.

N. Vishwanathan Nair, former director of KIRTADS, who mentored both Balan and Vinod, agrees that Chola Naikkars, whose origins can be traced back to the Deccan, are closely attached to forests.

“They led self-sufficient nomadic life in forests. It is a beautiful way of life, gathering honey and minor forest produces. Once you know them, you too are bit by the wanderlust,” Mr. Nair said.

“I plan to open a bank account and deposit the cash award for funding my Bachelors in Economics. I want to be an IPS officer,” Vinod said.

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