Updated: August 26, 2020 8:56:47 pm
Enakki famous agandem… (I don’t want to be famous),” Sridevi speaks in a mix of Tamil and Malayalam, a dialect used by her Muthuvan tribe which has its members occupying the Western Ghat ranges straddling Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
But then Sridevi is already famous, having cleared her class 10 in Kerala with an A+ grade, despite the great lengths she had to go through to just write the last few exams. What makes her feat more remarkable is the elusiveness of her tribe, which even now keeps outsiders at an arm’s length. Poochikottamparai in Anamalai Tiger reserve of Udumalapet range is situated 15 km away from the Upper Aliyar dam, most of the last stretch a trek through the forest.
Muthuvans are one of the notified tribes in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, living in 250 settlements spread over a 300 km area of the Western Ghats from the Bodi Nayakkanur in Tamil Nadu to Chalakudy of Kerala. Legend has it that the tribe fled Pandian persecution in Madurai many centuries ago and found peace in the mountains. In the Anamalai hills, Sridevi calls home, dropout rates are high even as the number of schools remains relatively low with very little efforts to enrol tribal children in classes.
Sridevi was a student of the Model Residential School in Nayarangadi, a little village about 5 km from Chalakudy in Kerala. Though her SSLC exams started on March 10, they had to be abruptly stopped after the seventh paper because of the pandemic. When the lockdown was imposed, the 16-year-old vacated her hostel and moved to her grandparents’ house in the Adichilthotty tribal colony of Chalakudy.
Later her father, Chellamuthu, brought her to his house in the Tiruppur district of Tamil Nadu. It was late on May 24 that Sridevi got to know about her remaining exams thanks to eco-tourism manager and watcher at Chinnar who were contacted by the Tribal Welfare Department in Kerala. So early morning on May 26, accompanied by her father, she started an arduous 7-km trek through the dense forest to get to their bike. From there, her father drove her to Malakkappara border check-post where an ambulance of the Vettilappara Primary Health Center was waiting to take her to the exam hall. Read in Tamil
The 150-km journey to reach the examination hall meant she was 30 minutes late. But the officials were waiting for her to assure that she reached safely and wrote her exam. Sridevi quarantined in a separate room after the exam.
When indianexpress.com met Sridevi at her Poochikottambarai house, it took her some time to open up. “They don’t know how many marks I scored in the exam, because, most in my community are not educated. They never seemed to care about my education,” she says. “I like to read in my free time, but, here we neither have books nor electricity,” says Sridevi, adding how she has been helping her father in his groundnut field during the pandemic.
Helping her mother Kanagammal with the household chores, the teenager continues: “I admire my sports teacher Sini and I always wanted to be a sports person like her.” Along with being the class topper, Sridevi is also an Atya Patya national player and has represented the school at tournaments in Karnataka and Jammu and Kashmir tournaments.
“I also have other dreams like preparing for NEET and studying MBBS.” But then there is a pause that underlines her anxiety about when school will reopen.
Nandhini, the administrative head of Sridevi’s school, says they are waiting for school to reopen to felicitate this “bright kid”. “We are really proud of her and this happened only because of her father,” she chips in. “On the first day of the pending exams, we were worried about Sridevi because she was living in a remote area that has no road or connectivity,” says Nandhini, adding how the tribal welfare department helped reach out to her with the revised exam schedule.
She is not the only one in her family to have studied. Her father ensured that her elder sister, Shivarani, also completed Class 10. But she was married off soon after. “I couldn’t help my first daughter, but this time I will help Sridevi to pursue her dreams,” Chellamuthu says.
Anamalai revenue taluk is home to six tribal communities — Malasar, Malaimalasar, Eravalar, Kadar, Muthuvan and Malai Pulayar — scattered in 36 tribal settlements. There is a residential middle school inside the Anamalai Tiger Reserve in Top Slip. A few years back, the Kadamparai residential school had to be closed down because of a lack of students. With no regular teachers, it is even tougher to hold on to the tribal students in schools in tribal areas.
Chellamuthu had initially enrolled Sridevi in Valparai residential school, but decided to shift her to Chalakudy in Kerala when he got to know children from the tribe were studying there. He went ahead despite opposition from the community. He got a few other children also enrolled in the Kerala school, but they all came back in a few months, unable to adjust.
“Ask the government to complete this 15-km road so that our children can pursue their dreams,” says Puthiran, one of the village elders. Sridevi has sure paved the way for many more dreams.
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