Receiving a degree in a technical field is only a dream of most members of the Narikuravar community. But Suvetha Mahendran, a 22-year-old graduate from Tiruchy, has become the first person from the community to get an engineering degree. Along with her parents, who run the Narikuravar Education and Welfare Society (NEWS), she wants to provide quality and compulsory education for Narikurava children.
“Education is important for everyone, but our community doesn’t have support from outside. If not us, who else will fight for our education?” she asks. Identified as a Narikurava girl from her first day in college, Suvetha says she has learnt to ignore discrimination.
“College was fun, but every now and then I was called by my community name. The first time I heard it, I was shocked. But I had a close circle of friends who treated me well. I gradually learnt to ignore such remarks,” she recollects, adding challenges did not end there. “When people heard that I belong to the Narikuravar community, their behaviour changed. All I want to do is break the stigma. We are people too! I have been blessed with good friends from school through college. They helped me survive,” she narrates.
Being the first engineering graduate from her community is not something she thinks about. “Is it enough if I’m the only successful person from my community? I don’t think so. I will be proud when I bring a change in education for my community,” she says.
Suvetha adds that her community has a lot to be proud about. “We don’t practice dowry, and don’t send our parents to old age homes. Besides, there is no harassment of women and we have no gender parity. Isn’t it surprising that a community deprived of education can be so civilised?” she explains.
But why do many children from the community drop out after receiving basic education? “There is a fear among the community elders that if we get educated, we might marry someone from a different community. They think we will step out and ruin our lives. It might not make sense, but there have been instances when such inter-community marriages have turned fatal. After marriage (to an outsider) people of our community, men and women, are treated badly by their spouses,” avers Suvetha.
A trained classical dancer, she hates Maths and loves English. “Today I’m proud to say I’ve come a long way. I help communicate with NGOs from abroad as I know the language.”
Fighting for her community to get an ST status for job reservations, Suvetha says she doesn’t plan to work for an IT company. “One might think that I dream of building a company and provide jobs to my people. But without education, how can we jump to the next level? This is a step-by-step process. I hope I have taken the first step in bringing this change,” she says.