Standing tall among the tiny Toto tribals of India

Standing tall among the tiny Toto tribals of India

A Toto woman with her child.

Tucked away in a remote enclave of North Bengal, a batch of tiny tribals sporting Mongoloid features has been fighting a grim battle against extinction, with average lifespan of a mature person not exceeding 35. Many Indians, it’s likely, might not have heard of these tiny people, living for generations in Totopara under Madarihat subdivision in Jalpaiguri district in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Meet the Totos, the most primitive Indo-Bhutanese tribal community in India, who have  now a reason to celebrate, leaving their daily woes of existence in the backyard.

Rita Toto, 22, an ordinary tribal woman from a community of 1,365, has recently done the impossible-becoming the  first woman in the tribe to become a graduate, scoring 44 per cent marks in the Bachelor of Arts examination from Prasanna Deb Women's College of Arts under the North Bengal University with an aggregate of 617 marks in the pass course.

Given the struggle for existence, ocean of superstition and short lifespan of an average Toto, Rita’s success is no mean achievement. She is the fourth from her tribe to
become a graduate - all her predecessors were men, including Jagadish Toto who was the first to graduate.

Rita is the daughter of Sugrib and Urmila Toto and has two brothers. Her father, a Group D employee in the Uttarbanga Khetriya Grameen Bank, never had the slightest inkling that his daughter would ever make it, given the hard life they lead. These Mongoloid tribes have these days been pushed to living in a single village where the basic amenities are still scarce. The principal vocation of the Totos is farming and so small is the community that every birth among the tribe is an occasion to celebrate.

In the first week of July this year, when Rita first broke the news at home having
returned from the college, Sugrib’s joy knew no bounds. He ran to the field where Urmila was working and both held their daughter in tight embrace. Rita had joined the college in 2007, taking honours in history. But midway, she found the going tough as she was unable to ‘deal with the heavy’ syllabus, college authorities said.

Rita was advised by the authorities to switch over to the pass course as it would be much easier for her to handle the subjects. “In fact, the switchover worked wonders and we found Rita regaining her confidence,” recalled college Principal Shanti Chetri. “We never expected her to clear the examination in her first attempt. Hence, the way she did it and obtained her graduation, is, indeed, commendable, especially in view of the background she hails,” she added.

According to Chetri, students studying with Rita also observed a change, ‘a kind of transformation’ in her during the last three years and after the final examination,  she
was beaming with confidence. Rita’s tiny height was never a obstacle to her participating in various college activities and seeing her eagerness to learn,  the authorities tried their best to extend all possible assistance.

In fact, Rita’s joining the P D Women’s College was also quite interesting. After Rita cleared her higher secondary examination from a local school in Jalpaiguri
district, she expressed her desire to pursue higher studies in a college during an interview to a local newspaper. “ We learnt about her interest in studies from the media
report only and the college authorities immediately decided to get in touch with her so that she could translate her dream into reality,” Chetri told Deccan Herald.

Besides sending a letter offering her to study in the college, the authorities also ensured that she obtained a free studentship and got some financial assistance under the tribal development plan. “We’re happy that our efforts bore fruit,” the Principal said.

Rita, who wants to be a teacher and is keen to light other lives in her tribe, was
apparently shocked when a Kolkata-based private management institute came up with the proposal to admit her to the MBA course. The institute authorities who read about her achievements, not only offered her scholarship and food and lodging, but also a fixed monthly financial assistance to manage her local conveyance.

“Rita has come back to us for advice as she is pretty nervous. She wants to tell her whether she could cope with demands and rigours of a course like MBA where one has to be quite proficient in English. Rita is little weak in English and still undecided about it,” Chetri .

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