Saturday, April 19, 2008

Coconut Tree Climber

Jonny stood by the gate, tapping the latch to gain attention, his red-shot watery eyes blinking in the late morning sun. Mother stepped out on the veranda.
"Ah, finally, you have come. Why did it take so long? The palm leaves have been in danger of falling on the heads of passers-by for more than a week now."
"I was sick and couldn't make it," Jonny mumbled, scratching the wispy grey hair peeking out of his uncovered pate, wrapped with a dingy cotton towel around the crown. He still reeked faintly of the liquor he had spent his night imbibing after a day of toil.
"Never mind. Get to work on the front tree first and then finish up in the yard."
Nodding his head, Jonny nimbly hefted himself and balanced on the wall near our front coconut tree, the wall having been built split on either side of the trunk. It would never do to cut down a bearing coconut tree, especially one, the priest performing the house pooja had assured us, that was planted over the remains of a scion of the local aristocratic landlords who had sold the land to our residential co-op.
Tying a strong rope around his ankles bent around the trunk, he bent forward in the pose honed over the years, gripping the trunk with his forearms as he locked his wrists. He started his journey up, inch by precious inch, reaching the top in a matter of minutes and whipping out the sharp cleaver tucked in the belt around his rucked-up lungi.
"The leaves on the other side. No... not that one, the one to the right has the browning leaves."
Passers-by paused in their tracks as Jonny let out a warning shout. The fronds came down with a crash. Our servant stood ready to pull them away from the road to the side, and would soon drag them to her home to convert into thatch, or strip the leaflets on the fronds to get graceful long twigs for a broom.
Next was the turn of the ripened coconuts. Jonny had a fairly keen judgement of which these were and called out in warning when a bunch dropped to the ground as he whacked at their stems. It was my job to help the servant with running after errant coconuts that rolled down the slope of the road. Who knew, there might be a pilferer or two lurking to grab whatever came their way!
By the time Jonny came round to the veranda, there would be a tidy pile of fresh husked coconuts in the work room behind the kitchen, with one or two de-husked coconuts sitting on the grinding stone next to the sink. Then the negotiations would start.
"10 rupees per tree is all that I can give." -Mother would insist.
"Amma, I can't survive on that. Please make it 20 rupees per tree."
And so it would go on back and forth, till we arrived at the princely sum of 15 rupees per tree with a bunch of five coconuts as a bonus. Jonny would lope off morosely with his wages, till the next time we needed him and sent word out through the servant maid.
The last year when I visited, I noticed more browning fronds on the trees and unpicked coconuts.
"What happened, doesn't Jonny come any more?"
"He died last year. Nowadays, it is next to impossible to find a coconut tree climber around here. Jonny's son doesn't climb, he does other things. "

R.I.P. Jonny.


Jonny was one of the last of a truly dying breed, the coconut tree climbers of Kerala. The children of these climbers have moved into other trades, less hazardous and physically demanding, and better paying than coconut tree climbing. The demise of coconut climbing as a hereditary occupation has led to recent inventions designed to make it safe for unskilled workers to climb trees, such as this contraption. The coconut growers are trying bring in new workers into the ranks of the coconut tree climbers, using this invention.


Nanda said...

Well, I would hardly call coconut climbers a dying breed. There must be a fairly sizeable number attending the Coconut Climbing Institute in Kerala. It is quite a lucrative profession as well, considering that they charge about 15 to 20 rupees per tree.Depending on their clientele that could be quite a lot and what's better, they pay no tax.

Sujatha said...

Any links to bear out your contention? The Feb 2008 Hindu article says there is a paucity.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of a childhood summer holiday when I spent afternoons climbing my aunt's coconut trees - young ones, not more than 15 feet tall. There's something to be said about sitting on the crown of a coconut tree.

Sujatha said...


You've actually climbed a coconut tree! I'm envious, I just don't have a head for heights and am not much good at climbing anything. Heck, I can't even sit on a kiddie tilt-a-whirl without getting seriously dizzy. Now, my kids, on the other hand, have no such problems. They merrily climb all the maples around our house.