When Rajani in Kochi climbs a coconut tree, dreadful thoughts sometimes cross her mind, even as she surveys the world around her from atop a 40-foot palm. She tells herself that if at all she slips and falls, she should die and not suffer for a lifetime as a cripple unable to fight any more battles.

All Rajani can remember is having to fight battles and taking on the odds day in and day out after her husband left her and her two sons. But now she is fully equipped, after a certificate in Karate, a computer course, and an ongoing fashion designer course, apart from a one week coconut palm climbing course from the Coconut Research Organisation that has provided her livelihood. She uses a stepper contraption that helps her in climbing up coconut palms, providing her steps for firm footing and gripping. Male climbers do not use the contraption but climb the long palm with their feet banded together at the ankles and then pushing their way up or sliding down using their strong hands. Expert climbers slide down 40 feet high palms by just loosening the grip of one hand on the palm.

Changing roles

Rajani gets Rs 50 per tree and on a good day climbs over 50 trees starting from seven in the morning. Rajani is in demand since there are few traditional male coconut climbers left. This is a fall-out of Kerala’s climb up the human development scale and with 100% literacy, no one in the new generation is willing to do manual or physical labour. Most of  the tree climbers in the early part of the last century, it is believed,  came from the intermediate ezhava caste but the community is now affluent and politically empowered and, for the last three or four decades, has moved away to better jobs and business.

Rajani has walked into this void and is climbing her way up in a job which was an exclusive male preserve. In the central districts of Kerala, there must be about 20 female coconut climbers, according to rough estimates.

Rajani takes pride in her job and loves the palm trees dearly. “When a householder tells me that he is going to cut  the palms in his garden due to falling yields and the hassle of getting labourers, I become sad. Which is why, when I am at the top of a tree, I talk to it softly. I tell the palm tree that the yield has to increase. In most instances, the palm offers more coconuts the next month forcing the farmer to change his mind. That is how I work,” Rajani said.

Whispering magic words to the trees is just one aspect of  her job. It involves a certain level of expertise to choose the coconuts to be left behind for the next month. “From the colour of the coconuts, I come to know if they are mature or tender,”  Rajani said.

The maturity  of a coconut can also be gauged by knocking on the shell to figure out how much of water there is inside. All this comes from practice but it is not easy sitting precariously on a slippery palm, with only one hand to clutch the palm and with the other knocking on the shells and tearing out the nuts from the tree.

So life is a daily climb against all odds and the cruel follies of nature itself. On a windy or rainy day the very thought of climbing up a palm offers calls for sheer courage.  But Rajani’s grip is strong, her mind defiant and her will unbreakable.