For somebody to do just one thing all day, for it to become the only thing he wakes up for at the crack of dawn and return home at dusk, feeling the sweet soreness from pursuing that one thing he knows – there must be a reason, an experience, a moment – where it all began. To me, it was the time spent riding my father’s shoulders all the way to our coconut grove where I could watch him step into his rope and grip the trunk with his powerful hands before shooting up the tall and slender coconut trees to tap Neera – the sweet nectar of dawn!
I saw him do this tirelessly everyday. Watching him climb so nimbly was a treat. I wanted to try it too. Patiently, he showed me and taught me the nuances. I shadowed his movements and finally, there I stood, atop the lowest coconut tree in the grove, standing proud, beaming down at my hero.
From that day, until now, it is all that I have done. Some people may find it a not-so-intelligent profession that requires no formal education. But they are the ones who haven’t climbed up a coconut tree or felt its grooves to ascertain how young or old it may be. They haven’t pressed their feet against its trunk to gauge how strong or weak it is. They haven’t stood on top and known the anatomy of the leaves, the fruit and the flower, like the back of their hands.
They haven’t looked at the fruit stalk and learnt to make the most accurate slits to harvest Neera. For a slit made slightly off centre might result in a wasteful yield. There are as many little details as the stars in the sky and I am proud to have mastered this art, for I consider my profession an acquired skill that is as old as the epics that were whispered to infants at bedtime since ages ago.
Just as it is ancient, it is sufficient in its own technique. Some people don’t see that introducing the newest of inventions everywhere does not always result in a favourable outcome. Today, people use a long stick that extends into a machete where one doesn’t have to climb up a tree but could just snip away at the nuts from the bottom.
But, I have stuck to my climbing prowess. Only when you are up there will you know if a nut is mature and if the tree needs pruning. If there is an infestation or if the tree needs attention – none of this can be learnt from the ground below. I climb when it rains, I climb when it is night, I climb when it is cold or humid. Every once in a while, I find myself atop the tallest tree in the grove. The sight I cherish the most is to gaze at the miniature lights flaring through the mist-filled winding hill-roads enroute Valparai once the sun goes down!
I am 54 years old and I feel blessed to still possess the agility and strength of a hardened youth. It’s only because I have been climbing trees all these years. If I had relied on mechanical support, I would have grown lazy and weak by now.
To go to bed content with the work you have done in the day and to drift into a well deserved slumber until the alarm rings at 4:30 a.m. is a sweet feeling!
My name is Venkatachalam and I hail from the historic village of Samathur. For the past forty years I have been climbing coconut and palm trees for a living.