How to Climb a Coconut Tree
Why high literacy levels in Kerala haven’t created a shortage of men who can climb the most daunting trees
By K A Shaji
It was about 15 years ago that Ramadasan Vaidyar, a noted satirist of Kerala, thought of the need to establish an exclusive college to train youngsters to climb coconut trees. Vaidyar, who made headlines in the late 1970s by organising a contest for women with the ugliest face to scoff at beauty pageants, also decided that he wanted to inaugurate the college in a unique way. The then district collector, UKS Chauhan, was invited to open the college by climbing a particularly intimidating coconut tree. He agreed.
Chauhan was given three days of rigorous training by the principal designate of the college, Moothedathu Pradeep Kumar, who used to pluck coconuts in Vaidyar’s own grove. “It was a different experience training the collector, who hailed from north India. I had to reach Chauhan’s office after midnight to give him the lessons. His wife and security personnel tried their best to stop him. But Chauhan was resolute,’’ says Kumar.
The collector was ready on the inaugural day. But he’d only gone up the tree a few feet when his wife clung on to both his legs, physically preventing him from climbing further. Nevertheless, this very drama provided sufficient publicity to Vaidyar’s unconventional venture, aimed to poke fun at the hypocrisy of Malayalis who prefer white collar jobs.
The college stopped functioning a few years later, after Vaidyar’s death. But it succeeded in bringing dignity back to a profession that is crucial to Kerala’s fragile agricultural economy.
Taking inspiration from Vaidyar, self-help groups across the state have now started training the youth in the mechanised form of coconut plucking. In districts like Kasargod, Alappuzha and Thrissur, some groups have arranged loans from nationalised banks for trained climbers, so that they can buy mobile phones and motorbikes. The idea is for climbers to be made immediately available over the phone for any farmer in the region.
“Mobility and communication are changing the scope of this profession. They are making it more profitable as well. Better wages and less hardships are prompting many to think about this profession seriously now,’’ says PK Rajagopal, a climber from Bediadukka in Kasargod district.
But there are those like Kumar who still use the traditional mode of climbing coconut trees—with the help of a rope. He climbs more than 60 trees a day. “This is a skill learnt through training and dedication. I can fetch more coconuts than a person using the climbing machine,’’ he says, standing in front of the building that once housed the tree-climbing college. The coconut tree used by Kumar to train his students still stands in the compound.
“Only the formal college has ceased to function. I am here to offer free training to anybody who wants to study the conventional mode of climbing. The training may be rigorous, but I can offer placement to all who pass,’’ he says.