Rajani BT talks about her experiences as a coconut tree climber
Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram
As Rajani BT takes her tree-climbing contraption and approaches a coconut tree, in a wooded area at Kochi, she says, “Just listen to the crows.” And, indeed, they are cawing incessantly. “They know that I am about to climb a tree,” she says. “They are scared that when I reach the top I will remove their nest.”
Soon Rajani gets going. Her movement is similar to that of a physically challenged man who is using leg braces to walk. The only difference is that Rajani is going upwards. “If the trunk is straight, then I will take two minutes to reach the top,” says Rajani. “But if it is bent, then I have to stop, adjust the settings on the contraption, and then move on.”
When Rajani gets to the top, the first thing she does is to look around. At a single glance, she can say whether there is a good crop or not. And if it is not, she speaks to the tree. “I say, 'Why are you behaving like this? The people in the area will talk badly about you. Isn't it shameful? If there are fewer coconuts, the house-owner will want to cut you. So please produce a lot',” says Rajani.
Her admonition usually works. Because the next time Rajani comes, after an interval of 45 days, there is a healthy crop. “I know it is difficult to believe this, but trees respond to what we humans say,” she says. “Like us, they also crave love and affection. If the coconuts have not been plucked for three to four months, the tree feels sad.”
Apart from cutting the coconuts, Rajani removes old branches, diseased fibres, and unhealthy coconuts. “If there is one bad coconut, it will affect the health of the others,” she says. “That is why it is important to take it out.”
On a good day, Rajani climbs anywhere between 12 to 20 trees. There are some trees which reach a height of 30 feet. “From the top of one tree [in the Kadavanthra suburb], I could see the High Court, which is 4 kms away,” says Rajani.
During the monsoon season, when winds and rains lash the state, the tree sways from side to side. Once it swayed so much, Rajani inadvertently peeped into a bedroom of a nearby building where a woman was brushing her hair. “Thankfully, she did not see me,” says Rajani. “All this is part of my daily work.”
But the work is physically demanding. “You need courage and plenty of energy,” says this mother-of-two. “I lost 10 kgs over the past two years. It is healthy, too. I don't suffer from sugar, cholesterol or high blood pressure. I always thank God that I have this job.”
Rajani's life changed when she saw an advertisement in a vernacular newspaper: the Coconut Development Board (CDB) was offering a seven-day training programme, called 'Friends of Coconut Trees', at Thrissur.
“The aim was to address the acute shortage of tree climbers,” says Mini Mathew, Publicity Officer of CDB. “Owing to the hardship and the risk involved, the younger generation has been reluctant to do this traditional job. However, in four years, we have been able to train 42,385 people. We need a lot of climbers, because the annual production of coconuts is several million.”
Thanks to the training, Rajani is earning well. “I hope other women will feel inspired to follow me,” she says.
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)