Thursday, February 18, 2010

Not always cool and refreshing


Roadside tender coconut vendors in Kochi enjoy their work, but the recession has affected their sales

Photo: Coconut vendor P. Majeed

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 5 a.m., P. Majeed sets out towards a convent near the Assisi Vidyaniketan Public School, at Chembumukku, Kochi. There, he briskly climbs up the trees and cuts down the tender coconuts. He carries them to a spot near the bus stop of the Ernakulam Medical Centre (EMC), on National Highway 47.

Majeed has been a tender coconut seller for the past several years. Every time a customer arrives, he slices off the top of the coconut with several well-aimed swings of his curved knife. He sells at Rs 15 per coconut. His patrons include teenagers, doctors and patients of the EMC, and elderly people. Some of them have been regulars for years.

Among them is a government official, Ramakrishna Pillai (name changed). One day, Ramakrishna placed a packet on the cart, had his drink, and left.

Hours later he returned with a harried look on his face. When Majeed handed over the package, Ramakrishnan said, “Only an honest person like you would have returned this to me.” There was Rs 1 lakh in cash inside.

Despite regular customers, overall sales have gone down. “Nowadays I sell only about 100 to 150 coconuts a day, as compared to 300 to 400 earlier,” says Majeed. “Because of the recession, people have less money these days.”

At his age, 58, Majeed could take it easy, since he has three sons in their early twenties, two of whom are working, but he says, “I enjoy this work a lot, especially the interaction with customers.”

Over the years, several have confided their financial, marital, emotional and career problems to Majeed. His conclusion: “Very few people are happy.”

In the suburb of Padivattom, A.P. Vasudevan, 40, has been selling coconuts for the past ten years. He gets his coconuts by truck from Palakkad. “Sales have gone down,” he says. “But around 70 per cent of my customers are constant, so that is a big blessing.” Vasudevan has a daily income of Rs 400.

And during these tough times, are they victims of police harassment? “Not at all,” says Majeed. Antony Chandrasekharan, who sells coconuts near the JN International Stadium at Kaloor, asserts, “Neither Cochin Corporation officials or the police have troubled me.”

However, once while traveling to Changanacherry, I stopped to have a coconut and the vendor told me, “Every morning, a policeman comes and takes away 10 coconuts.”

When I tell this anecdote to Vasudevan he says that six months ago Cochin Corporation officials asked him to leave. He closed shop, but returned quietly after a week, to the same spot.

But working next to heavy-moving traffic can be unhealthy. “I inhale a lot of dust and petrol fumes,” says Vasudevan, “I suffer from a sore throat, and breathlessness, because of the pollution, but I have to earn a living also.” Majeed says that so far he is okay, but foresees health problems in future.

For all three, getting rid of the waste is a primary task. Chandrasekharan sends it by truck to Thodupuzha, while Vasudevan dispatches it to Palakkad. There it is used as firewood by villagers in the countryside.

Meanwhile, Majeed ferries them in an auto-rickshaw to local vendors at Vazhakala. They place the sliced pieces around the base of the coconut trees. During the hot season this has a cooling effect. Then when the rains come, it slowly dissolves into the mud and becomes a nutrient.

“Isn’t this a nice way to get rid of the waste?” says Majeed, with a smile.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

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