Mavidupannai, Tamil Nadu: As lifestyles change, so do livelihoods. There are things we used to use that are replaceable, whether it’s because there no longer available, practical, cost efficient or simply forgotten. But what are some of these professions that are disappearing, for better or for worse, as contemporary life changes? And how are those who make a living from these professions coming to terms with these changes? A trip back home was a good time to start digging.
The earth feels cool under my feet as I step into Kannadiakka’s hut. There’s a solitary bed in a corner and a fan on a rickety table next to it. Pots and pans lie strewn around and a television airing a popular Tamil movie blares away. Kannadiakka rushes past me to check if I have closed the compound gate properly. “The damn goats will get in otherwise and eat up all my flowers,” she whispers conspiratorially and double-checks the twine that holds a makeshift gate made of branches in place.
She returns, winded by the effort, and ushers me to a plastic chair she reserves for guests. She sits down on the edge of her bed, breathing heavily, but suddenly gets up, disappears for a minute and returns with a jar of sweets. “Goats and monkeys,” she continues, offering me some sweets, “they make my life miserable. I hate these monkeys especially. They come in through the gaps between the asbestos roof and the wall, and steal everything.” She points to some bags of precious grain she has safely stashed away under heavy, iron vessels. She sighs exasperatedly and dismisses the topic with a wave of her hand. “I feel so old these days, even though I’m just 75,” she smiles wryly. “Anyway, what do you want to know about coconut leaf weaving? Who’s interested in it these days?”
I am at my ancestral hometown, Mavidupannai, a remote village in the district of Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, roughly 700 km from the state capital, Chennai. My fondest childhood memories are from here – fishing in the nearby river, playing on the sandy river bed, waiting with my cousins for a herd of donkeys to pass by so we get to a hitch a ride while pretending to be cowboys in the western MacKenna’s Gold. Things have changed over the years, of course. There are more vehicles, fewer donkeys and the influence of modernity is felt in every aspect of life.
Kannadiakka has been our neighbour for many years. Everyone calls her Kannadiakka (‘Kannaadi‘ in Tamil means spectacles and ‘akka‘ means elder sister), though her real name is Mirasupalam. Kannadiakka, a widow, is one of the few people in the village who knows the art of coconut leaf weaving. For over 55 years, she has managed to sustain herself just by weaving coconut leaves, colloquially known as ‘thattis’ – flat, rectangular mats of varying sizes.
For many years, these thattis were ubiquitous in village life and used by everyone, irrespective of caste or class differences. You could say that these humble-looking mats held village life together. They were used as roofs, walls and doors in several huts, bound together to make makeshift gates, used by butchers to place raw meat in front of their shops after the morning slaughter, as a temporary roof for wedding festivities and even to carry dead bodies to a cremation site. Skilful weavers could make beautiful baskets, boxes and toys using just coconut leaves and fronds. “I could do that,” says Kannadiakka, “but not anymore. I’ve forgotten. Anyway, no one wants baskets like that when you can get plastic ones in the market.”
This is the reason I’m here. To learn more about this vanishing profession and perhaps catch a glimpse of her making a whole thatti. I’m in luck. She plans to make one in the evening. I ask her if I can watch. “Of course,” she smiles, patting my hand. “But I don’t understand why. It’s just a thatti. What’s the big deal?”
Later that evening, I visit Kannadiakka’s home. She has bought two large coconut branches for Rs 5 each from a man nearby. She has doused them in water to make them pliable and has got out her trusty aruval (cutting knife) and a small stool. She gestures to the stool with some embarrassment. “I never used that,” she says. “But my knees nowadays, I tell you.” She places the branches next to each other, sits on the stool and begins. “To make one thatti, you need two branches,” she explains.
Her demeanour changes. Politely but firmly, she instructs me not to step in her way. Focused and methodical, she begins.
Wiry forearm muscles tense under wrinkled skin as she brings the two leaves together diagonally, crosses one under the other and pulls the other end out. The thatti that will probably be used at a local wedding begins to take shape. The weave is tight and intricate. Kannadiakka brings the stool forward to rest on the completed part of the thatti and concentrates on the leaves in front of her. Apart from the occasional sharp intake of breath, there’s no sign of her tiring.
“By the way, I made all that,” she says, pointing at her roof. There is a one-foot gap between the asbestos roof and the wall. To keep the monkeys out, this gap has been covered with thattis of various shapes and sizes. Some are torn in places. I ask her if extending the brick wall would be a better option. “Of course,” she replies. “But it’s expensive; might as well do it myself while I still can.”
She finishes weaving the central part of the mat and turns her attention to the borders. She deftly uses her aruval to split the lateral frond right in the middle and then ties it with the leaves to form a tightly-braided outer border. “You have to be careful when doing this,” she says, her eyes not leaving the blade, “one slip and the whole thing will be ruined. Rs 10 down the drain and the whole mat will unravel.” She masterfully braids the remaining leaves and finishes with a final knot that holds it in place. She sits back and surveys her work.
It is hard to imagine that this intricately designed, multi-purpose mat came from two coconut branches. I tell her it looks great. “Ha. You should have seen me do this when I was younger,” she laughs. “I could have done three thattis in this time.” It has been one-and-a-half hours since she started and, other than the occasional two-minute break to discuss ideas on how to get rid of the neighbourhood monkeys, she has worked continuously.
“How much will you sell this thatti for?” I ask.
“Rs 35-50,” she says. “There’s a wedding coming up this week. They will probably want one or two, but haven’t asked me yet. I’m not sure. Let’s see.”
Thattis must be sold soon, or else they dry up and become brittle and useless and can only be used as firewood for personal consumption. With more durable plastic alternatives flooding the market, people like Kannadiakka are struggling to find a steady stream of customers. I ask her if this shift to plastic alternatives worries her.
“Yes. There are plastic alternatives everywhere. You can wash and reuse plastic sheets, unlike thattis. At weddings, it was once traditional to have the best-woven thattis form the pandhal (roof), but now everyone prefers the shamiana (a cloth tent) as they think it is a matter of prestige to show themselves off to the village as modern.”
Typical of many villages in India, the younger generations gravitate to the larger cities for education or in search of better opportunities every year. Kannadiakka’s sons did the same many years ago and now run vegetable shops in Chennai.
I wonder if the art will survive. Has she passed the art on?
“No,” she says. “It’s quite sad. My granddaughter enjoys seeing me weave a mat every time she visits but can’t do it herself. Soon the art will die. When I was 20, everyone knew to weave thattis, even if it wasn’t their profession. Every house was self-sufficient for coconut mats for daily use, weddings, funerals, roofs…anything! It was natural too, unlike plastic. Now, there’s just me and a few other villagers who know the art. It will die in time. To even drag the coconut branches here is a difficult task. With no one to help me, I can’t do it for much longer.”
The sun is setting and Kannadiakka has had a busy day. I take her leave and make my way out, careful to tie the compound gate in place to keep out the unwelcome goats. The completed thatti glows a rich shade of brown in the evening sun, resting along with the dried up, older ones that haven’t been sold yet.
As a child visiting the village during the holidays, I was always fascinated by the things I could do here that I couldn’t do back home in Chennai. Clambering up every tree in sight was one of them. The coconut tree alone was unconquerable; it towered above us, its pockmarked trunk gently swaying in the wind, as if daring anyone to climb it.
The only ones who could climb them were the ones who did it for a living – the coconut tree climbers.
I meet Nainar, one of the two coconut/Palmyra tree climbers in the village. He is 47 years old with a small, wiry frame and a crushing handshake. I ask him why there are only two climbers in the entire village.
“Because it’s bloody tough work,” he grins. “When I started in my teens, there were hundreds of professional climbers. They were very good. But it’s difficult to maintain the required agility and strength over the years. If you take a month’s break, you better start looking for another job.”
The Palmyra tree is the official tree of Tamil Nadu and has great cultural significance. Ancient Palm-leaf manuscripts dating to the third century BC have been found. The fruit (Nongu) is sweet and edible. The juice from the shoots, called padhineer, is used to make toddy (country liquor) or Karupetti (palm jaggery), the crown of the tree yields a starchy, edible pananjchoru and the leaves are used to make mats, thatchings and so on. Coconut and Palmyra tree climbers were as essential to rural life as the trees themselves. Climbers’ services were required to harvest coconuts, collect padhineer juice and keep these other businesses alive.
“We were an important part of village life,” explains Nainar. “The rope business, the coconut business, the toddy, all depended on us.”
Nainar’s services don’t come cheap. He charges Rs 2,000 a day to climb 15 trees in the padhineer season, March, when demand is the highest. This goes on for six months, giving Nainar steady work and a regular substantial income.
Despite the essential nature of this job, there are fewer tree climbers every year. This is something I can’t fathom. It is an important job, it pays well. So, why is this profession vanishing?
“People don’t respect us much,” explains Nainar. “People call us ‘pannai aeri‘ (tree climber) in a derogatory way. You see, people now have small businesses and shops. They consider that a more respectable profession than climbing tree. So there are fewer full-time climbers these days,” he shrugs and smiles. “Enna pannuradhu? (what to do?) That’s the way things are. Of course, I don’t want that kind of life for my son.”
“What does your son want to do?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” says Nainar. “That’s for him to decide, but I definitely don’t want him to be in this profession”
Nainar agrees to take me and my photographer friend to a Palmyra tree farm three km away to show us the “correct” way to climb a tree. We walk along the narrow streets, past ancient houses with thick wooden doors and nine-inch keys. Nainar pushes along his cycle and his son walks beside us, clutching an old sack that holds his father’s climbing equipment. We pass the river that was once fast flowing with clear water. This year’s monsoon has been bad. The soil is dry and cracked under the heat, with plastic bags, brambles and thorny bushes encroaching the space. Nainar leads us through a thorny patch to the Palmyra grounds. He points to the tallest tree. It stands over 100 feet tall. I can’t help but ask him if he has seen any accidents in his 30-year career.
He laughs. “Of course not! You don’t climb because you think you can. You have to be sure of your skill, otherwise you must not even attempt it.”
Nainar begins his preparations. He places a kudhirai against the trunk of the tree (a kudhirai is a four-foot long wooden stand that a climber uses to start his ascent from three feet above the ground so he doesn’t step on the sharp-edged roots). He opens his sack and takes out his climbing tools – a bag made of dried coconut husk to hold his sharp aruval (cutting knife), a foot-strap made of twisted hemp and a metal tin to collect the Palmyra juice.
“Going up is difficult,” he says, taking off his shirt. “You are carrying quite a lot of weight and must be careful with your grip.” I touch the smooth tree trunk. The thought of climbing 100 feet with no support whatsoever sends a shiver down my spine. Nainar looks unfazed.
He jumps nimbly onto the kudhirai, hugs the tree tight, adjusts the jute foot-strap and begins his ascent. His body moves rhythmically as he brings his feet up, settling into a crouch before extending his arms and straightening up, his body moving steadily along the tree’s shiny surface. In exactly 30 seconds, he reaches the top. When the fruits are ripe, he will pluck them, cut the shoots, place little mud pots in place to collect the padhineer juice (which can be enjoyed as a cool, refreshing drink, fermented to make toddy or made into karupatti or palm jaggery), clear the tree of any insect nests and come back down. Nainar descends swiftly.
This entire process is intense, clearly a killer on the core muscles and must be the equivalent of doing 100 push-ups, but Nainar isn’t even breathing heavily. “I’ll come by your house later,” he says, putting on his shirt. “The coconut tree top needs to be cleaned.”
As he packs up, I ask his son if he can climb the tree. “No,” he smiles, distracted by a group of youngsters chasing a wild pig nearby. Nainar overhears us. “He’s too young,” he says. “Also, I want him to go to college and study.”
Many youngsters from this village move to Chennai to study engineering, the most popular choice. “Maybe the next generation will design a machine that does the job,” suggests my friend. Nainar shakes his head. “There’s already something like that in the market, but it will never work. It just isn’t the same.”
“So what happens after the two remaining coconut climbers pass on and there’s no one left to carry on the profession?” I ask. “Surely village life will be affected.”
“It will,” says Nainar, matter-a-factly. “The coconut and Palmyra trees sustain many professions and industries… But if there were no climbers, people will find alternatives and do without the things they were used to. For example, karupetti (palm jaggery) made from Palmyra juice was the healthy sweetener for centuries, now people use sugar instead. It’s like that.”
I tell him that I’m speaking to people who specialise in professions that may not exist in the next decade or so. “You should speak to Kannadiakkam” he says instantly. “She weaves coconut mats. That is one profession that will die very soon.”
“Because plastic is more practical. A plastic sheet can be washed and re-used. For weddings these days, people prefer having a shaamiana like they do in the cities, even though it’s more expensive. Of course it is sad, but what can you do? I’ve made a living for over 30 years, climbing these trees.” he raps his calloused knuckles on the tree trunk. “But in a few years, people won’t even know that there was a profession like this. They wouldn’t know how difficult it it or how important it once was….” his voice trails off.
“…Adhu Appadi thaan. Makkal “adjust” pannuvanga, Vazhlka Poigittae erukkum (That’s how it is. People will “adjust” and life will go on, regardless),” he says.
We bid each other goodbye. Nainar pushes his bicycle along the deserted dirt road, his son alongside, the well-worn sack with his climbing equipment balanced precariously behind him.
Joshua Karunakaran is a freelance writer based in Chennai.