I use powdered pebbles to sharpen my sickle. It was made for me by an achary in my village’
“I can’t sit down, I’m wearing my climbing gear,” smiles Mohan, pointing to the cloth wrapped tightly around his slim waist. He might not be able to sit but he can shimmy up tall trees. “I’ve climbed trees since I was 13. I wore this gear for the first time when I was 18, in my village Moggaiyur near Kalpakkam.” Despite his years of experience, though, he had a nasty fall some years ago, during Ganesh Chaturthi. “It was drizzling and I was cutting young palm-fronds from the tree-top to make thoranams. I slipped and fell. Doctors wanted to operate, but I refused. I wore a brace and rested for two months before resuming work.” And, he adds matter-of-factly, he has only half-vision in one eye, after it was jabbed by a palm leaf.
Mohan has been living in Chennai since he turned 21. He has a wife (who works as a housemaid) and three grown-up children — a married daughter, and two sons (a mason and an ironsmith). When they were younger, his sons accompanied him, fetching and carrying coconuts, earning a rupee or two in tips. “But I asked them not to get into my line of work; I wanted them to study,” he says, opening his palms to express the futility of his dream.
Tree-climbing fetches Rs.75 to Rs.100 per tree, a long way up from the Rs.8 when Mohan started. Mohan leaves home everyday at sunrise and is back before noon. He shows me his sickle, hand-made by an achari in his village, the sharp edges catching the light. “I use powdered pebbles to sharpen it. The rest of my kit is a year old. It costs me Rs.800 and I replace it every three or four years,” he says, patting the sickle box made from palm-leaf that hangs from his waist. Work, however, is now hard to find. “I’ve been here years ago,” he says, pointing to my apartment. “As an independent house, it had eight coconut trees, but they’ve been chopped down. It’s the same story everywhere.” People ask for coconuts to be plucked only when they threaten to fall on cars!
Trees don’t yield much but Mohan believes yields can be increased with composted cow-dung. He is very knowledgeable about pest control, and his organic remedy involves placing handfuls of a salt-turmeric-asafoetida mixture between the central palm-fronds. Resident scorpions and wasps catch climbers unawares, he says, while wood-peckers’ nesting holes result in whole trees being chopped down.
Quickly adjusting his turban, Mohan clambers up a neighbour’s tree. His feet hug the bark, and he moves with fluid grace, using the leg and body harnesses, handmade by fishermen. “See how poor the yield is?” he shouts from the top, chucking down three coconuts. Mohan plans to work for a few more years; by then, he hopes his sons will earn well and offer to support him. Till then, his mornings will be spent atop swaying coconut trees.
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)