Occupation – Tender coconut seller

It’s as hot as a furnace and humid too thanks to the greying clouds that hold promise of rain. No wonder tender coconut seller Shyamala is having a busy day. “It has been particularly hectic for the last two months, ever since the heat set in. I’ve had to work non-stop from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and often sell upwards of 100 coconuts a day. The peak time is between 5.30 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. Come rain or shine, tender coconut is always in demand,” says Shyamala, who operates her stall under a row of trees in front of the parking lot near Ananthapuri hospital, one of the handful of such stalls on the stretch from Chakkai junction to Eenchakkal. “The location counts for a tender coconut stall. You have to ensure you set it up in a place where there is a steady supply of customers – that’s why you find many in front of hospitals – and preferably in a shaded area,” she says. She has put out two plastic chairs in case her customers want to sit down and enjoy their drinks.

Presently a young woman, perhaps a visitor to the hospital, stops by and requests for two karikku (tender coconut) to take away. Shyamala picks one up from the rickety plastic bench that’s piled high with ripe coconuts, anchors it with one hand on a nearby wooden stand that she has put up and with deft flicks of a machete, she quickly chips away at the husk until the white middle layer (mesocarp) is visible. She does the same to another coconut and then hands them both to the customer along with a couple of straws. “De-husking it is not as easy as it looks, especially de-husking in the free style method (holding a coconut in one hand and chipping away at the husk with a machete with the other). The first time I attempted it, I cut my hand. It required four stitches. I never attempted it again!” says the jovial Shyamala, with a laugh.

Soon two passersby on a bike stop for some tender coconut water. This time she just lobs off the crown of the coconuts and plops in a straw. “Some customers want to eat the karikku (the kernel meat) too. Then I cut the coconuts into half and fashion a scoop out of a husk for them,” says Shyamala.

The coconuts that she is selling today were procured from the city. “These ones here are from Vallakadavu, in fact. Customers always ask me whether the coconuts are from Kerala or Tamil Nadu. Both varieties are usually the same, at least flavour-wise. I buy the coconuts at wholesale rates from a Valiyavila-based supplier named Santosh, who brings me a fresh load every other day. We bring in coconuts from Tamil Nadu only when there is a dearth in Kerala. It’s happening more and more these days, quite unfortunately,” says Shyamala, who has been manning the stall for over four years now.

Earlier she used to run a tea stall near Chakkai junction. “Selling tender coconuts is much more viable than running a tea stall and much less of an effort,” says the widow who lives in nearby Manava Nagar.

Her daughter Tankachi and her young grand-daughter Pavithra have joined her for the day. “It can get a bit lonely on the job. When I had the tea stall I used to love chitchatting with my customers. Everybody who comes to have tender coconut seems to be in a hurry,” says Shyamala, as more customers line up for the refreshing drink.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Thiruvananthapuram what it is)