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Murugandi set his sights high

S. Murugandi now spends time working under the MGNREGA. L. Balachandar  

In the early 1960s, Ramanathapuram was known for its scraggy landscape dotted with towering palm trees. And this countryside gave birth to S. Murugandi, now famous as the visually impaired palm tree climber. He was born in 1962 in a hamlet called Vellari Odai. Acres of palm trees was his playground. Along with his friends, he climbed these trees as his fingers memorised every jagged cut of the coarse trunks. He had no fear, and his lithe frame skidded up, though he could not see.

Little did he know that this favourite game would turn into his bread and butter. In the 1970s, as this backward region had nothing much to offer, many men went to Sri Lanka, a land of opportunity then. One among them was his father, who would never return. Murugandi, then 10 years old, had to take care of his mother and sister. The only skill he knew was climbing palm trees. He would not just cut the palm fronds and fruits but was also adept at weaving the fronds into mats and using the stem of the fronds to make fences. In the early days, he got one paisa for each palm tree he climbed; in a day, he would easily climb 50 trees.

In his early twenties, he was a very-much-in-demand climber. His day would start around 3.30 a.m. His first job was to tune into Radio Ceylon. These airwaves kept him company when he went about his chores at home. By eight, he would be ready and, accompanied by his wife Kala Devi or a friend, he would go to farms.

By afternoon, he would return home, and many times he would bleed from the cuts that those unforgiving rugged trees inflicted on him. The only ointment he used was milk from the cashew-nut fruit. The only time he was shaken, he says, was when he climbed a curved tree. While descending, his chest slammed on the trunk. Raw eggs and a concoction of dry ginger and turmeric alleviated the agonising pain.

With the money he earned climbing palm trees and with the help of well-wishers, he gave good education to his two daughters. The first daughter is an engineer, and works in Chennai. “I am hoping that she gets a government job,” says the proud father. The second daughter is doing a nursing course at Meenakshi Mission Hospital in Madurai.

But times are changing. As he ages, the topography has also changed. Only a few palm trees remain. Fences made with palm fronds, once ubiquitous in this region, have been replaced by concrete compounds. With the government placing curbs on toddy-tapping, palm trees are also fading away.

Murugandi now spends his time joining other workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Yet, he awaits a call to climb the remaining trees. His determination to stand on his own remains an inspiration to youngsters.


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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 6:14:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/murugandi-set-his-sights-high/article36283189.ece

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