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Meet Kerala’s plantation queens

Sosamma Mathen, 89, owner of Koorenpara Estate in Idukki.

Sosamma Mathen, 89, owner of Koorenpara Estate in Idukki.   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

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Three women in an alpha-male industry and how they came up trumps

Every Monday, Sosamma Mathen zips through the winding roads of Idukki’s high ranges in her swanky SUV, her driver at the wheel, heading first to her 65-acre Koorenpara coffee estate, and then to the 120-acre coffee-cardamom plantation in Mavadi. By Friday, she returns home to Pallom in Kottayam district, covering a distance of 280 kilometres over four days, making decisions that affect the lives of more than 60 families and, of course, single-handedly earning an income that’s almost unmentionable.

Sosamma is 89. Slowly getting used to viewing the world with one eye (thanks to a random root canal surgery), she says the only thing worse than being a one-eyed nonagenarian woman planter is being a 36-year-old widow with children to educate and no money.

Welcome to the world of the single woman plantation owner: forced to be the sole bread-winner in middle age in an industry that’s alpha male in every sense, beating all odds from climate change and pestilence to union threats and market risks, to accomplish one feat, and one feat only — the safety of their children’s inheritance.

Sosamma was 44 when she eventually got hold of her husband’s property, eight years after his death in 1963. The Koorenpara estate was a measly 40 acres of parched land with arid coffee crops. Every day, carrying a lunch pack and an umbrella, she’d take the 5.00 a.m. bus to make the five-hour journey to her property. She could afford only two labourers to weed, fertilise and do whatever else it took to ensure a passable yield that first year. There was no bungalow yet. Lunch would be had under the shade of the only tree on the plot. By evening, work would come to a halt and Sosamma would take the last bus home. That routine never changed for years.

“The first year, I made seven tonnes of raw coffee. I sold it at the regular auctions run by the Coffee Board.” It was a loss because Sosamma had debts to pay. “My eldest son had just finished his medical degree, my daughter was in business school, and my youngest had yet to complete his boarding school education in Ooty.” Over the years, she had borrowed heavily from her siblings for all these reasons and other expenses. “My sisters were extremely helpful but I wanted to pay them back as soon as I could.” The second year, however, the yield was 14 tonnes and Sosamma was able to break even. It took another four full years to reach the target yield of approximately one tonne per acre — or almost 40 tonnes.

My sons are very sure they cannot live the way I do on the estate. But I think it’s a waste of money — Sosamma Mathen

In the next 10 years, Koorenpara estate transformed from a wasteland to a full-fledged coffee plantation with 100% yield, a two-bedroom bungalow and a labour team consisting of a supervisor, a watchman and eight permanent workers. In 1995, Sosamma and her three children invested equally in another estate, 110 acres in Mavadi. That same year, she bid adieu to her 5 a.m. bus and bought her first jeep. “I was okay with the bus. But my eldest was an emergency medicine doctor in the U.S. and my youngest was a neurophysician in private practice in Kochi. How do you explain the merits of spartan living to them?” she laughs.

The Mavadi estate too had to be done up from scratch; it did not have a bedroom or even a toilet. “The previous owner put out a straw mat on the verandah and asked me to get comfortable.” One week after the sale, she ‘moved in’.

She hired daily-wage labourers to clean the property and planted five acres with coffee saplings and shrubs. Water was plentiful, the soil good, and the climate favourable. Each year, she added five to ten acres to the cultivation. The yield increased proportionally but “I had no yard for drying or a shed for storage.” Initially, she rented both but as the entire acreage came under coffee cultivation, she started building.

In the last 12 years, Mavadi Estate has increased by another 70 acres of which 25 is devoted to cardamom inter-cropped with pepper and vanilla. Every day, more than 60 daily-wage workers are employed here along with 20 permanent labourers, five supervisors, a superintendent, and a watchman. It now houses a 5,000 sq. ft. storage shed and a drying yard that is still being expanded to meet the demand.

A massive bungalow is now near completion. “My sons are very sure they cannot live the way I do on the estate. But I think it’s a waste of money,” says Sosamma. And she should know. “I remember taking the bus to the Kottayam Government Medical College for my hysterectomy. I could have chosen a private hospital but money was still dear. The surgery cost me only ₹2. My sisters raised hell when they came to know. They insisted I take a taxi back home. I had to. That was a waste of money too.”

An Italian in Pala

When Italian Elia Panichi married Emmanuel Ramapuram of Pala, Kottayam, in 1960, the thought of single-handedly running a 125-acre plantation in Coorg did not feature in her wildest dreams. As a bride in Pala, she had enjoyed her new life immensely. A very supportive mother-in-law had ensured her smooth initiation to Syrian Christian culture, cuisine and language. She’d accompany her husband to Coorg on his regular visits to the plantation, now called Sampigekolly (B Estate), in Nelliahudikeri village, but her involvement did not extend beyond keeping a beautiful home and entertaining visitors.

Elia Panichi, Italian by birth, married a Malayali and moved to Kottayam in 1960. Here, Elia with her parents’ photographs.

Elia Panichi, Italian by birth, married a Malayali and moved to Kottayam in 1960. Here, Elia with her parents’ photographs.   | Photo Credit: M.A. SRIRAM

Things began falling apart when Ramapuram started ailing and finally succumbed to liver cirrhosis at the age of 52. Elia, aka Lilly, was 46 and her youngest daughter was barely eight.

“The only silver lining was that by then my older brother was 25 and so she was not completely alone,” says Elia’s second son, Peter Ramapuram, 53, who now lives at the Sampigekolly house with his wife Gina and his mother. “He had to cut short his education and take over the reins a year before my father died. He was inexperienced and the initial years were tough on all of us.”

The Ramapuram family plantations were around 1,250 acres spread over parts of Coorg, Thalassery and Thrissur. Most of it was mired in litigations, and thus largely neglected. “My mother inherited these legal issues as well. Apart from the daily running of the plantation — weeding, manuring, re-planting, and so on — my brother and she had to meet lawyers and chartered accountants to clear up all the other issues.”

Once a week, Elia would take the bus from Mangaluru to Madikeri. She would meet up with the labourers, supervise the work on the plantation and hold meetings with her manager and staff. “She was very popular with the workers,” says Peter. Even when her husband was alive, Elia was involved in training the girls of the village in crocheting and sewing. She spoke Malayalam and kept an open mind while dealing with the workers. “They appreciated that,” says Peter.

“But things at home were extremely difficult,” recalls Thomas Ramapuram, 47, another of Elia’s sons, who lives in Bengaluru with his family. “Our worst financial period was between 1985 and 1995. The burden was on our mother because her whole life depended on the plantation. She would seat us around the table and discuss how much money was coming in and how much needed to be spent. Do we have enough for weddings, for education, and so on...”

Elia’s second child, Anna Ramapuram, was married at 21, while the third, Peter, majored in law. The fourth, Thomas, completed his degree in hotel management. The youngest, Geetha Ramapuram, finished her Masters in Computer Application and got a job in Bengaluru. The oldest, Emmanuel Jr., looked after the plantation till his brothers completed their education and then returned to Madikeri.

Even when her husband was alive, Elia was involved in training the girls of the village in crocheting and sewing.

Over the years, the coffee plantation thrived. Today, Sampigekolli (B Estate) comprises 100 acres of coffee and 25 acres of rubber plantation. It has 50 permanent labourers who weed, pluck and dry the coffee beans. The yield is approx 500 kg per acre of uncured coffee. The estate is AAA certified for Nespresso and has obtained the Rainforest Alliance/UTZ certificate too.

The property is now commonly owned by the five children. Peter looks after everyone’s share, with help from Thomas in Bengaluru. “Our eldest brother Emmanuel Jr. realised he’d had enough of the plantation experience and is happily living the NRI dream with his children in the U.S.,” says Peter.

Elia was finally able to break free too. In 2000, she quit the plantation life and moved to Bengaluru to live with her youngest daughter. But a stranger to idling, at 60, she took on a job as translator for a BPO. “She’d take a cab to work and had a fabulous five-year stint,” says Peter. “At 65, when she returned to Madikeri, not once did she ask about the plantation. No advice, not even a suggestion. She completely cut herself off and busied herself with occasional work as an online translator and the company of her grandchildren.”

Two years ago, Elia began to show early signs of Alzheimer’s. She now lives with Peter and Gina. On an ordinary day, the 78-year-old reads, albeit the same book repetitively. She has forgotten to sew. She neither watches television nor takes an afternoon nap. She goes on walks sometimes. She knows Peter and Gina because she sees them every day but couldn’t recognise Emmanuel when he visited last November.

“Our mother remembers all the good times — her marriage, her mother-in-law, the carefree years in Pala — but not a single episode of her widowhood or the running of the plantation.” Peter and Thomas strongly believe those stressful years caused her illness. “But she saved a sinking ship. If it wasn’t for her, we would have lost everything.”

No time to grieve

Marykutty Mani, in comparison, had it easier. When widowhood struck six years ago, she was 68 and had already lived for 30 years on the 180-acre Sumeru Plantations in Nedumkandam, Idukki. Her husband, M.M. Mani, jewellery baron and former municipal chairman of Kottayam, had bought the property in 1980 as a marsh.

Marykutty Mani, 74, owner of Sumeru Plantations, Idukki.

Marykutty Mani, 74, owner of Sumeru Plantations, Idukki.   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

“There was nothing on it. We built from scratch.” They planted acre by acre with cardamom, depending on the topography, adding 10 to 20 acres to cultivation every year. The labour was intensive because cardamom demands a 365-day caring schedule. The yield, however, was satisfactory by the third year.

“My husband was fond of construction. So he renovated the small building on the plantation into a two-bedroom bungalow with a wide verandah, lawn, garden and so on. He built a church, staff quarters and a cardamom store over three decades.” In 2011, Mani died of a heart attack. “His death was sudden. I did not even have time to grieve. Within a week, I had to return to the plantation because the crops needed immediate attention. My eldest daughter came with me. Still, it was the saddest trip I ever made to Sumeru.”

Marykutty was fortunate that by then her four daughters were married. Their jewellery business had wound up, the ancestral property in Kottayam was sold, and the Sumeru plantation was the only source of income she focussed on, while shunting between the estate and her house in Kochi.

The biggest challenge she faced was labour. “They started acting up. For the first time, I had to negotiate with union representatives,” she says.

Even though she recently bought a polishing and washing machine to cut down on labour, cardamom requires regular hands-on care throughout the year, with the number of workers peaking at 150 per day during picking time. “I somehow manage to get around 40 Hindi-speaking and Tamil migrants in the nick of time.” Even then, she supports 30 families on her permanent wage roll. “But I’ve learnt to keep them at bay. I refuse to be intimidated by their leaders any more.”

At 74, Marykutty lives on the estate for months together. She comes down only when she has to attend a social gathering or when she falls ill. She owns two jeeps and a pick-up truck to transport her produce to the weekly auction, and an SUV for field visits. But she prefers to walk. And there have been times when she has walked the entire 200 acres.

Postscript

So what will happen to these plantations when the women are gone? “I have told my sons to start visiting the estate now, when I’m healthy enough to counsel them,” says Sosamma. Marykutty’s daughters believe their only option is to sell. Or run it jointly as a home-stay or resort. Elia’s sons have already taken over and in the vacuum of her Alzheimer’s-stricken mind, she really has no anxieties.

For them, the worst is over — the pain of widowhood, the looming threat of making ends meet, the torture of not knowing if the crop will succeed. Today, it’s all about prayer meetings, senior citizen councils, charity, an occasional holiday abroad, and grandchildren. Life has returned to them.

The writer lives in Kottayam and happily flouts the Syrian Christian conventions of cooking and baking.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 10:51:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/meet-keralas-plantation-queens/article22917494.ece

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