Coconut, the wonder fruit - Nostalgia !
An article in BBC News on line saying coconut is a wonder fruit has brought up a lump in my throat.
As kids, we used to love watching coconut climbers doing their job. I would say they were the early Nadian Comanecans.The global public had to wait till 1976 Montreal Olympics, to get an acrobat exhibit the coordination and aesthetic beauty of coconut tree climbing in the form of Nadia Comaneci.
We tried to emulate the free style method of the climbers but ended up with bruise marks on our chests, calf muscles and inner thighs. The higher our freehand climb took us, deeper were the bruises as we used to "give up" in exhaustion and hug the tree dearly to slow down the fall.
The payment for the climbers was partly cash and partly in kind - it was related to the number of trees climbed and not related the yield. So in summer months, the cost per tree comes down as the yield is much more. In the lean months, it was a tug of war between grandma and the climbers as the climbers would insist on climbing while grandma would try to postpone it to "minimise" loss of revenue.
The climbers used to pick the best unpeeled coconuts which fetched them twice the price of normal coconuts in the local market. They would head to the market after the day's work and go home in a happy frame of mind, inebriated, thanks to another coconut product - toddy.
Two coconut palms at our place consistently had the highest yield. The one outside the kitchen, where cooking vessels were washed with firewood ash ( Vim/ Pril cakes and liquids are no match to this ash ! ) and the other, outside the cowshed where the cow and calf used to be bathed everyday with the occasional dropping of dung and urine adding to the nutrition.
Besides plucking the coconuts, the climbers used to prune the coconut trees- cutting down the swaying palm leaves some of which used to obstruct the "sprout" , plucking out the palm leaf stumps ( "madal " ) , coconut flower sheaths ( "kothumbu" ) and dried up root like clumps ( " konjatta" ) from which coconuts hang. All these were dried and stored in a stand alone storage space ( viraku vara ). We had two earthen hearths in the kitchen and used to alternate between them daily. The firewood gathered from coconut trees and other trees were more than enough for cooking year around and we used to sell excess stock. The firewood storage space had to be at some distance from the house as myriad insects and creatures like cockroaches, scorpions, chameleons, centipedes and snakes used to take residence in the firewood stock.
Once the raw coconuts are heaped in a convenient spot, the "news" reaches the trader. Another interesting artist, "the coconut fibre peeler" ( " thenga pothikkal" ) , turns up for peeling fibre cover off the shell and subsequently sorting the coconuts. He turns up with a four feet long wooden stump with a metal lip , plants it in the soil and with three pressing of the full coconut "fruit" against the metal lip peels off the fibrous covering like a open three petal flower leaving the coconut kernel with the smoothness of a Tirupathi tonsured scalp. The coconut fibre peeler decides on the quality of the coconut by couple of shakes of the nut close to his ear. The peeling plus grading takes only a few seconds per nut.
The nuts of lesser quality used to be piled by the peeler in the ratio of 4:3 and 3:2 for the trader by the peeler. The rest, which were very few in number , used to be retained by grandma for cooking. This was augmented with odd nut or two falling before the the next harvest.
The trader used to take the coconut and major part of the fibre peels ( we needed some for firewood. Dry fibre peels were needed to start the fire in the hearth ) and pay within couple of days. The coconut tree climbing used to take place area wise making logistics easier for the trader.
The woman who used to sweep the earth around the house used to weave the green coconut palm leaves leaving them "pleated". These "pleated" leaves were sold for building walls of huts and roofs. I remember our home had pleated coconut palm leaf roof in my early days in primary school. The pleated roof used to be changed before monsoon as one cycle of wetness ( due to monsoon ) and bright sunlight ( in summer ) used to leave them pitted and porous.
We did attempt "pleating" and the outcome used to be thrashes from grandma. Pleating the leaves without breaking the "thilli" is an art and we used to break the " thilli" rendering the palm leaves useless. We did not give up - we used to try our hand on coconut palm leaves lying "unclaimed" in public areas until some public spirited elder turned up and chased us out.
The cinema theatre " Providence" in the village was a thatched one- walls and roof were made of pleated coconut palm leaves. It used to close down just before monsoon and would be ready for Onam with new roof and walls. During the night shows, the whole village could hear the dialogues and songs. The films, Malayalam and Tamil, shown used to change every Tuesday and Friday ( Only formidable films like "Chemmeen", " Asuravithu" etc have played for a week ). I used to like action films with a lot of fights especially those of MGR with his sparring partner M N Nambiar. But the fights used to sound silly outside the theatre- "a dishum, a dishum, a dishum" !
The most interesting and tasty product from coconut was "pongu". On the rare occasions when a coconut tree had to cut down due to poor yield, construction work etc, we , the bunch of kids, would hang around for the final act. Pongu- the head of the tree from where the coconuts and palm leaves sprout,white in colour, about the size of unpeeled coconut, is tender and sweet and has a heavenly taste. Eating "pongu" is a rare privilege as nobody gives up on a coconut tree in Kerala. Tender coconut consumption was a rarity ( as it was a loss of revenue proposition and one needed a coconut tree climber who would not come to climb just one tree ).
We have been there and we have done it .
Now If I am asked to plant coconut trees, I can not.They do not grow in flower pots !
Enclosed is a snap of the firewood store. This is a part of memory as the house was sold in 1989 and razed to ground immediately. The other snap is of a coconut fibre peeler.