The hundreds of coconut palms in the compound on all sides of the house were a part of the property when my grandfather purchased it.  He may have calculated that the sale of coconuts from these would augment his meager pension when he retired from government service. And so they did for many years.

 Every six weeks or so, a team of two or three men skilled in scaling the coconut palms would be hired for the thengavali (which literally translated meant pulling down the coconuts) to harvest the mature nuts. It was a busy day and my grandmother would walk around with the men keeping a count of the number of palms that had been climbed. A young boy who came with the men would collect the coconuts from the ground where they had fallen and pile them up in an open corner of the compound.

The wage for the day was based on the number of trees that the men had climbed.  Over and above this, a few extra coconuts were thrown in as bonus for the labourers.  On the way back from the day’s work, the men usually bartered the bonus for toddy and fried fish at the nearest Toddy Bar.

 In those days there were no calculators and all the record keeping for the thengavali was done on a length of fresh palm leaf – one notch was made on the leaf for every tree that was climbed. Sometimes the numbers did not tally and it took skillful negotiation to come to a figure that was acceptable both to grandmother and the men.

 We followed grandmother around the compound staying well out of the way of the falling nuts but close enough to be around if a tender coconut was cut. Cutting of the tender nuts was never encouraged; firstly there were too many members in the household who would need to get one each and then each nut lost to a moment of luxury meant a loss of income for the family.

 By noon the men would have finished the last tree and gathered all the nuts together. From the day’s crop, a fixed number was kept aside each time for the requirements of the kitchen. The number varied from month to month – many more during the summer holidays and a clear fifty more during the months when the festivals of Vishu and Onam were celebrated.

 The coconut business in those days was in the hands of middlemen. They knew more about the age and yield of your trees than all the owners put together. News of the thengavali would reach them and they would be there to offer a price based on the prevailing market rates. Another round of bargaining would follow and the day would end with both sides accepting a price that could have been better for both. There was always someone to come around and say that the coconuts in our granduncle’s house were larger and were sold for a higher price. This topic of conversation surfaced both at mealtimes and between meals. In retrospect it looked like a tool for settling joint family scores with no link to the market price or the quality of coconuts. It took many days to ease the perceived pain of having missed a better deal.

 Sometime in the sixties, grandmother delegated her tasks to her eldest son, my uncle. His sons, my cousins helped him keep count while he walked around the compound and ensured there were no tender nuts for anyone.  We quenched our thirst with water from one of the wells in the house.

 When the communists came to power in Kerala and consolidated their base in the late fifties of the last century, the entire ritual of bringing down coconuts became a part of the thengavali manual. There were standard rates for workers and for each of the jobs involved in climbing the trees, cutting and collecting the nuts. In a single stroke, the joys of interaction, of bargaining, negotiation were replaced with fixed rates and newly empowered workers. They were empowered? Or were they?

 After the thengavali there were several activities that went on in different corners outside the house. Once the crop was counted and the coconuts set aside for the household needs, a sharp iron spike was driven into the ground to de-husk the nuts. This was a job for the men and men alone. With repetitive staccato movements the man de-husked each nut to the required limit taking care to see that his hands stayed clear of the sharp edge of the spike. Care was also taken to see that the three ‘eyes’ of the coconut or its germination spores remained adequately covered with the husk. The coconuts for the household were never husked and were piled in a corner of the storeroom. Every day, one or two of these were given to the cook together with the rest of the rations like rice, lentils and coconut oil. On the odd occasion when the cook was on leave it fell to the women servants to de-husk the coconut. They did this not with the spike but with a kodali[2]  using their feet to hold the nut and the knife to hack and pull out the fibres. In those days entertainment was what you made for yourself and one of them was watching the whole process of de-husking. We sat and watched the process and on a couple of occasions even tried our hands at the job. Our concentration once made our Uncle remark that perhaps when we grew up this was one of the professions we would have to consider.

Things may have improved but in those days the method of de-husking coconuts was a messy and unenviable job. None of us took to the profession.

Viju James

[1] The harvest of coconuts, or literally pulling down coconuts