Standing in the compound of her house in Palayamkunnu, in Varkala town, Suni is a “maram keri”.
Literally, the term means someone who climbs trees. But it has another meaning: a person who does not confirm to convention. This second meaning, more than the first has often been thrown at her even though she is now an expert climber.
She proudly declares that she always won local tree-climbing competitions. “I have a record of being able to climb up and down coconut palms in under a minute.”
With practised ease, 45-year-old Suni Lee ties her dupatta around her waist, tucks in her machete, rubs her palms together and walks up the 40-foot coconut palm that towers over her. She plucks a coconut, and walks back down, all in less than a minute.
In 2011, an officer of the Krishi Bhavan told her about the Friends of Coconut programme recently launched by the Coconut Development Board. She was the only woman in the first batch of 30 people who were trained in Thiruvananthapuram. In five years, the Board has trained over 30,000 people to climb coconut trees with a machine.
Suni would sneak out of her house under the pretext of going for ayurvedic treatment and head straight to the training venue.
“I couldn’t have convinced them at the time that though what I was doing was unusual, it isn’t wrong,” she says.
Her family members had “lovingly” threatened to break her legs if she pursued the 45-day training course.
“Initially I too was embarrassed to admit that I was learning to climb trees. That's what we are told… that we cannot do such things. It was difficult as it was a male dominated profession. It still is. But then my husband began to take the classes himself, which helped me to head out with him,” Suni recollects.
Five years on, Suni is glad that she sneaked out to learn to climb trees. She has trained about 400 women in Thiruvananthapuram district. On a typical day, she hops onto her two-wheeler, fastens the machine on the back seat and climbs at least 30 trees a day to earn a living.
Rasiya Beevi’s machine has been lying unused in her backyard since after a fall two years ago and injured her back.
“I used to work in the fields before I learned to climb trees. This is not an area where many women ventured into. It was exciting for me to try out,” says the 43-year-old from Varkala.
Her family’s disapproval did not dampen her enthusiasm.
“It wasn’t just my family and neighbours, but other male coconut pickers who tried hard to convince me not to take it up. They would deliberately tell me that I would fall to discourage me, fearing that if more women took it up, it would affect their work. It was then that I realized my potential,” she says.
The machine used to climb trees
But Usha from Chembur village, does not quite have the same enthusiasm she started out with. A year’s insurance for the climber and a machine as part of the programme, weren’t enough to keep her in the profession.
“I had to go from house to house looking for work, and I did not find it very rewarding. Now I don’t do it full-time, but I don’t decline when people call me,” the 40-year-old says. She now drives an autorickshaw.
Three months after quitting her job as a domestic help, 35-year-old Padmakumari is her own boss. It took her a month to earn Rs 3,000 by working in other people’s houses in her neighborhood in Cicilipuram, but she now earns the same amount in just four days.
She only completed her training in May but is already on speed dial in her nieghbourhood.
Coconut tree climbing, however, is not new to her. Her father and husband both did the same work.
“I didn’t have a job when my husband passed away nine years ago. Until May, I did all sorts of odd jobs, from working as domestic help to laboring in fields and mills,” she says.
“I thought about coconut-picking for more than four years, but I did not know how to go about it,” Padmakumari says.
When a friend told her about the Friends of Coconut programme, she jumped at it.
Even though she comes from a family whose male coconut pickers, Padmakumari was thoroughly discouraged for obvious reasons.
“Even your father had a fall, how can you manage to climb the tree without hurting yourself?” they asked her.
“But I knew that if have the will to do it, then I would definitely succeed. And I did,” she says.