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Christmas gift: Faith, fearlessness and phone meet atop 40-foot coconut tree

Cicily hangs on to the coconut tree and the stuck climbing machine
on December 19 in Kerala

Dec. 24: “God’s Christmas gift” came a week early for the children of Cicily — atop a 40-foot-high coconut tree from where she hung precariously.

The 46-year-old homemaker, who took up climbing coconut trees as a part-time vocation a few months ago in Kerala, was left dangling from atop one of them for almost 40 minutes on December 19 after the climbing machine slid off her feet.

How she was helped down is a story where faith, fearlessness and mobile telephony fused. How she reached the heart-in-the-mouth perch is a story of perseverance, cross-border adversity as well as audacity. It also tells the tale of a demographic vacuum that is being filled by Bengal’s able-bodied sons for want of other opportunities.

Back to the coconut tree — kera in Malayalam that gave Kerala its name before copywriters came up with the overused “God’s own country”.

“The tree was about 40 feet tall,” said Cicily, the five-foot-two mother of three and the wife of a poor fish seller from Kanjikkuzhy panchayat in Alappuzha district. “I had reached the top and was cleaning the crown, with my left foot firmly on the left pedal of the machine (a two-piece instrument, with one piece for each leg) and the right leg on the other pedal a step above.”

The steel wire that attaches the machine to the tree trunk came loose and slid down, she said. “I panicked and clasped the palm leaves, but then the right piece too slipped off the tree trunk.”

She was dangling from the tree, which took a slight curve at about 30 feet from the ground. “I thought it was all over, but did not lose heart. I prayed fervently to God to help me.”

Cicily pedalled the air with her legs, hoping to get a toehold on the trunk. In a while, she succeeded and managed to wrap her legs around the trunk. Peering down, she saw the machine was stuck at the curve.

“That gave me hope and I inched down, clasping the trunk. It wasn’t easy... my clothes were in disarray and part of my skin rubbed against the wood. It hurt.”

Cicily managed to reach the machine, pushed a leg into it and tightened the safety loop.

Then, she realised, the machine would not move down.

“I was screaming, and the farm owner, who was standing below, too panicked. It then struck me that I was carrying a mobile phone. Usually, I leave it below lest I drop it while climbing. But that day I had received a call just as I was about to go up. I attended the call and absent-mindedly left the phone in my pocket.”

She dialled 101 for the fire brigade and pleaded for help. But before she had finished the call, the phone slipped off her nervous fingers. “However, the call did not get disconnected. The farm owner picked the phone up and gave the fire brigade my location.”

In 20 minutes, a fire tender arrived. “They attached a ladder to the trunk and a man came up. With much difficulty, he freed me from the tree and positioned me onto his shoulder. I clung to him for dear life,” Cicily said.

She was taken to hospital and put on intravenous glucose before being sent home. “Saving me was God’s Christmas gift for my children,” she said.

Cicily said she had taken up coconut-tree climbing to supplement the family income.

“My husband suffers from piles and has been bleeding from tension since he heard about my ordeal. Neither of us has gone to work since that day,” she said.

But she insisted the mishap had not scared her off the vocation.

“Some of my friends and family members have advised me to give up the job. But why should I? At Rs 25-30 per tree, I manage to earn Rs 500-600 a day by climbing about 20 coconut palms. Some days, I make up to Rs 750. Besides, I can work at my convenience,” she said.

Perhaps life’s tough lessons explain her doggedness. After completing school, she had trained as a lab technician and worked in Chennai and Mumbai before pursuing the Malayali dream — the Gulf.

Cicily became a housemaid in Saudi Arabia but ended up fleeing from her employer, unable to bear the torture.

“They would make me work 20 to 21 hours a day. They often beat me and sometimes would not let me sleep. They would not pay me, either. One night I fled the house and took shelter in the Indian embassy, which sent me back home,” she said.

Her story offers a reality check on Kerala’s manpower crisis, fuelled by migrations to the Gulf and a high literacy rate. The impact is strongest on the farm sector, where paddy fields have turned barren and coconut trees are being chopped off by the dozen.

Some migrant labourers — mostly from eastern states such as Bengal — do work in the farms. But most of the migrant workforce sticks to construction, where the nature of work is more or less similar across states.

Coconut-tree climbing is not meant for the uninitiated and the weak-hearted. Tourists sometimes gasp at the sight of rows upon rows of the trees rising towards the sky, wondering how lesser mortals reach the green or golden prize at the pinnacle.

Cicily had undergone training in climbing in February as part of a project, “Friends of Coconut Tree”, initiated by the Coconut Development Board in September last year.

The project, which seeks to address the shortage of coconut-tree climbers, aims to “identify, train and handhold at least 5,000 underemployed youths” in 10 key coconut-growing districts in the state.

The coconut pluckers traditionally belonged to the Thandan caste but the younger generations have moved up the social ladder and find the job demeaning.

Those who stuck to the tree have come to enjoy the fruits of a monopoly market — some turn up only after months of entreaties instead of the ideal 45-day cycle, overcharge and do not tolerate competition.

Cicily also had to face a backlash from the entrenched traditional plucker of the area — who had the added armoury of trade union muscle. He asked her to keep off the trees and pursued the matter at the panchayat but Cicily did not pay heed. The panchayat did not intervene, probably foreseeing the head-smashing consequences of leaving ripe nuts unplucked.

Such is the shortage of skilled feet and hands that a job offer for a plucker some years ago, at a monthly salary of Rs 8,000 besides free food and lodging, elicited no response. In Kollam district in the south, a landlord had to get a court to order a truant plucker to bring down the fruits lest they fall on someone.

A north Kerala-based satirist and social critic, Ramadasan Vaidyar, had foreseen the crisis nearly two decades ago. In 1993, he set up a school to train people to climb coconut palms.

He got the then district collector, U.K. Chouhan, to inaugurate the institute by climbing a tree. Chouhan tried to do so ignoring protests from his family. His wife clung to his legs at the event, preventing the bureaucrat from scaling further up.

In 2009, the government announced a cash reward of Rs 10 lakh for an innovation that would do away with the need for human pluckers. Some 462 proposals were received but two rounds of trials later, the offer is set to be withdrawn.