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In praise of Karnataka’s useful coconuts

If rice is the crop that is the most time-consuming for the farmers in Nadigrama, it is coconuts that most effortlessly make money. Everything else that grows in Nadigrama is peripheral to these two crops. Coconuts are king. The three southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka grow the lion’s share of India’s eleven million tonnes of coconuts. Only two countries in the world grow more: Indonesia and the Philippines.

The coconut tree serves so many useful purposes that even their farmers would be hard-pressed to name them all. Tender green coconuts contain the most refreshing and healthy natural liquid, best consumed with a straw straight from the shell and now being sold in tetrapacks by canny entrepreneurs.

These trees are the hardest of woods, used to build houses, roofing, furniture and boats. But the real money is in the coconuts themselves. The coir – the matted outside of the husks – is used for sisal, ropes, doormats, mattresses, brushes, hemp, cardboard, insulation and even paper. Almost anything can be made from this cheap, adaptable, natural fibre. Not so long ago the coconut industry was in decline. Now the worldwide alarm that plastic waste is destroying the fish in our oceans will bring a renewed lease of life to the coconut’s miscellaneous uses.

Book cover, a small village in South IndiaAnd then there is toddy, the elixir extracted from the sap of the coconut tree is found in the flowering cluster of buds at the very top of the 15-metre-high trees. Bomana is the village toddy tapper, an appealing personality who plays the serpent each year in his temple’s dance drama. He is tall and skinny but immensely strong. Dressed only in a lungi he shins up the trees with the help of a heavy leather belt round both his waist and the trunk of the tree. He then jack-knifes himself up to a higher position, as high as he can reach, slotting his toes into the niches he has already cut in the near-vertical trunk. Bomana just seems to glide up the tree. If he makes a mistake there is no safety net, just the guarantee of serious injury. Once he reaches the top of the tree he cuts a hole in the base of the flowering bud with his razor-sharp billhook and connects a tube to a clay pot that he ties to the tree trunk. Over night the liquid sap fills his pot and, after a few hours’ fermentation, it becomes ready-to-drink toddy with an alcoholic strength of about 8% – about the same as a strong beer. It can then be distilled into the much more potent brew of coconut arrack that looks like whisky and is often just as strong. But in Karnataka that is now illegal.

Because of the plethora of drink-related traffc accidents, bars and liquor shops within 500 metres of national and state highways have been banned throughout India. This has been the death knell for many of the toddy shops. The neighbouring state government of Kerala decided to challenge the federal ruling in the Supreme Court, claiming that a ban on liquor shops along highways would rob thousands in the state of their traditional occupation. So far, claimed Kerala, the ban has harmed the livelihood of 3,078 toddy tappers and closed down 520 toddy shops in the state. The case, not surprisingly, continues and probably will for years.

Toddy production is now legal in Karnataka but it remains against the law to distil arrack from it, a ban welcomed by exasperated wives fed up with the family’s wages being wasted on drink. Toddy’s main value these days is as a harmless substitute for yeast when making idlis, the sticky rice cakes which are a much-loved local delicacy but very much an acquired taste.

Coconuts are the money-spinners and very easy to cultivate compared with rice or vegetables. Certainly the trees need manure and a good deal of watering during the summer, but the dead branches provide all the fuel you need for a year’s cooking and water heating and every three or four months there is the coconut harvesting when money flows in like pennies from heaven. Just across the river a retired chemistry professor earns Rs 450,000 (about £5,000) a year from the coconuts he sells from his four-hectare coconut plot. In this part of the world that’s a king’s ransom.

Extracted from ‘A Village in South India‘ by Adam Clapham, a slow take on daily farming/fishing life.

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