August 13, 2007

The Coconut Vendor

I get off the back entrance of the bus, and look in the direction of the mass of people awaiting entry passes to get into SEEPZ, then dodge honking cars, rickshaws, buses, and people, and head for Krishnadas’ stall, the Keralite coconut vendor who sells tender coconuts sourced from Mysore in Karnataka on the footpath that runs along the wall fencing off SEEPZ from the traffic. On the wall behind him Krishnadas has nailed a small, framed picture of goddess Durga astride a tiger, and carries out his business under straggly branches that reach over the pavement from behind the wall which fences off SEEPZ from the outside world.

When I squint incomprehension on hearing him pronounce the name of the place he hails from in Kerela for, it sounded like Palghat, Krishnadas smiles at me and says, “Not Palghat. It is Palakkad, T. N. Seshan ka gaon. Main uska gaon ka hai,” he says with discernable pride, referring to the legendary Tambram Election Commissioner from Palakkad who doggedly took on the Indian politicians and is largely credited with significantly cleansing Indian elections of unbridled corruption and large scale thuggery. Tamilian Brahmins are nicknamed Tambrams, and are widely known for their intelligence, academic brilliance, and accomplishment in the arts. Down South many will credit their achievements in academics and the arts to ‘oh, it runs in their genes.’ That may well be the case.

“Palakkad borders Tamilnadu,” Krishnadas explains. In the 1700s, Palakkad saw a migration of Tamil Brahmins from the border districts of Tamilnadu. It was a large migration considering that Brahmin population in India is significantly lower than other communities making up the Hindu majority.

I lean forward to make out Krishnadas’ voice over the noise of traffic in the morning rush hour.

Kaunsa chahiye? Pandrawala? Choudawala? Ya terahwala?” (‘Which one? Fifteen rupees? Fourteen rupees? Or the one for thirteen rupees?’) Krishnadas asks me in Malayalam accented Bambaiyya Hindi as I look at the mini mountain of green coconuts piled up on a makeshift table, and try to make sense of them by their sizes. To his left a shoe-repair vendor carries out his business from under a tarpaulin cover held in place by two bamboo poles placed between two pairs of stone blocks that were road-dividers not too long ago. The tarpaulin is strung to the wall by two coir strings tied to two rusting nails. To his left, a barber has set shop. His mirror hangs from a nail in the wall and faces a wooden chair. I’ve rarely seen the chair empty.

“Give me a paani wala, with some malai (white pulp layer),” I tell Krishnadas, asking for a tender coconut with fair amount of coconut water, and some sweet taste to it. Without malai, tender coconut water tastes flat, almost sour. He nods, casts his eye about the pile, picks one up, taps it, then places it on his knee, and taking a shiny, narrow-bladed knife from the three placed on a jute rag spread on the coconut pile, he proceeds to chop the coconut expertly with short, quick slashes, turning it over with each slash, exposing the upper part of the shell. Then he exchanges the knife for a broad-bladed one, and gently taps the exposed upper part, tracing a narrow circle as he rolls the coconut around in his open palm, eventually splitting it with a hard tap of knife before lifting the upper portion with the steel tip. Two office-goers step up to his cart, their identity cards dangling from their necks, IT workers.

He manages to sell over 150 coconuts each day. “I get them for Rs. 10.40 each, only occasionally do they reduce the price by twenty paise,” he tells me. “About 4-5 coconuts turn out bad in each lot. Then twice a day, I have to give two local policemen tender coconuts to drink for free.”

The bright orange tika on his forehead contrasts sharply with his dark skin. He replenishes his supply of tender coconuts daily; a truck with Karnataka number plate, ferrying coconuts from Mysore, stops by and offloads coconuts. “Sometimes they supply more, so I do not take in a fresh load the next day,” he explains. Tender coconuts left over from the previous day are sweeter; the pulp layer having thickened and hardened slightly, but if left longer the coconut water reduces in quantity and turns into malai, losing its sweetness. “Pandrawala nariyal kam jaate hain, din mein pacchas ke karib,” he says. “Log therawala jyaada lete hain.” (‘The coconuts priced for fifteen rupees do not move fast, only about 50 get sold each day. People prefer buying those priced at thirteen rupees’).

He passes me the coconut and a plastic straw. I turn to face the mass of vehicles heading down the road as I take a deep drag of sweet coconut water and swat at flies circling empty coconuts piled up in an open plastic tub on the footpath, and on his makeshift table fashioned from planks sourced from discarded wooden crates. The flies are feeding on tender kernel. I forget for a moment that I’ve tasks to complete as I lose myself in the cool of a hot day.


bluemountainmama said...

it's a shame we can't linger in these moments physically....that we have to move on to our tasks. but you lingered long enough for it to make an imprint on you and for you to carry it with you..... and for you to share with us.

anish said...

nothing like soothing sweet nariyal pani on a hot sweaty day :) instant freshness and cool respite. can you get krishnadas' photo? nice post :)

Lakshmi said...

"Oh ! it runs in their genes "...really ? is that a compliment or a taken for granted statement .

Anil P said...

Bluemountainmama: Thank you.

Anish: Nothing like Nariyal pani, indeed. I remember reading graffiti in a local train once exhorting passengers to switch from Pepsi to Nariyal Pani. It had a swadeshi tone it though, but made sense from a 'freshness perspective'.

I do not have his picture, if I can take one, I'll put it up.

Backpakker: Actually both. Moreover when what appears to be a given with their community is taken for granted then 'taken for granted' becomes a compliment.

Cuckoo said...

Ohh one small moment of our life and it became a post on your blog to linger on for a long time. :) As I have earlier mentioned, you write very well.

SEEPZ is a familiar place to me and I could see that Krishnadas's face.
Like Anish, I also thought you'd post a picture of him.

Thanks again for visiting my blog.
If you've forgotten, I have two of them.

Lakshmi said...

you are either being safe than sarcastic

Shantanu said...

I wonder how long these scenes that we associate with India will last. One of the sights that I love in India is that of the fruit and vegetable stalls. But with the retail boom, I am not sure if all we will have some time later are the US-style supermarkets.

Anil P said...

Cuckoo: Thank you. If I were to return and take his picture then I would put it up fo sure. Everyday moments make the day linger, don't they? :)

Backpakker: I'm not sure I understood.

Shantanu: That's precisely the apprehension I have, that the neighbourhood stalls and shops will make way for US-style Supermarkets. It will mean the end of India as we know and so love.

Neighbourhood stalls and shops add a welcome dynamics of the familiar to the immediate neighbourhood and shape the immediate surroundings with the hum of their sights, smells, sounds, and succulence. Where else can you walk down the street and pass familiar faces, exchange smiles or stop to exchange a word or two or look in the vendor's basket for what's new.

Human interaction needs to be strung out along the journey rather than only at the destination which would be the case if India were to be reduced to retail US-style Supermarkets.

The baazar is central to the Indian character, at best it is where Indianness evolves, at worst it is a community center, livening up the landscape.

Lakshmi said...

I meant are you trying to be safe or sound sacastic - just kidding as its often a stereotype that ive heard all the time

Jolvin Rodrigues said...

You have a wonderful talent to visually depict even a momentary thing like drinking nariyal paani...beautiful...I guess I'll pay more attention next time and sharpen my writing skills :)

Anonymous said...

I was born in the land that invented coconuts :). And, will you believe it, we have given up on it, back there. Every time I go to Kerala I try to get a fizzy, bubbly 'elaneer' and more of often than not I am disappointed. Progress. sigh..

But then, look at the flip side; you can get Maggi noodles everywhere, if that helps..

Anonymous said...

"End of India as we know and love" - Isn't that a bit extremist? :)

Globalization works on free flow of goods and labor and so it will always drive out less efficient business models. A supermarket may seem less charming but overall is much more beneficial for consumers at all levels. It's a price you have to pay to keep pace with the rest of the world - right?

Here in the US people have debated the impact of Walmart on neighborhood businesses for many years. Most objective studies have shown that the benefits far outweigh the negative costs.

kenju said...

I haven't had coconut milk since I was a teenager. You make me want some - badly!

Anil P said...

Backpaker: A recurring pattern becomes a cliche before long, and a repeating cliche turns into a stereotype. In turing into a stereotype, at least in this case, it merely reinforces the fact not merely a belief.

Jolvin Rodrigues: Thank you.

Hari Nair: A few years ago on a trip to Kerela a farmer told me of how disease was ruining Kerela's coconut palms, and he pointed out to me palms that stood like stumps, their canopy having withered away.

And what remains I wouldn't be surprised if they're diverting coconuts as copra, far more 'cashable' than nariyal pani. Then there is exports to contend with for diverting the supplies out of the state!

Lakshmi said...

Repetition builds reputation :)

Prashanth M said...

I badly need tender coconut now, after reading this wonderful post :P

Just on thing missing here - a photo of Krishnadas :)

Kusum Rohra said...

What prashanth m says is exactly what came to my mind after I read this post. This post needs a photo of Krishnadas :)

mark drago said...

i understand backpakkar i think, as nuance, discernment, and individuality (everything that your writing is)can be lost in stereotypes whatever "truth" lay behind them.

Anonymous said...

My sister still has fond memories of fresh coconut while they traveled through India.

Anonymous said...

I happened to come across your blog and may I say you write beautifully!

You leave us wanting for a picture or two from palghat..I mean palakkad! :)

Posted this lovely article at Charchaa

delhidreams said...

why don't we have a pic this time :)

Anil P said...

Jitesh: Maybe 'sentiment' would be more appropriate than 'extremism' :)

Globalization thrives on free flow, true, but personally I would rather prefer the decor unique to a place than have the same 'taste' and 'look and feel' that franchises enforce across geographical territory.

And why keep up with the rest of the world in everything when your own pace might be far more beneficial most times, if not all.

Kenju: :)

Backpakker: I agree. Repeatedly accomplishing the achievements does indeed build reputation as you rightly pointed out.

Prashanth m: Didn't have one, sorry.

Kusum Rohra: I've posted a new piece on another coconut vendor, and Hassan's photo is up there.

Mark: That's the whole point, to overcome one's own idea of a Stereotype and look for nuances, for all we know those very nuancs and attributes may have contributed to the stereotype in the first place.

Tambram: Thank you.

Adi: I didn't have one of Krishnadas :)