You would be wise, if having a beer with Shikand and me, not to mention Harry Belafonte. Within seconds, you would be treated to an ear-melting duet of ‘Coconut Woman’, complete with incorrect lyrics and an attempt at Belafonte’s signature accent.
You can put it in a pot
Make ya feel very hot
Coco got a lotta iron
Make ya strong like a lion, arrrrrghhhh!
(for correct lyrics, click here)
Shikand and I worked together at Technopark, in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala, so it isn’t surprising that coconuts were regularly on the brain. They’re all around. In most places, urban or rural, there is some variety if you look down at the landscape from a height: marshlands, grass paddocks, crops and animals; buildings of various shapes and sizes, water courses, stadia etc. This photo of Technopark, my old workplace, shows a set of modern office buildings rising out of a thick blanket of coconut trees, stretching as far as the eye can see. Except for communications towers, tall structures are rare in this part of the world, and the coconut palm rules.
At ground level I didn’t really notice it. I spent my days moving along roads and railway tracks between my house, office, shops and back to the house again without considering the green canopy a few metres above. Our human-centric lives are like this. Focus stays with our own endeavours and those of our fellow men and women, with the constant ecological battle raging around us reduced to wallpaper. However, certain things can take you out of that human-centric mindset for a moment and for me, that photograph is one of them.
The bar and beer parlour at which Shikand and I drank Kingfisher and consumed kappa meen curry & peanuts masala are both in the photo, too, but they’re obscured by thousands of coconut trees. So is the train station where I used to get down every day, as well as hundreds of houses & shops and the roads that connect them. If you look at Thiruvananthapuram district in Google Maps with satellite view turned on, you can see an almost completely green landscape dotted with man-made structures. One of the narrow streets I used to live on just doesn’t show up; the coconut palm canopy stretches over it. It’s only when you get into Thiruvananthapuram city itself that houses start to take over, though the green has almost an equal share.
I wonder how long it will be until the ratio is reversed and coconut palms in the region become totally crowded out by buildings. It seems a matter of when rather than if. The value of land around Technopark has multiplied by thousands in a couple of decades, and grand expansion plans are continuing for several kilometres to the north and south along National Highway 47 and Trivandrum Bypass Road.
Meanwhile, in the resort towns of Kovalam and Varkala, land has undergone a similar spike in value in recent years. More and more coconut palms are being cleared to make way for income-generating tourism businesses. This is having a profound social impact in some groups. In families that have professionally climbed and de-coconutted trees for centuries, the past twenty years have seen the value bottom out of their industry. Instead of learning the skills of their forebears, new generations are branching out into more modern disciplines: taxi driver, resort staffer, IT professional.
It seems that office buildings and resort complexes are more attractive to modern man than the humble coconut; indeed, it is mostly taken for granted, though it remains a massive contributor to Kerala’s economy and a livelihood for many. For now, I’m hoping that views such as this one from the roof of my first house in Kerala remain for a while longer yet, and that when Shikand and I meet again, we can belt out ‘Coconut Woman’ with the fruit of Harry Belafonte’s eye all around us.
Photo credit: Ed Mitchell
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