The Last Tappers

Father and son ply a risky, ancient trade

By VK Sreelesh

Published on August 15, 2014

I remember that rainy evening 17 years ago. Crickets pierced the wet air with their shrill harmony, as my mother struggled to bring to life her smoky stone stove, blowing on the dying embers, stirring them with dry twigs. She did not lift her face, despite the ashes stinging her eyes. I thought she was weeping, but why? Outside, my brother was plying paper boats, ferrying stranded ants in the puddles in the yard. My dad sat on a stool by the stove, his chin resting on his clenched fist; his thoughts seemed heavy. That night, a decision was made: I would become a toddy tapper, just like him.

Toddy tapping has been a traditional job among the Thiyya caste, one of hundreds of Hindu castes in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where I grew up, since the 14th century. The job involves scaling palm trees to the top, cutting open the leaves, and collecting the white sap that pours out. That sap is fermented anywhere from a few hours to a full day (the longer the fermentation, the more potent the drink), turning it from a sweet to a slightly bitter and sour alcoholic beverage known as toddy, or palm wine—a fixture of working-class taverns throughout the region.

It is a perilous job. Some people fall off those trees. Some people die. For those reasons and more, Kerala’s young men are turning to better jobs in distant places: tech work in the United States, data entry in the Middle East. Fifteen years ago, there were more than 100,000 toddy tappers in Kerala; now there are around 40,000. Many wonder if the occupation will survive the next few decades.

While my mother feared both the social stigma and the dangers of tapping, Dad saw things differently. To him, I was a man at 18 years old. I was in need of a livelihood. He had little faith in my dreams of becoming a journalist. After all, he had once had dreams, too. As a young man, he’d worked happily, rolling the thin Indian cigarettes known as beedie, a job that allowed him to wear crisp white cotton garments that distinguished him from the toddy tappers with their dishrag shirts tucked around their waist. Beedi rolling didn’t pay much, but it was enough for a bachelor. Then he got married, had children. He moved to Mumbai, where he worked in the trucking business. But life in a one-room slum home knocked the wind out of him.

Eventually he gave in, returning home to Pinarayi on the Malabar Coast to become a tapper, work that he continues today, even into his 60s. Like my father, most men turn to tapping reluctantly, knowing that once they start, they’ll be bound to those palms until the day they die. Quitting is a sign of weakness, something that causes friends, even family members, to look down upon you as less masculine.

A few months after Dad’s decision was made, I started working alongside him atop the trees lining the village river. This went on for seven years, until one evening, when everything changed. It was monsoon season, and our village had an outbreak of viral fever. I was laid up for days. Just as I started to recover, Dad came down with the sickness and asked me to pick up his slack in the trees. That evening, as I slowly scaled a tall palm, everything below started churning. My knees and hands went weak; a cold shiver ran down my spine. While I somehow managed to finish the work, a newfound fear was born within me. I couldn’t sleep that night. I knew my life as a tapper was over. Though I kept at it for the remainder of that year, there was a terror in my heart from which I could not recover.

Finally I told my father, “I can’t climb anymore. I am too afraid.” He shot me an icy stare. “We are all afraid,” he said. “But we have got to work!” Still, we both knew it was over. Soon after, I began brushing up on my English, started post-graduate work in English literature, found a job teaching classes, and, finally, became a journalist.

I know my father is still afraid, especially now, after one of his fellow tappers recently fell to his death. And yet he pretends to remain unfazed. As I sit in my newspaper office miles away from home, typing my latest story and living out a dream neither of us considered possible, I think about him up there, high above the ground, gambling with his life for that sweet, potent sap.

VK Sreelesh is a journalist in Thalassery.

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