“People asked a lot of questions like — is this why you sent her to college, to let her climb coconut trees? Is this a job meant for a woman and so on."
When the lockdown forced Sreedevi Gopalan, 25, a final year B.ed student to return to her house in Malappuram, Kerala, she constantly felt an urge to do something to support the family financially.
“I didn’t exactly have a happy childhood. Throughout my school days, I’ve seen my mom and dad doing everything they can to meet our financial needs — from our school fees to everyday groceries. My father has been a coconut tree climber all his life and never once has he complained about how tiring it was. Raising three girls was no joke but being the eldest, I always felt a sense of responsibility and wanted to contribute somehow,” Sreedevi explains.
“And then a few months ago, I overheard my father saying that if they had a son, he would have been able to help him with his work and we wouldn’t have to struggle so much during this lockdown,” shares Sreedevi.
She realised that the family was struggling to make ends meet and desperately wanted to help out and prove to her family that she was as capable as any son.
Within two months of the lockdown, Sreedevi mastered the art of climbing a coconut tree and even learned to drive an auto-rickshaw. She now proudly joins her father as a breadwinner for the family. But facing the criticism from the society during this journey was the hardest part for Sreedevi.
Climbing Coconut Trees, Shattering Stereotypes
“I was preparing for the final examinations of my B.ed course when the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to everything. The lockdown shattered my dreams of finishing the course this year and becoming a teacher. I thought I could finally start helping my family,” she shares with The Better India (TBI).
Sreedevi holds a Master’s degree in History and is pursuing her B.ed at the NSS College, Ottapalam, Kerala.
“I returned from college and saw how my family was struggling in the lockdown. I badly wanted to help my father, since he was the only earning member. I knew he would immediately say no to the offer, but I still looked up YouTube videos and tutorials on how to climb coconut trees. I even practised for a while, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked,” she explains.
That’s when Sreedevi’s younger sisters, Sreekala and Sreekumari suggested buying a coconut climbing device online. These devices assist the climber with a better grip and a harness for safety.
“I thought about the plan and presented it to my parents. As I had expected, the idea didn’t sit well with them, but I wasn’t willing to back down. I ordered the device and started practising on my own, and in just a few weeks, I could do it like a professional,” she asserts.
Following Her Father’s Footsteps
Although Sreedevi had learnt how to climb coconut trees, she never thought that her father would assist her on a job.
“One day he just asked me to tag along with him to the job, and soon enough we were climbing coconut trees for upto 8-9 houses in our locality. My father taught me how to distinguish the ripe coconuts from the raw ones and even gave me tips on how to stay steady on the tree. Climbing one coconut tree would get us Rs 40, and we were able to cover the houses quickly, and I was finally providing for the family,” says Sreedevi.
For the past two months, Sreedevi’s mother, Usha, has had to face the most number of questions from their neighbours and relatives about her daughter and the dignity of the job.
“People asked a lot of questions like — Is this why you sent her to college? To let her climb coconut trees? Is this a job meant for a woman — and so on. But we didn’t bother with all of these questions. After Sreedevi joined her father, we’ve all started seeing every job with a lot more respect and dignity, and that’s all that matters,” says Usha.
Sreedevi’s father was always keen on giving his daughters a good education and wanted them to live up to their potential. But when Sreedevi suggested that she wanted to join him in climbing coconut trees, his biggest concern was what people would say about his daughter. He feared that people would question his capacity as a father.
But on seeing her perseverance to provide for the family, he knew that there was no reason as to why he should be the one holding her back.
“I never imagined that Sreedevi would one day be climbing coconut trees with me. My wife and I were always concerned as to what people would say. But seeing her perseverance, we realised how wrong we were for stopping her,” Sreedevi’s father, Gopalan tells TBI.
Seeing the father-daughter duo climb the coconut trees, many neighbours and members of the locality gathered around to see the sight. They questioned the family as to why they were letting a well-educated girl like Sreedevi climb coconut trees.
Riding On Determination
“Sreedevi is the kind of person who never gives up. Even in school, she was a go-getter. So when she started climbing coconut trees, we knew she wouldn’t stop at that,” says Ashwathy Nair, Sreedevi’s classmate from the Malappuram Govt. College.
Although the coconut climbing jobs started bringing in a steady income, transportation from one place to another became rather tricky. So the family decided to get a second-hand auto-rickshaw for transport and as another means of income.
“When a family of five like ours couldn’t afford a car, we decided to bring an auto-rickshaw home! My father has a license and is driving it right now,” explains Sreedevi.
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt during the lockdown was to develop essential skills like these. It’s so important to know skills that aren’t related to what you’ve studied. Because in the end, you won’t know what you’ll need to survive,” says Sreedevi.
Although Sreedevi hasn’t been able to get a license for the auto due to the lockdown, she has been practising with it after completing her college assignments and the coconut climbing.
“I’ve even managed to teach my younger sisters the basics of it,” Sreedevi laughs.
Sreedevi hasn’t given up on her teaching dreams but she has taken on new paths to follow for the time being. Making the most of the lockdown period, Sreedevi has not just been a provider for her family but has also been shattering gender stereotypes and shaking up society’s rigid mindset.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)