Sheeja, the only woman toddy tapper in Kerala

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The toddy tapper from Kerala is her family’s sole breadwinner

She climbs eight palm trees a day to earn ₹350. C. Sheeja, 33, is from Panniyode in Kannur district, and today Kerala’s only woman toddy tapper. A physically strenuous job done at dizzying heights, Sheeja had to learn how to climb the coconut tree and how to tap the sap from the flower to extract toddy.

It was Sheeja’s husband Jayakumar who was the toddy tapper, but when he was injured in a road accident and could no longer climb trees, the family found it hard to make ends meet. Finally, Sheeja decided that she would take over her husband’s vocation.

Her brother had died after falling from a coconut tree. And Jayakumar worried about her safety and about what society would say. Sheeja, however, was confident. After all, she said, she had toddy tapping in her blood.

Jayakumar eventually came around. Now the challenge was to teach her the technique of climbing. He first chose the younger, shorter trees to train her. “It was difficult. We often thought of abandoning the idea because it seemed impossible. But there was no other option,” says Jayakumar. And sure enough, there came a day when Sheeja climbed a tree fairly effortlessly.

There was some initial social stigma, but the couple persevered. Today, Sheeja is quite the expert. “Climate change has reduced the toddy from a tree from eight to five litres,” she says.

She leaves for work each morning with Chemban, their dog, trotting behind her. After the day’s tapping is done, Sheeja takes on other jobs, sometimes rubber tapping, sometimes work under the job guarantee scheme. One taboo remains: Sheeja doesn’t climb during her menstrual period. “It’s out of respect for Muthappan,” she says, referring to the local deity for whom toddy is the main offering.

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