Friday, August 1, 2014

Finding the Story in the Experience

Over the years I've taken a lot of photographs, mostly in India. But I've also missed a lot of good ones too. My favorites are usually those of people engaged in traditional work, exhibiting skills and practices that are no longer commonly known. Perhaps I should have been an anthropologist, but I find writing about them in fiction enormously rewarding. A recent story I wrote grew out of this combined interest in photography and traditional work.

I always stay in the same hotel in Kovalam, India, and, if I'm lucky, the same room. From the terrace I can see the ocean, beaches, people passing by, and, best of all, the men climbing to harvest coconuts. I've been watching this process since 1976, when the climbers visited the lots across the street from where we lived in Trivandrum. But only from the terrace of a hotel have I managed to get photographs that show the work of the harvester.

The government of India is concerned that fewer and fewer men are taking up this profession, despite good pay for good climbers. The government has invited ideas to make climbing easier for newcomers interested in the job, but most of the ideas have been as foolish as the climbers are agile. Inventors have proposed special ladders, cherry-picking machines, and the like. Their emphasis is on safety, which is understandable. Still, the equipment is absurd compared to what humans can do, and would be almost impossible to use in many locations where the trees are growing.

Traditional climbers use only a band made from a strand of the palm leaf to anchor their feet. They climb three and four stories with nothing but their physical strength to keep them on the trunk of the palm tree. And they carry a machete at their waist. These knives are heavy to carry and to wield. At the top of the tree they hold themselves in place with one hand and cut down the coconuts with the knife in the other.

These men are a marvel, but their skill is not as rare as one might think. An autorickshaw driver invited me to meet his family. We drove to his home and there, as I chatted with his wife and daughter, he offered me a drink. When I thanked him and said yes, he turned and climbed the coconut tree leaning over his one-story house. It was the most natural thing in the world for him to do, apparently.

I've watched these men climb and harvest since 1976, but not until I began talking about them with the hotel manager did I learn about their lives. As a young (well, younger) man he knew several as friends, and he could explain aspects of the profession few others knew about. The more he talked, the more I could feel a story taking shape. I wasn't sure what it would be exactly but I knew there was one in there.

A couple of months later, after I returned to the States, I wrote "Perfect in Every Way," a story about Anita Ray and a climber who works for Hotel Delite. The story concerns an older climber who marries a younger woman. I sold the story to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, which has published a number of Anita Ray stories.


Anita's current investigation, in For the Love of Parvati, explores another aspect of Kerala, the pilgrimage season and practices for visiting Sabarimala, a holy site open to men and women of all faiths (with some restrictions on age for women).

I writ some of my best stories sitting at a desk at Hotel Aparna, glancing out the window at the ocean, the climbers, crows, and the occasional tourist taking the stairs to the roof of a nearby hotel.


Unknown said...

That's amazing.

Alice Duncan said...

Fascinating, Susan! I never even knew these guys existed. And contrats on getting your story in AHMM!

Pam D said...

How interesting. Let us know when your story comes out! I look forward to reading it.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Kathleen, Alice, and Pam, Yes, they are amazing. I usually stand near the base of the tree gawking up at them, but then I have to move so the coconuts don't hit me on the head. These men walk up the tree. They are solid muscle. I don't know when the story will appear, but I will certainly let everyone know. Thanks for commenting.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I very much enjoyed reading your blog, Susan. You take me to places and meeting people that are out of my ordinary experience. Congrats on the new short story. I look forward to reading it.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks for coming by, Jacquie. I love reading blogs about other countries--I have a separate pile of TBR books about foreign lands.

Jan Christensen said...

Susan, this is amazing, and wonderful that you got a story out of watching and learning about the climbers. Congrats on the story getting into AHMM. And I hope for many more there for you.

Mary F. Schoenecker Writes said...

Susan, Very interesting to read about your India adventures meeting the people and learning about their lives. I watched coconut tree climbers in Hawaii five years ago and found it fascinating as well.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jan and Mary, thank you for commenting. It's sad to think that few men (or women) are taking up the skill but certainly understandable. This is dangerous work though thrilling for those of us on the ground watching.

Kait said...

What a fascinating post. I tried to skim it and found myself going back to read in depth. We live in such "tech" times in the States - these older professions give me such joy. The people who practice them have such dignity. Thank you for sharing.

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