Field days are amazing with the number of people I meet, interact and in some cases, get an opportunity to have long conversations with. Long roads through the Kawal Tiger Reserve Forest pave the way with trees on either sides. These days, there is less greenery and more heat.
The summer is always terribly hot here in Utnoor in Adilabad district of Telangana. I would wish to see a blanket of clouds just enough to cover the sunshine for some time. To reach the field areas, we set out on our two-wheeler to some of the remotest villages. It was a usual day but we had to go to Jannaram, a village far away, as a part of our survey. This place is known for making fresh toddy.
Palm wine or toddy is a local beverage served as either Neera or Padaneer (a sweet, non-alcoholic beverage derived from fresh sap) or Kallu (a sour beverage made from fermented sap, but not as strong as wine). Kallu is usually drunk soon after fermentation by end of the day, as it becomes more sour and acidic with each day. It was 11.30 am when we reached this place. My colleague wanted to have toddy and take some for our people at Utnoor. It is usually tapped from the palm trees once early in the morning and then in the evening. They give some time for the sap to be collected into a pot placed on the tree and let it ferment before removing it for the customers. We did survey work and took rest until it was time for the adventure.
Toddy tappers were getting themselves ready for work. I met a young man named Ravi*, in his early 30s. My colleague who happens to be a local, asked me if I want to go with him and I was already on my foot. But Ravi anna was sceptical of my ability to walk a long distance with him in the heat. I paused for a moment. Did he doubt my stamina? With that question in mind, speculating my ability, I said confidently that I am coming. He still was not convinced but we were all set to go.
We started walking through a dry river bed cutting across to a barren land. He was curious to know where I am from and what do I do for a living. It was a little difficult for me to explain what exactly I’m doing as it has been with my relatives posing the same question at multiple occasions. I said that I’m working with an organisation here with a minimal amount of remuneration for my survival. It was a good opportunity for an interview like Walk the Talk on NDTV. Thus, I started asking about him and got to know that he is a graduate and has worked as a chef at a hotel in Malaysia.
I was surprised about the fact that he has come back and working here to tap toddy from Palm trees, a seemingly much harder job. Anxiously, I asked him the reason behind returning to his village. He said that his father was ailing with illness for many days and he had to take care of him as there was no one else. Here, he owns 5 acre of land which is used for agriculture to cultivate food and cash crops during the respective seasons. In summer, when there is no cultivation, they go and tap Toddy or Kallu. I asked if he was content with the work here and with an agreeable smile, he said that he is.
Oh! We reached the tree for Kallu. He removed a leather belt which helps him in climbing the tree and placed it to a side. Now he took the knives that he uses to cut the fruit and the branch to collect sap. Wearing the belt around his hip and tying another end to the tree so that it lessens the effort, he was right on the top within a few seconds. Looking at the tree from below, I could imagine how much he had to climb as he was looking so tiny now. I was busy taking photographs and looking for a better angle while he collected the drink. What else could I do? Sigh!
Slowly, Ravi anna started descending from the tree top with the drink in the pot hooked to his waist belt. I was ready to go to the next tree when he said that this was the farthest one and the other trees are nearby. A one mile walk with him didn’t feel so long and tiring. He was an interesting character. On our way back, I asked him if it was only them who do this work here or there are other people who do it too. He told that only the ‘Gouds’ community can do it. If people from outside the community want to do this job, they have to deposit 50,000 rupees which is non-refundable and then the Union (Yes, they have one) decides which areas they can access.
According to him, this fetches good income during season when he earns up to 2000 rupees a day and in off-season, maybe up to 200-300 rupees depending on the number of customers and availability of drink. Walking back was a little uneasy for me. The outer sole of my shoe had worn off. Yet, it was a memorable walk. Ravi anna was also glad and impressed by my enthusiasm to walk along with him. We came back to the tent where they filled the toddy into our bottles to carry. They then sharpened their knives again using a wooden piece and white stone powder. Finally, we made the payment for Kallu and departed for Utnoor.
The past month was full of field visits as a part of our surveys and follow-ups after our intervention in these villages. This particular day was longer and more tiring than the others but I’ll always remember and cherish it.
Name changed to protect identity