CHENNAI: In a world where riding for a cause is a whole new sub-category of biking enthusiast, here’s a novel cycling campaign. One not with speed racers or geared cycles. But three panai eris (palm workers) — one a teenager at that and a panai olai kalaignan (palm leaf artist). A payanam mounted on the belief panai en thinai (palm is our custom/sustenance). Taking this belief on the road, Panaieri Pandian and his band of comrades are set to tour the districts of Tamil Nadu (except The Nilgiris) for three months, raising awareness about the work that helped sustain their families for generations and do their part to remove some of the taboo that still has the next generation hesitant of carrying it on.
A tall order
As simple as it sounds, the campaign crew isn’t without big ideas for the initiative. Ask Pandian, a third-generation panai eri, and he furnishes a list of goals. “This journey would be about palm awareness. What is the role of the palm in the current situation? How important a role can it play in today’s economy personal and otherwise? The importance of a lifestyle that can be sustained by the palm (be it household necessities or construction material or; especially amid one dependent on plastic and expensive imports. Another concern would be palm-related food, which has long since been neglected. There are people who enquire if pathaneer is intoxicating (it is not). There is some hesitation; even around the fruit and karupatti (palm jaggery) that still don’t find a place in temples across the state. Even as local produce like naaval pazham and koduka puli find a market here, the palm fruit doesn’t have the same benefit,” he details.
As much as they would like to meet any interested party in their awareness effort, the primary purpose is to meet with and engage people who are palm workers themselves; or those displaced from this line of work due to myriad reasons. “We are looking at panai saarntha manithargal. Without them, there is no room for the palm tree. One main reason for Tamil Nadu losing so many of its palm trees is the continued decline of people who support the trade around the tree. The trees we plant today would eventually be rooted out without anyone to work it or make use of it. So, in order to save the palm, we need to sustain the work and create more workers (panai eris),” he explains.
Need for young blood
Pandian is all about cycling the talk, for accompanying him on the journey to illustrate the need for the participation of the younger generation is his 14-year-old daughter — a panai eri herself. Harris Karishma had grown up watching her father scale palm trees and helped him in every associated task. From palm fruit feasts to pathaneer puri, palm has had a ubiquitous presence in their household. Two years ago, she decided she should learn to scale the tree as well — why leave that stone unturned? “Everyone asked my father why he let a girl climb the tree. But now that I’ve been doing this for two years, everyone looks at it in awe. The kids around the house know me as the girl who climbs the tree,” she shares. On her part, she is interested in finding out how the world works for panai eris across the state.
Manoj Kumar, the panai olai artist from Auroville, on the other hand, has a little more in store to impress the need for young blood in this line of work. It was at Pandian’s house in Narasinganur, Villupuram, and the panangkaadu (palm forest) that Manoj learnt everything he knows about trees and its bounty. All that led him there was a keen interest in palm economy. Now, he makes a number of functional and artistic products out of palm leaf. But he’s been itching to do more.
“The more you engage with palm workers, you realise that the work that was once common is now on a steady decline. For several reasons, including difficulties put forth by the government. It is possible to keep at this work only if we band together. And scaling the tree is just one part of it; there’s much that can be created from the palm leaf or its fibre. Even now, only people who extract pathaneer or make karupatti are still in the business. So, there’s the need to create awareness of the other prospects that come with the palm tree. It’s only when we sustain all these associated works that we can develop a robust economy around it,” he elaborates, presenting what he has in store for the campaign.
Scripting a new history
While the campaign has been tentatively scheduled to take off on July 16, the crew is still testing waters to make sure that corona cases don’t await them on their journey. With their agenda placing them in every district for at least a couple of days, they are being mindful of pandemic protocol and its limitations. Having laid out their purpose, Pandian goes on to talk about the principle that has driven them here the idea of the aaraam thinai (sixth land).
“We want to put this forth as aaraam thinai payanam. Our ancestors divided land (thinai) into four categories kurinji, neithal, marutham and mullai. All of this was fertile and virile land. The paalai (desert) was seen as a transitory phase that the other lands went through; a temporary state. We present palm as the sixth thinai because the tree flourished in all four thinai. And the people dependent on the tree were also prosperous. Over the years, due to the exercise of authority and power, these people found themselves marginalised and the tree that sustained them, neglected. Because of this, they have been pushed to a state much worse than paalai. It is to draw attention to this journey that we are setting off on ours,” he narrates, ready to do his part in rewriting history.