How little we can conceive the spaces in his life that would be empty without that firm pulp, at once nutritious, sweet and fragrant! Curry cannot be made without it, the cook cannot advance three steps in its absence, pattimars laden with it are sailing north, south, east and west, a thousand creaky wooden mills are squeezing the limpid oil out of it, a hundred thousand little earthen lamps filled with that oil are making visible the smoky darkness of hut and temple, brightening the wedding feast and illuminating the sad page over which the candidate for university honours nods his shaven head. That oil fed lighthouses of the first order and illuminated viceregal balls and durbars before paraffin and kerosene inundated the earth. And it has other uses. For arresting premature baldness and preventing the hair turning grey its virtues are equalled by no other oil known to us, and there is a fortune awaiting the hairdresser who can find means effectually to remove or suppress its peculiar and penetrating odour. Joao Gomez, my faithful "boy," did not object to the odour, and when he had been tempted to pass my comb through his raven locks as he was dusting my dressing table, I always knew it.
When the white kernel has been turned to account, the utilities of the coconut are not exhausted. The shell, neatly bisected, makes a pair of teacups, and either of these, fitted with a wooden handle, makes a handy spoon. Laurenco de Gama demands one or two of these inexpensive spoons to complete the furnishing of my kitchen. As for the obstinate casing that wraps the coconut shell, it is an article of commerce. It must first be soaked for some months in a pit on the slimy bank of the backwater, until all the stuff that holds it together in a stiff and obdurate mass has rotted away and set free those hard and smooth fibres which nothing can rot. These, when thoroughly purged of the foul black pollution in which they have sweltered so long, will go out to all quarters of the world under the name of "coir" to make indestructible door mats and other indispensable things. It will penetrate to every corner of India in which a white man lives, to mat his verandahs and stuff his mattresses.
And who shall recount a tithe of its other uses? Of course, the nude man under the coconut tree knows nothing of all this. He does without a mattress, and has no use for a door mat. But he cannot do without cordage, and if you took from him his coconut fibre, life would almost stop. Wherewith would he bind the rafters of his hut to the beams, or tether the cow, or let down the bucket into the well? What would all the boats do that traverse the backwater, or lie at anchor in the bay, or line the sandy beach? From the cable of the great pattimar, now getting under weigh for the Persian Gulf with a cargo of coconuts, to the painter of the dugout, "hodee," every yard of cordage about them is made of imperishable coir.
When the axe is at last laid to the old coconut tree, a beam will fall to the earth sixty feet in length, hard as teak and already rounded and smoothed. True, you cannot saw it into planks, but no one will complain of that in a village which does not own a saw. It cleaves readily enough and straightly, forming long troughs most useful for leading water from the well to the plantation and for many other purposes. It can also be chopped into lengths suitable for the ridge poles of the hut, or for bridges to span the deep ditches which drain the rice fields or feed the salt pans. When out in quest of snipe I have sometimes had to choose between crossing by one of those bridges, innocent of even a handrail, and wading through the black slough of despond which it spanned. Choosing neither, I went home, but the "Kolee" and the "Agree" trip over them like birds, balancing household chattels on their steady heads.
We must not think, however, of the trunk as, at the best, anything more than a by-product of the coconut tree, whose head is more than its body. Even while it lives its head is shorn once a year, for, as fresh fronds push out and upward from the centre, those of the outer circle get old and must be cut away. And when one of those feathery, fern-like fronds, toying with the breeze, comes crashing to the ground, it is ten or twelve feet long, and consists of a great backbone, as thick at the base as a man's leg, with a close-set row of swords on either side, about a yard in length. They are hard and tough, but supple yet and of a shiny green colour; but they will turn to brown as they wither.
Now observe that this gigantic, unmanageable-looking leaf, like everything else about the coconut tree, is almost a ready-made article, demanding no machinery to turn it to account, except the "koita" which hangs ever ready from the nude man's girdle. With it he will cleave the backbone lengthwise, and then, taking each half separately, he will simply twist backwards every second sword and plait them all into a mat two feet wide, eight or ten feet long, and firmly bounded and held together on one side by the unbreakable backbone. This is a "jaolee," lighter than slates, or tiles, and more handy than any form of thatch. You have just to arrange your "jaolees" neatly on your bamboo frame, each overlapping the one below it, then tie them securely in their places with coir rope and your roof is made for a year.
There is yet another benevolence of the coconut tree which I have left to the last, and the simple folk of whom I am trying to write with fellow feeling would certainly have named it first. I ought to refer to it as a curse: they, without qualm or question, call it a blessing. Let me try to describe it dispassionately. If you wander in any palm grove in Western India, looking upward, it will soon strike you that a large number of the trees do not seem to bear coconuts at all, but black earthen pots. If your visit should chance to be made early in the morning, or late in the afternoon, the mystery will soon be revealed. You will see a dusky, sinewy figure, not of a monkey, but of a man, ascending and descending those trees with marvellous celerity and ease, grasping the trunks with his hands and fitting his naked feet into slight notches cut in them. The distance between the notches is so great that his knee goes up to his chin at each step, but he is as supple as he is sinewy and feels no inconvenience. For he is a Bhundaree, or Toddy-drawer, and his forefathers have been Bhundarees since the time, I suppose, when Manu made his immortal laws.