By PRADEEP SINGH
The high-water mark in the romance of mangoes in Doon was reached in the decades between 1750 and 1770s due to the energetic actions of the Rohilla chief Najib ud Doula also at times referred to as Najib Khan . This enterprising chief had a checkered career during the sunset years of the empire of the Great Mughals , and while holding administrative charge of Saharanpur sarkar he expanded the influence of the empire by annexing the Doon . As one of his measures to monetise the addition of new territory he encouraged colonisation of the Valley through grant of nearly five hundred estates which had extensive mango orchards and groves. But vagaries of history ended this progressive initiative with the death of Najib and subsequent expelling of the colonisers whose estates of mango orchards went unattended and we’re engulfed by the ever present jungles that defined the Doon . However these now forgotten mango topes gave birth to numerous yarns and adventures of people who were lost or rambling through jungles stumbled upon these ancient groves laden with fruit . The seeds of these fruit were transported by man and beast to different corners of the Valley by design or accident and thus you have stalwart solitary trees that add peculiar character to the Valley’s landscape .
Unless grafted ,as was the practice introduced by the Portuguese and the Mughals , every mango growing out of a seed was a veritable variety of its own and quite distinct in its attributes from another mango . Thus the mystique of mango proliferated with time and spoiled the locals for choice even if they had to walk good distances to find these flourishing mango trees in wilderness .
From my personal experience and from tales passed on from elders in the family tree I learned that gaining knowledge of this king of fruits was a lifetime pursuit and better if done with passion and devotion as the resultant rewards were indeed juicy and sweet . Trees around farms and humble dwellings too had a personality and character that was respected by those who lived in their benign presence . Not only did these nature’s wonders give you bountiful harvest in the bumper year , which was usually the third year, but even in the lean year it gave you something to tease and appease your palate.
On my great grandfather’s farm there was one gigantic solitary mango tree that towered over the surrounding fields . In a year of full glory of its abundance a cart load of ripe mangoes was brought to the house every day ! And what was strikingly unique about this tree was that from its very branches came three distinct types of flavours in the fruit . Thus for generations it served the family and the farm- hands till calamity came with its going dry of some disease but not before its wood itself was sold for nine hundred rupees ,a huge sum a century ago.
The charm of wild mangoes was not just a passing fancy that one got over when these delights went out with the monsoons . Thus one recounted the raptures of the huge Gola variety of which a single fruit was a challenge to any healthy appetite or the other un named ones that had fine juice and no pulp or the fibrous variety that defied the sharpest knife and could be enjoyed only by peeling of the skin .
The all knowing grannies and aunts were often the ones who took a keen interest in the progress of the trees that dotted the farmland . They knew intuitively and of course through informers when a particular tree was ready for plucking its fruit . Trusted servants were sent to bring in the lot that was sorted in the courtyard , the ripe ones eaten the same day while the others were stashed carefully in hay to ripen over the week. Another task for the servants was at the bidding of the ladies of the house to go and bring in unripe, small fibrous and sour mangoes that were processed skillfully into pickles and chutney to assuage the palate or a sluggish digestion of the monsoon months. On hot summer afternoons ripe or semi ripe mangoes were cooked to make aam – panna with sugar ,cummin seeds and mint leaves or the more thick gud – amba made with jaggery and strips of raw mangoes. Since raw mangoes were in abundance they were cut up and dried for weeks in the sun to make khatai that for the rest of the year was the magic ingredient in arhar dal eaten with the the staple basmati rice .
The basmati rice has become a faded memory in the Valley and so have faded the recipe books of the the matriarchs and the very trees of wild mangoes have been felled to their extinction and the fruit now known to us comes in cartons with labels but no legends to go with them .