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Posted at: Jul 8, 2018, 12:40 AM; last updated: Jul 8, 2018, 1:45 AM (IST)

A (dis)taste of rustic India

Ira Pande
Ira Pande
In a single generation, we have seen the rise and fall of an India that existed until just the other day
A (dis)taste of rustic India
Temptations: The ever-popular mango varieties, Safeda, Chausa and Dasheri, flood the market. Photo: Nitin Mittal

Ira Pande

This is the season for mangoes and last week, we had two occasions to give in to some mango mania. One was a two-day trip to Lucknow, where the air was redolent with the aroma of Dasheri mangoes and a few days later, we joined a group of mango-mad people on a day trip to a little qasba near Meerut called Rataul, famous for its eponymous mango.  The Rataul mango is a small, modest-looking fruit that comes just for a couple of weeks in early July, but anyone who has tasted one will join me in declaring that it is the best mango in the world. It has the sweetness of a chausa, the juice of a langra, the firm flesh of the Dasheri and is worth its weight in gold.

However, before I tell you about the orchard we visited in Rataul, I must tell you of the road trip and the sights we saw on our way there. Rataul lies on the old road to Meerut, an altogether different world from the spanking new expressway over Meerut and Hapur — an old market town famous for its gur mandi (and notorious for its flies). As we bumped our way along the potholes, we passed through a part of Delhi that I had only read about, never seen. Seelampuri, Nand Nagri, Krishna Nagar, Sundar Nagri, Bhajanpura - all colonies that sprang up in the last two decades of the 1900s. Far away from the heart of New Delhi, this vast slummy area is home to the lakhs of migrant families who came here in search of work and stayed on as politically sheltered vote banks. For miles, all you can see from a bus are open drains with stagnant water and floating waste, mountains of plastic that line the so-called road while traffic follows the law of the jungle. So one can see tractor-trollies loaded with building material, carts with iron rods, thelas and motorcycles that ferry an entire family, buses, cars and the ever-present bull and abandoned cows — all out for a romp on the (non-existent) road. If our windows were open, I am sure the fragrances wafting from all this would have knocked us out. 

What have we done to our cities and towns? Apart from the elite areas, the filth I saw both in Lucknow and on the outskirts of Delhi is a depressing indicator of how indifferent we are to the world outside our little privileged zones. If only ministers and officials went by road, without escort cars to clear the traffic and not in planes and helicopters, they would see for themselves how the majority of this country lives. Steady electricity, a regular supply of potable water, well-maintained roads, decent government schools and dispensaries — are these too much to ask for? Every elected legislator gets an allowance for the upkeep of his constituency —where does that money go? Mostly to manicuring the already pampered areas they live in. In our haste to build smart cities, we have invested all our attention in building enclaves that may be ‘smart’, but lack the soul of a living city because neighbourhoods are deliberately segregated from each other.  

So we arrived at Rataul, shaken and weary, and were greeted by the full blast of a humid, still afternoon. We were then taken to a school run by the family that owns the orchard and given a chance to refresh ourselves. The path between the orchard and the school (where lunch and mangoes would be served later) was a narrow brick-lined lane with open drains on both sides. We passed many mountains of plastic with flies feasting on the waste. By the time we had walked that path three times (the last time with about 15 kg mangoes), we were ready to die. In an earlier time, the minute you stepped into a village, you could breathe pure air and hear sounds that were lost in a large town. That pastoral world died somewhere when we were busy building smart cities. 

Among our group were a lot of young parents who had dragged their children accustomed to their air-conditioned lives in the condos of Gurugram to give them a taste of rural life. However, all I could hear was children asking plaintively, "Mumma, when can we go home?" The rustic food and the mangoes that one had to eat with one's hands (not cut into cubes) was not the treat they had expected. On the way back home, all of them dozed as their parents were glued to their mobiles. No doubt their first brush with nature was not an experience they wanted to remember.

In a single generation, we have seen the rise and fall of an India that existed until just the other day — a country that had not been divided so sharply between India and Bharat, where people greeted each other with smiles, where children played in dusty playgrounds in schools with no air-conditioning, where every treat was savoured as a new experience and where the air was clean and drinking water came out of a tap, not a plastic bottle.

I sound more and more like a grumpy oldie but believe me, if I could do anything to go back to the India of my childhood, I would!


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