I was in Panchgani recently. In February the market here is awash with fruits that thrive in this cool and dry climate. So there I was faced with a host of vendors selling strawberries. Do you have any mulberry? Quietly the vendor dipped into his stall and took out a small box. At double the price of strawberries, I bought it. Believe me, there is nothing as fresh as a ripe purple red squishy mulberry that gives a burst of tangy sweetness the moment you pop it your mouth. The taste also took me back to my own childhood.
As a child I lived in a big colony. In those days there were more open spaces and trees than what you find nowadays. We must have played umpteen games of hide and seek using trees to climb up on, trees as dens and so on. There was a huge Bakul whose flowers were eagerly collected by young women for their intoxicating scent. But kids don’t look at trees with eagerness unless the tree gives something, preferably edible. Now at the farthest end of the colony was a wild bush with scrawny branches and well shaped but rough looking leaves. A very ordinary tree one might say. It was actually on the other side of the compound, but peeped into our colony as if curious about the people who lived there. End of winter and this nondescript specimen would suddenly become very attractive – to birds, the occasional monkey, and most of all to us children who lived there. The tree in question was a variety of mulberry and burst forth with red berries with a khatta-meetha flavor. ‘Tutti’ is its local name. Of course the berries were green at first. From that point onward a close watch was kept on the change of color of the fruit. Anything with a hint of red and it got picked. The taller kids always got to eat the lion’s share. After the berries from the lower branches got plucked the older kids would climb on to the compound wall to get at those from the higher branches. Grazed knees and twisted ankles were ignored in the thrill of obtaining the luscious berry.
As a six year old, I was nowhere in the race. What to do? The colony had a watchman. Of the much valued Nepali Gorkha lineage and one of the old guard, he sported a cheerful countenance, brisk stride and a slim moustache. He had a strong paternal streak and a soft corner for the little girl who hung around expectantly, looking wistfully at the tree. One day the doorbell rang. Soon my mom came inside with a handful of reddish purple mulberries which she placed on the table. I was asked to wait a while till they were washed. What are a few scraps of dust to a kid? I still remember the fresh, warm, sweet-sour tang of the berries, dust et al.
Since then whenever I see a mulberry tree I remember those innocent days and the generous soul who thoughtfully got me those berries. If one analyses it objectively, the mulberries were rarely allowed to fully ripen and so were definitely not that sweet – I have eaten better ones off the vendors at Panchgani. But in the largely manmade environment of bricks and concrete they gave us a glimpse of the natural world. A berry still warm from the sun, plucked and eaten with dusty hands and scratched knees, is worth more than ten in the box.