Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Of Monsoons and Mangoes, and Outings in Orchards

Consider this:

‘The girls now go towards the mango orchards…Various kinds of mangoes grow here: Mohammad-shahi, laddoo, shahad kooza, shah pasand, batasha, safeda, gulabi, sindoori and siroli. They are piled up ready to be eaten. Jamuns fall from the trees and the girls rush to pick them up. Several fruits — sour lime, mulberries, oranges, phalsa berries, khirni, gular, star fruit, berries, jackfruit, peaches and apricots — have ripened, ready to be plucked from the trees…While the grey clouds sway and dance in the sky, every now and then a burst of rain adds to the beautiful ambience. Peacocks sing, nightingales chirp, koels sing…A girl pulls at the fruit cluster of the banana tree…and they climb various trees in a rush to be the first to pluck the fruits and eat them on the branches itself…Some friends continue to swing from the trees laughing joyously.’ 1

This is a description of the princesses and their friends, maids and attendants, enjoying themselves in the baghs and amriya’n, the mango orchard near Zafar Mahal in Mehrauli in the monsoons. The family of Badshah Bahadur Shah Zafar accompanied him here every year for some weeks before and during the Phoolwalo’n ki Sair held in the month of Sawan. Not just the royal family and their retinue, we are told that ‘Monsoon is the season when everyone spends time in the gardens’. 2  

In a time when the onset of monsoons in Delhi essentially means water-logged roads, sweltering heat, more traffic jams and mosquitoes, this description of how monsoons in Delhi might have been around two hundred years ago, sounds idyllic — and impossible. The stuff of stories. Too far away to seem real.

Amidst the first few showers of the season, as these thoughts ran through my mind while reading about nineteenth century Delhi, I happened to speak to my Mausi, now in Shanghai where she has been ever since the lockdown. The talk turned, as it invariably does between us, to gardens and green things. She was missing her litchi trees in Dehradun, and trying her best to make up for it by growing chillis, marigolds and melons in pots in her daughter’s house. 

Not one for normally reminiscing, in the course of our conversation, she was led to recall that when she was a child, the litchis would ripen much earlier in summer than they did now. And how after they returned from school, entrance to their grandfather’s house on 36 Lytton Road — where they lived with their mother, and their uncles' families — would be preceded by a climb up the litchi tree at the gate. Only after eating their fill of the half-rosy half-green litchis, would she and her cousins and siblings pick up their bags and satchels deposited on the ground at the foot of the tree, and proceed inside the house. 

She also told me how the children in the house and the neighbourhood would walk from the Lytton Road house in the heart of town, all the way to Ballupur to their extensive orchards and fields and the family-temple. Their grandfather had given strict instructions to the contractors who manned the orchards in the fruiting season, that the children should be allowed to eat their fill whenever they came. So they would eat quantities of litchis and mangoes straight from the trees, play around under them, and then walk back home singing all the way. My mother, when I mentioned Mausi’s recollections, remembered cycling there in big groups and sometimes staying-over on the top floor of their Nana’s house there, clattering over the wooden floors.

And suddenly, it seems to me that Bahadur Shah Zafar and his family, just like the other residents of Delhi then, and my mausi and mother as children in Dehradun in the middle of the twentieth century, had essentially done the same things. Enjoyed the seasons, frolicked under trees in the company of family and friends, feasted on fruits. The Badshah and his family and the people of Delhi swinging under trees and sampling mangoes in orchards, are not so distant after all.

Growing up in cantonments, I am fortunate to have somewhat similar memories. My walk back home from school in Wellington in the Nilgiri hills, was enlivened by the simple device of choosing a different path back home everyday rather than simply following the road. Sometimes that meant sliding down stretches of a steep grassy slope, or getting momentarily lost amidst tall trees and shrubs, or climbing up a particularly challenging tree-trunk. But the one constant in all these different routes, was the eating of the blue-black lantana berries that grew profusely everywhere. We plucked and consumed these with single-minded concentration, berry-stained fingers and much delight, despite already having had two tiffin-breaks at school.

I have not gone back to Wellington, but the fact that it is a cantonment means there is a greater chance that it is still green and blessed with trees. Not so Delhi. Nor Dehradun — or indeed any part of the country. We can only visit them in memories and in drawings — such as the one Snehanshu made of the mango orchards that once surrounded his ancestral home in Birnagar in Nadia.

Mukherjee-Bari among Mango trees, Birnagar, Nadia, Bengal.
Sketch by Snehanshu Mukherjee

I remember the first real project I was more or less independently entrusted with, in the architectural studio I joined after graduating. It was a tiny building in Najibabad, a place I had not heard of till then, about five-six hours drive from Delhi. We needed to set out at five am to reach there by mid-morning, and then head back after checking work at site and a late lunch. 

It was always a tiring journey, but the distance and the discomfort of being cooped up for hours in the Ambassador taxis, was, at least for me, always mitigated by the mango orchards that bordered many of the narrow roads or lay beyond the fields on the way. As we sped past their dark stillness, with golden bars of sunlight slanting through their intensely green solidity, I would beguile myself with visions of lying there on a charpai, with a favourite book, nimbu-paani, mangoes, parathas. And the scent of the mango blossoms wafting in as we dozed or looked out into the dark on the way back, stayed with me long after we entered the noise and hard lights of the city close to midnight.

It seems strange to think that the number of years that separate today’s time from the days of my mausi’s and mother’s childhood, is half of that between their time and nineteenth-century Delhi. Yet the experiences between them are closer. We have come a long way away in the past few decades. And lost experiences that celebrated everyday life amidst the changing seasons. We have forgotten how much joy trees and gardens can give everyone, even the mere sight and scent of them. So we cut down trees, thousands of them — mango, neem, oak, jamun. And gouge out the earth to widen roads, make stadiums, offices, flyovers. Any excuse will do. What we need is many more trees, orchards and gardens, not manicured memorials, ministries or malls, but is anybody listening?

Trees cut and hillsides levelled in Rajaji National Park and Mohand, Dehradun, April 2022,
Photo: Treya Mukherjee

 Dilli ka Aakhiri Deedar, The Last Glimpse of Delhi, Syed Wazir Hasan Dehlvi, published 1934, Dilli Printing Press; this excerpt is from City of my Heart, p. 50-52, selected and translated by Rana Safvi, and published by Hachette India, 2018. A description of the Phoolwalo’n ki Sair is also included in Bazm-e-Aakhir, The Last Assembly, Munshi Faizuddin, first published in 1885, p.122-128, and included in the same collection of translations.

 Ibid., p. 23


  1. Excellent article, highlighting the need for balancing the infrastructure development with protection of environment.Very well supported by facts and details.

  2. Thank you for reminding me of the days gone by, reading this beautifully evocative piece it seems that the past was on another planet and not this same earth.
    This is the sad tale across Bharatvarsha. Villages themselves have changed from rural to a half baked urban. Their serendipity sacrificed. Horrible glass facades seen in the big cities can be now seen in small towns along the major highways.
    This is what unfortunately many people and those who wield power call “Development”. I fear that it will be too late before we wake up from this delusion.

  3. Anisha,you took me back to my birth place Dehradun.Good old memories of litchi gardens and we used to go for early morning walks ,not for health sake but to pluck these juicy fruits,before Maali could spot us.
    Lytton road was near our house.Thanks

  4. So beautifully said. Love the images in words and the sketches.