Temperatures in Jodhpur are very high, its a scorching summer even for Rajasthan and May. There seems no relief in sight and the few wispy clouds that come in with the promise of rain in the morning seem to be driven away by the raging heat by the evening. The plants are beginning to wilt , the leaves looking frayed and pale almost gasping for rain and water. Since when did summers get so unbearable.
May was always about the summer holidays, May meant summer holidays. Freedom from school for 2 whole months and no school bags right until the rains started. Before we moved to Dehradun, summer meant train trips to the grandparents in Dehradun. My grandparents lived in an old house with high ceilings, brick floored verandahs , huge windows and old furniture.Summers were a time when all the grandchildren came over. It meant hours of play with new dolls newly gifted by the generous massie who came down from Canada with large suitcases which were packed with hand-me-downs and goodies. My grandparents had four children. My mother is the eldest , followed by two sisters and a brother. I was the youngest of all the grandchildren until my mother’s younger brother got married and had two of his own (which was a big event for me as I abdicated the throne of the youngest grandchild with much pleasure). Since almost all the grandchildren were born in about one or two years of each other, a lot of clothes were passed down as the older ones grew older, taller and broader. Summer came to mean new clothes, not exactly new but passed down a notch. We all wore what the older cousins had worn at various times. No body fussed, no body seemed to mind much. Not just clothes, as a baby I recall having a pram that had been used by atleast four children before me. It was just an acceptable thing and the mothers would quietly co-ordinate on that.
My grandparents house was surrounded by litchi trees. May and June were months when Dehradun was crammed with litchis. Most old Dehradun houses were in five bigha plots of land , the house in the centre surrounded by litchi trees. These trees grew tall with their dark green shining leaves and thick brown tree trunks reaching out into various shapes. Any child growing up in Dehradun knows how to climb trees and has at some point of time, fallen off one as well. There was an old canal that surrounded these orchards known as the East Canal. It had been built primarily to irrigate the orchards.
The orchards were leased out to “baghwallas” , groups of men wearing dhotis and caps who came from Saharanpur with their cots and pots and pans just as the trees were breaking into blossom. They would spend their days lazing under the trees during the day, cooking, eating ,sleeping and inspecting the trees.Entire orchards would be given out to protect ,harvest and sell the fruit. Litchi trees have very insignificant pale yellow flowers. In fact the flowers almost blend into the leaves and we would barely notice their presence. It was only the arrival of the “baghwallahs” that would herald the litchi season. It was their job to look after the trees and the litchi crop right until it was harvested. As soon as they would arrive and set up their cots under the trees we knew it was litchi season.
Their main job was to protect the fruit from birds , bats and brats(us). For the first two they would set up scarecrows, ugly human looking shapes , with sticks for arms and a rag draped across which would be stuck among the trees and old metal tins would beaten in the night to scare away the bats. For us they employed more frightening tactics.As the litchi would ripen turning from green thin tiny bits into bright red luscious bunches of fruit temptation would get the better of us. Obviously we were not to be blamed. We would sit on the large window sills in my grandmother’s living room our bare legs dangling outwards gazing wistfully at the ripe bunches hanging down from the trees no less than a few inches away. Any attempt at reaching out for the fruit spelt danger though. The “baghwallahs” had a particular roar just meant for the children. It was enough to send tremors down anyone’s spine leave alone children. What was possibly even more terrifying was the thought of what would happen if one of the mothers found out. My mother in particular had a very strict code for what was right and acceptable behaviour and any deviation from it meant a good dressing down. In the night I would lie awake listening to the banging of old tins by the baghwallahs petrified that they might come to get me , listening for sounds and then falling asleep till the sun rose.
As soon as the litchis would be harvested and cratefuls would begin to arrive home. Bright red fruit waiting to be peeled and bitten into. We would eat by the dozens , spitting out the seeds trying to see where they would land, sticky juice running down our our fingers and hands .Sometimes the pile would attract black ants intoxicated by the sweet smell. We would then have to look harder, plucking the fattest litchis out of the pile of leaves taking care to shake off the ants and then biting into the fruit. The experience of eating freshly broken litchis is like no other. In fact nowadays so far from home when I see a tiny pile of brown, dessicated ,drying litchis in the supermarket I almost feel a pang of despair and pain.
Litchi orchards in Dehradun have been cut down now, making way for flats and commercial complexes. My parents house has two, a more hybrid variety that bore fruit when it was still quite short. No one needs baghwallahs any more now that the baghs don’t exisit any more.The East Canal now lies buried under a layer of coal tar where a road was widened over it, its memory only visible in signboards along the road named East Canal Road. Litchis still arrive in summer, but they don’t taste quite the same as they did sitting in my grandmother’s verandah pulling them out of wooden crates, having the juice pour down your hand and legs and experiencing the sheer delight of summer.