It was one of a kind day trip. We came to know about the trip from social media and got hooked on the idea immediately. The famous academic, historian and film director of Delhi Mr Sohail Hashmi is the organizer of such trips. The idea of such trips is to bring you closer to the roots and also to introduce the outsiders of a certain culture of this great country.
Rataul is a village in the district of Baghpat in the state of Uttar Pradesh, about 40 km away from the capital city of Delhi. It is just like any other nondescript village among the half a million villages in India. So what makes it so special that a day tour is organised, now almost every year, by Mr Hashmi and his team? It is the mango and the mango orchard. The village has ascribed its name to a particular variety of mango which is not only very beautiful to look into but also carries a distinct taste and aroma. The trip is also important to propagate the fact that Rataul mango is very much Indian and not originated in Pakistan as claimed.
Such a backdrop would definitely evince interest. Further, I and my family hardly miss an opportunity to travel, however far or near the place is and never mind the duration. The idea was unique, the day chosen was a Sunday, travelling and refreshment arrangements were taken care of by the organisers and except for the humid and sultry weather, it was perfect to venture into a mango orchard in a village on the fringe of a megapolis that is Delhi.
On 1st July 2018, four bus load people assembled at Mandi House just outside the Sri Ram Kala Kendra building.
The buses trudged through the Eastern part of Delhi crossing the Yamuna through the Shahdara bridge. It passed through the most densely populated, filthy, dirty and cramped for space part of the metropolis. People living in the area seemed unmindful of all these maladies and were busy in playing cricket on the landfill, the river bed and whatever space they could carve out, going about their daily chores as usual. We crossed Delhi by 10.30 am starting at 9.45 am from Mandi House, the assembly point.
As we crossed Delhi and entered UP, a short while later our bus took a turn towards Baghpat. The road narrowed as we progressed and at a tri-junction near Banthala, no one was willing to budge an inch. A flyover was under construction. We were still some distance away from our destination.
Soon we entered the rural geography interspersed with small bazaars and pucca houses of the rural folks. There were fields being made ready for Kharif season and some were whispering with early saplings of sugarcane plants. Our purpose of visiting mango orchards soon appeared and we entered the area by 11.25 am by taking a very sharp turn from the highway, at 30 degrees. The bus had to reverse once to get on the narrow road leading to the village.
In a few minutes, we reached the outskirts of the village. The coal tar road ended and cement concrete road started signalling the beginning of the periphery of the village. The four buses were parked just outside a boundary wall of a cemetery and a mango orchard. On an average, a bus carried about 35 passengers (should I designate them as tourists?). There was a black SUV all the way from Delhi which was our pilot and also carried the organisers of the tour. In all, there were about 150 people who paraded through the only street of the village for about 100 meters and reached a premise which housed a primary school, the residence of the family which ran the school and also a heritage level haveli built in Mughal style. There was also a sprawling lawn, some outhouses, a very old peepal (sacred fig) tree whose one branch ran parallel to the ground below just about a meter above and was so thick that a dozen people can sit on it. This was the outer courtyard of the house. There was another inner courtyard which leads to the arched verandah of residence of the owner Mr Zahoor Siddiqi, an octogenarian who was seen welcoming the guests, interacting with them, asked for their wellbeing and reminisced about the history of the village, the school that he and his wife started and of course, the history of mango in the area.
The group was welcomed by the host and his family members with all warmth and enthusiasm. The welcome drink was ready and personally served by one of the family members. Tea was also served.
It was about 12 noon. Our guide and the tour organiser, Mr Sohail Hashmi, an academic, a historian and a filmmaker explained in detail the purpose of the visit, the history of the village Rataul and the fame attached to the particular variety of mango which is named after the village. It was very interesting to hear him about the history of the place, how the mango orchards came up and how these were nurtured for centuries. There were more than 40 varieties of mangos on display and of course, the Rataul variety was the cynosure of all eyes. The Rataul variety is of small size with a tinge of yellow near the stem when ripe and does have a distinct taste and aroma.
As the lunch was under preparation, Mr Hashmi suggested that we should walk to the mango orchard of the family and take a look. The party followed him and it was again a spectacle for the villagers, especially young children for whom the various attires of the urban gentry are seen only in movies or in TV soaps. We reached the same compound outside which our buses were parked. Mr Hashmi was assisted by a bearded gentleman Naser, a caretaker of the orchards and so knowledgeable that he can identify the variety of a mango tree just by observing the leaves. The speciality of the orchard was that it had hundreds of varieties of mango trees beside some rare variety of wood apple tree, a ‘Kachnar’ (Bauhinia variegata – courtesy Google) tree whose flowers are of great medicinal value, a huge ‘Maulshree’ tree, again of great medicinal value (also the abode of ghosts as per some belief) and a 250 year old ‘Khirni’ tree. To enhance our knowledge of mangos, Mr Hashmi informed us that the names of the various varieties of mangos are attributed to the villages wherefrom these varieties were originated. Most of the mango trees are the result of large-scale grafting experiments by the planters. To see an original mango tree one may have to go to the Andaman Islands. Here also the visitor may find it difficult to recognize the tree simply for the reason that the mango trees are grown vertically like a palm tree and after attaining certain height the tree branches out which is not seen in the plains. The life of a mango tree can be theoretically endless due to grafting. Some of the very old trees are still surviving for the last 800 years in Delhi. With the age, of course, the fruit bearing capacity of the tree diminishes so also the size of mangos. The stories were very interestingly narrated by Naser and translated by Mr Hashmi in English for the benefit of some foreigners who were also part of the party.
About an hour was spent in the orchard. Many of us were benefited by the practical lesson given by Mr Hashmi as for us all the mango trees are the same.
The party returned to the haveli-cum-school premises. Lunch was being cooked still. We waited under the cool confines of a large room with a high ceiling of at least 15 feet. In fifteen minutes lunch was announced. The menu had mostly vegetarian dishes except for the chicken biryani. Everybody liked the ‘puris’ most as this the best item in the menu. The curries were delicious and so were the chapatis made from ‘besan’ (chickpea flour) soaked with pure ghee.
The dessert was the mangos. Four large containers were kept under the peepal tree where the mangos were immersed in water. There were at least ten varieties of mangos. One can eat as much as one wants. The ushers were there to help you identify the varieties and how to eat them. The party kept itself busy in eating mangos for the better part of the lunchtime. The arrangements were meticulously planned and executed, the credit for which goes to Mr Hashmi and his team.
There was a ‘karonda’(Carissa carandas – courtesy Google) plant which was full of the berry. I was seeing the plant for the first time and asked my wife to visit it. This was in the inner courtyard of the house. We met the principal of the school (Salma Public School) Ms Sheeba Sultana and chatted with her for some time about the school and its students. The school is open to both boys and girls and is up to class V. There are about 500 students and the family is trying to impart modern education to the children of the village.
Later, when I spoke to Mr Zahoor Siddiqi, he was quite vocal about the importance of primary education, especially in villages where the religious schools get prominence (he was referring to the madarsas). Mr Siddiqi, with the walking stick in one hand, moved among the guests, enquired about the lunch, introduced the cook to some of the guests and generally talked about his family, the village and the need for peaceful living among all. The mango orchard that he owns is actually a legacy he is carrying through his heart lies in education. The school is a small effort in that direction.
Around 2.30 pm, Mr Hashmi enquired if everybody had their lunch and finished eating mangos. If this was done, he urged everybody to proceed towards the buses. Every visitor was given 5 kg mangos of assorted variety complementary. I was thinking what to do with 20 kg of mangos (all four of my family were part of the tourist party). Ishani gave her share to one of her friends who hailed from a joint family.
The village seemed to be well-off one. Plenty of cars, bikes, SUVs were seen plying on the road. What pitied us most was the filth strewn around the village. At the entry point of the village, there was garbage thrown of all types. The only village road was never swept clean, it seemed. The gully leading to the school was clean but the open drains flanking the lane were never cleaned. Blaming the authorities is easy. I felt that the cleanliness is something the villagers themselves can manage. Every year busloads of tourists visit their village for the fame of the particular variety. But when they leave, they leave with the foul smell from the stench of the garbage which seemed to be kept there from eternity. The villagers are themselves to blame for this apathy. It requires little effort to keep the surrounding clean, especially in a village.
But for this negative impact, our trip to Rataul was memorable. The organising skill of Mr Hashmi and his team was commendable, the food was sumptuous, the host’s generosity was praiseworthy and the mangos were simply delicious enough to forget the humid and sweating weather.