Malihabad: in the land of famous Dussehri mangoes

  • Satarupa Paul, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 01, 2014 17:04 IST

The narrow, freshly tarred road glistens in the afternoon heat. The grandeur of Old Lucknow is behind us. The magnificent Bara Imambara, the imposing Rumi Darwaza, and the splendour of numerous mosques give way to run-down houses and empty sabzi mandis, ghostly echoes of the early morning frenzy. Up ahead, beyond a roundabout, the road disappears into the shade of rows of mango trees that border it on both sides. The sweet smell of the raw fruit is thick in the air. This is the renowned mango belt of Malihabad, just 25 km away from the capital of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Lucknow.

Padmashree Kaleem Ullah Khan, known for developing innovative varieties of mangoes, photographed in his Malihabad orchard with friends. (All Photos by: Raj K Raj)

The largest of 14 mango belts in UP, Malihabad has 30,000 hectares of land under cultivation. Last year, it accounted for nearly 12.5 per cent of the mangoes produced from UP, the second largest mango producing state in India after Andhra Pradesh. "Malihabad is the mango capital of India," says Insram Ali, president, Mango Growers Association of India. "It has some of the oldest mango trees. The groves here are owned by families who have been in the mango-growing business for years, some even for a 100 or 200 years!" Malihabad is the mango-lover's Garden of Eden; Chausa, Langda, Safeda and many other famous varieties of mangoes are grown here.

But perhaps the best known and most loved among them is the Dussehri - the king of mangoes.

According to the Geographical Indications Registry of India, Malihabadi Dussehri was given a Geographical Indications (GI) status in 2010. The king of mangoes aside, Malihabad has been elevated to the mango map of the world by the work of a 58-year-old man known as the Mango Man of India. We drive to his Abdullah Nursery on a hot May afternoon amidst the chirping of hundreds of birds.

Three men sit on a charpai in the shade of a sprawling mango tree, their kurtas white and crisp, their beards gray and billowing softly in the lazy breeze, their heads bent in concentration over a chess board. The shorter of the three looks up on our arrival and with a broad smile beckons, "Adaab! Tashreef rakhiye." In the blink of an eye, rickety plastic chairs are pulled up, namkeen and biscuits appear and chilled Coke is passed around in paper cups. He waits, almost impatiently, until we finish our drinks, and then the famous Mango Man of India, Padmashree awardee Kaleem Ullah Khan launches into a monologue, "I've just developed a new variety of mango, a cross between the Dussehri and Husnara. It has a thin juice, because thin juices have more strength. This is my passion. I have dedicated my life to mangoes."

He became interested in the science and art of mangoes when he was a child. "In our family, the mango business was started by my grandfather but at that time we only had a small nursery. During those times, in the early 1900s, there were over 1300 varieties of the fruit in Malihabad alone. Now there are only about 700 varieties left all over UP," he says with a frown. Pointing to the tree in whose shade we are sitting, he says, "I've been working on this tree since 1978. This is my effort to make a collection of as many varieties of mangoes as possible on one tree. This is my living museum of mangoes that I'll leave behind for future generations." At present, his magic tree bears 300 different varieties of mangoes and more are being added every year.

After a quick guided tour around the tree, where he points out all the varieties whose names he can remember, he stops at one and says with a flourish, "And this here is Dussehri - the king of mangoes!" Without pausing for effect he continues, "There's a village in Kakori (of the 1925 Kakori Conspiracy fame), about 10 km between here and Lucknow, which has a tree, a magnificent tree, more than 300 years old. It was owned by the Nawab of Lucknow and belongs to his descendants. Legend has it that it was the only tree of its kind and the Nawab forbade its reproduction. He even had holes drilled into the seeds of all the fruits so that they couldn't be planted anywhere else. That tree is regarded as the mother of all Dussehri trees and the village is called Dussehri after it."

A couple of hundred metres from the sleepy little village of Dussehri beyond a railway crossing stands a lone tree on the side of the dusty main road. A barbed wire fence circles its periphery, a charpai sits empty underneath - the only signs that the tree is special. A young man passing by on a cycle stops and eyes us suspiciously. He warms up when he finds out that we want to photograph the tree, and launches forth into a long introduction: "I am Vikas Yadav. This tree and all the other orchards of the erstwhile Nawab have been loaned to my family for the last 25 years. We look after them. When they fruit, we settle our loan with the family and make an income out of it."

Vikas invites us to sit on the charpai, explaining that it's for the security person who guards the tree at night. "Do you see that green building there?" he asks, pointing to the village. "That used to be a police station so that no one could steal fruit from this tree. Our Nawab was Ansar Ali saab of Lucknow who owned it. His descendants live in the city now and all the fruits from this tree still go exclusively to their family every year." On being asked the age of the tree, he laughs apologetically and says, "Probably over 300 years old, but no one can say for sure. Even my grandfather couldn't. Trees which have come from this one much later have grown into bigger, taller trees. But this one has remained the same forever. And it only seems to grow younger every passing year."

A small crowd has gathered around us by the time Vikas finishes admiring the mother Dussehri tree. His older brother Sonu Yadav disembarks from his bike and joins us in narrating the legend. "It is said that in the early days when people used to travel by bullock carts, a family of farmers passed through this area on their way to the mandi to sell their desi mangoes. But they couldn't sell any, so out of anger they dumped all the mangoes here on their way back. Their seeds joined and became one and this tree grew from it. When it started to bear fruit, the Nawab named it Dussehri." Apparently, the Nawab was so possessive about his tree that he would have nets put up over it when it started to bear fruit, so that birds couldn't pluck the fruits and take them away. "But one day, a landlord from Malihabad tricked his servant into stealing a fruit from here. That's how it spread to Malihabad and then all over India," says Sonu. "No, you have it wrong!," Vikas protests. "It is said that the Nawab used to organise singing and dancing here under the tree. Once a pretty dancer stole a mango and planted it in Malihabad. So that's how it spread there and then to the rest of India." We leave the brothers arguing over which of their accounts is correct and make our way to Malihabad to meet the family that planted the first mango orchards there.

The Malihabad memories

Writer Satarupa Paul on why reporting on Malihabad and its famous mangoes will remain special for her in times to come.

Satarupa Paul ate 60 Tunday kebabs in five days while she was in Lucknow. We're not joking (left); The children of Malihabad are now big fans of our photojournalist Raj K Raj, the 'camera uncle'.

I hate mangoes.

Yes, go on, unleash the WTFs and the incredulous stares. Fact remains, I cannot find any joy in that yellow, gooey, pulpy fruit that has millions swooning over it every summer in India. So when my editor suggested that I go to the 'Mango Capital of India' Malihabad for this week's cover story, I cringed inwardly.

But it only took half of her next sentence to put my excitement on overdrive. "It's near Lucknow and …" Oh, those luscious kebabs, and the beautiful architecture of those grand buildings from the times of the Nawabs, and its old-world romance, and oh those luscious kebabs! So, with my mind orgasm-ing at the prospect of all the foodgasms I was about to have in Lucknow, I began my research on Malihabad.

And the more I found out about it, the more I began to appreciate my editor's enthusiasm. Malihabad is more than just a place which produces a major chunk of India's mangoes. It is seeped in tradition, rich in tehzeeb, replete with legends and fables, and has families who have been growing mangoes for more than a hundred years.

I set out to seek their stories and I came back with much more - the warmth of being welcomed into their houses, the overwhelming feeling of being let into their pasts through family albums and old tales, and sharing in their thrill of being part of our photojournalist Raj K Raj's photographs (Raj, btw, loves mangoes!).

As for me, so infectious was the Malihabadi's love for mangoes that once I get over my withdrawal symptoms from Lucknow's Tunday kebabs, perhaps, just perhaps, I might begin liking mangoes too.

Cemented lanes wind away from the busy market in the town of Malihabad and disappear into a maze of old, decrepit buildings. An almost inconspicuous sign-board in Urdu above the doorway to one of the buildings reads "Josh Malihabadi". We knock the old brass knocker on the blue door, and wait. Sixty-five-year-old Ali Shahab Khan invites us inside his house - a modest living room opens into a courtyard and to other small rooms beyond; a battered reflection of its glorious past, a time when it was part of a larger haveli. "This is the house where my dada, Josh Malihabadi, used to live. Now we live here."

Little is required by way of introduction to the noted Urdu shayar who was born as Shabbir Hasan Khan and became renowned as Josh Malihabadi. He wrote many inquilabi shers during India's freedom struggle and was awarded the Padma Bhushan by his friend and India's first Prime Minister Pandit Nehru. "We come from a long lineage of shayars but Josh dada is the most famous of us all," says Ali Shahab. "The first sher that he ever recited went: 'Shayari kyun naraz aaye mujhe, yeh mera fakr khandani hai,'."

Shahab pushes a plate of watermelon towards us and says with a stern smile, "The mangoes are still raw. So you will have to make do with this." He settles down to narrate the story of his family.

Two hundred years ago, a group of Afridi Pathans, led by Faqeer Muhammad Khan alias Goya Malihabadi, set forth on horseback in search of wealth from Landi Kotal, then a village in Khyber Pass on the border of Afghanistan and Hindustan. Travelling through Peshawar, he first came to Kaimganj in Farrukhabad, UP, and then went to Tonk in Rajasthan, where he started working in the army of the Nawab. The then Nawab of Lucknow heard of his sword-fighting and equestrian skills and told the Nawab of Tonk, "Yeh Pathan humein de do."

That is how Faqeer saab came to Awadh-Lucknow and rose to become commander-in-chief of the Nawab's army. During that time, he surveyed Faizabad, Malihabad, Mohan and other neighbouring kasbahs and fell in love with the land here - the soil was rich, the water and air pure. Faqeer Muhammad sought permission from the Nawab to plant fruit trees, and became the first person to start mango plantation in Malihabad. He also built several havelis in the area, one of which was passed down to his great grandson, Josh Malihabadi, which later passed down to his grandson in turn, Ali Shahab. After several rounds of Rooh Afza and shayari from his dada's books, Shahab offers to show us the main haveli where Faqeer Muhammad lived, and which later became a set for Shyam Benegal's film Junoon (1978) and the Muzaffar Ali classic Umrao Jaan (1981).

Ahmed Wali Baig, 75, is a man of few words and head of a large family of 34 members. He owns 12 mango groves, each with its own unique name. His sons Zahid and Rashid take us on a tour of the nearest groves, proudly calling them out by their names, "This here is Nawab Baag; in the old times Nawabs used to have mehfils here. This is Amrudahi, because there's an amrud tree here. That one there is Tankiwala, because it's behind that water tank."

Besides owning some of the biggest orchards in Malihabad, the Baigs are also known for their mango peti-making business. "Nowadays, paper cartons or gattas are being used. The demand for petis is decreasing. The gattas come cheaper at `24 for two, while one peti costs `26. But still, we make lakhs of petis every year. We have the largest peti-making business in Malihabad."

Back at their house, Ahmed Ali sits us down, while little kids run around shouting at each other in English. Ahmed says, "Education has become very important these days. I didn't study much but all my sons are graduates and now all my grandkids go to English schools." He flips through some family albums and showing us a photo, says conspiratorially, "Mango is just one identity of my life. Here in Malihabad, I am known as Banne Malihabadi - the body builder who acted in Junoon." Turns out the septuagenarian had a small but crucial role in the film, of Naseeruddin Shah's subedar. The photo shows him sitting regally on a horse, with the actor beside him. "I got to know that a film was being shot in Faqeer saab's haveli here. So I went to check it out. Shyam Benegal saab spotted me in the crowd because of my height and body and asked if I would like to act in his film. I told him that I have never even acted in a play. To which he replied, 'Ghode ko ek chabook, aur samajhdar aadmi ko ek ishara kafi hota hai.' I remained a part of the film for the seven-month-long shoot."

Reminiscing about the days gone by, Ahmed Ali sighs, "Those were the good days. There was plenty of mango. We were passionate about it. Now the orchards are just a shadow of their former selves. And more people are cutting down their mango trees and selling off their land as plots. What can they do? Even though the entire area from Dussehri to Malihabad has been declared a mango belt and no trees can be felled or industries set up according to the mandate, there are no facilities or subsidies that should be given to such a belt." His son Zahid adds, "The younger generation is moving out of Malihabad for education and jobs. Who'll look after the orchards after us?" The youngest of the kids, three-year-old Fasal, speaks up excitedly, "Dadu, I'll become Spiderman when I grow up and make mangoes." Looks like all hope is not lost yet.

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