The 'Ber' Truth
Many of us as kids have tasted the tiny, wild 'ber' that grow in the scrublands and Shiwaliks overlooking the tricity. These are delicious, brown, golden and maroon in colour, and pack a sizable seed. Even the most nimble of our fingers cannot escape unscathed from the spines or thorns strategically placed to protect the fruit.
I recollect my hands often bloody and ragged after a 'ber' hunt! Having come across them recently, as these gregarious shrubs are currently in fruition, I sought the opinion of botanists on their precise species. My photographs elicited a range of responses and the 'ber' were identified variously as Zizyphus Mauritiana, Nummularia, Oxyphylla or even Oenoplia.
Perplexed by the barrage of scientific names hurled at me,I was finally put on the right track by Prof SP Khullar, former head of botany department, Panjab University, Chandigarh, and one who has undertaken field studies on plant life of the Chandigarh region.
He asked me to secure clippings of the shrub for examination and on seeing them, he confirmed the 'ber' as Zizyphus Nummalaria, a very hardy bush that helps prevent soil erosion.
But extracting the clippings was no mean task for an untrained plant enthusiast like me. The live branches clung to the one I would cut and extract, much like beloved sisters unwilling to let go, the thorns as if arms locked in a desperate, teary embrace! When I managed to get my hands out, the thorns grabbed the sleeve of my jacket, as if begging me in a last-ditch effort, ''Please don't take her away"! When I finally extricated branches from a few shrubs and placed them in a collection bag, the thorns ensured they got so intertwined that they evoked ready comparison with victims huddling together when faced with a Jallianwala Bagh-like firing squad!
Historic Jainti Mata temple in Shiwalik hills framed by thorns and fruit of Zizyphus nummalaria.Photo credits: Vikram Jit Singh
"The spines are so well-placed and unyielding that even goats cannot access the fruit easily. Farmers use these bushes as field barricades against wild animals as also for fruit. The fruit is used in certain Ayurvedic medicines and acts as an astringent. In Punjab, it is also called 'gal-ghot' as partaking of unripe fruits tends to constrict the throat," explained Prof Khullar.
There are several species of 'ber' and hybrids in vogue and extensive research is being undertaken on what is popularly known as the 'poor man's fruit'.
What tales dangle from the dapper Mallard's tail! The valued possession of a few tricity families, and one passed down generations of ladies, are earrings arrayed with the dark, inward-curling feathers plucked from well...hmmm...a migratory drake's backside! A “made for each other” pair really, complimenting the whiskered twirls that men of that age cultivated. At ballrooms, chandeliered dinners and garden luncheons set under willows and chinars, curls would dangle from elegant ears and charm the peerage of the day, without so much as provoking a thoughtful qualm or attracting bouts of tongue-clicking. But contemporary values and ethics have curled quite another way since, and many a modern lady might prefer to empathise with the poor drake's tale!In that bygone era, shikaris would go to great lengths to shoot a swift-winging drake.Hoping that along with the meat and the sporting thrill afforded by a flying shot, the dead bird would yield curls for earrings to placate the proverbial 'bitter half'! In fact, the most organised duck shoots were to be had in Kashmir till the late 1990s. Its gorgeous wetlands and rivers braced every winter for booming shotguns assigned to numbered 'butts'.
Late Lakhinder Kaur sporting Mallard earrings.Photo Credits: Nakai Family Archives
Kansal resident, Robin Nakai, shares the story of his family's earrings. His late father, Lt Gen JS Nakai, was the 15 Corps Commander at Srinagar, Kashmir, in 1975. Lt Gen Nakai wanted to present his wife, the late Lakhinder Kaur, with Mallard earrings.
"The ADC was ordered by my father to have a suitable Mallard shot. The super-efficient ADC put some adept shikaris to the task at a wetland near Tangmarg. Many Mallards were shot before the perfect matching pair of curls was procured. The anxious ADC also ensured that 'spare' curls were procured in case the earrings needed replenishment over time," recounts Nakai, interspersing the anecdote with his inimitable guffaws.
Panchkula-based Harpreet Sandhu 'Harry' pulls another juicy story from his bag. His father, the late Maj Gen Gurdial Singh, who led the Army operation to annex Junagadh in October 1947, was a passionate shikari.
"My father was shooting over the river Jhelum in the 1930s. A flight of Mallards swung over him and he dropped a drake. Loathe to lose the drake, and without lending a thought to the river's dangers, my father jumped into the Jhelum clad as he was in cumbersome English shooting tweeds! He retrieved the drake and had earrings fashioned for my late mother, Jaswant Kaur,'' remembers Sandhu, the twinkle in his eyes reflecting remembered joy as also a deep yearning for the days gone by.