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Grace notes of orange blossom underneath

india Updated: Aug 11, 2013 00:47 IST
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It cannot have escaped notice that the fresh tang of citrus is one of life’s greater blessings. It’s also likely that many, in Delhi at least, would have noticed that the mandarin orange shrub is presently to be found in the interesting condition of half-flower and half-fruit. As to which, a cup of nice Earl Grey on a dismally rainy afternoon certainly demands thanksgiving for the bergamot orange that perfumes it, the citrus bergamia Risso grown mostly in Italy for its aromatic peel to use in tea.

Of course, everybody within our sacred borders knows or ought to know that the word ‘orange’ itself comes from the Indian word ‘naranja’. But as it happens, some Europeans, particularly the Dutch, call the orange ‘the Chineseapple’ or sinasapfel. Such a diverting matter to squabble over, don’t you think, as India crumbles into smaller and smaller political fragments?

I wonder what my favourite authority on the citrus, Emanuel Bonavia, MD, Brigade-Surgeon in the Indian Medical Service, would have said about calling the orange a ‘Chinese apple’. Would he perhaps have found it as inappropriate as we do, “like apples and oranges” in fact?

We might remember that back in 1888, Emanuel Bonavia wrote a fascinating study, ‘The Cultivated Oranges and Lemons Etc of India and Ceylon with Researches into the Origin and the Derivation of their Names and Other Useful Information with an Atlas of Illustrations’.

Another book that sounds equally full of good religion, because it too is about life-improving knowledge, is Alick Percy Lancaster’s ‘A Sahib’s Guide for the Mali: Everyday Gardening in India’. It was reissued in 2010 and apparently still holds good for the upkeep, among other things, of the grand old jamun, neem, amaltas and silk cottons planted in New Delhi and possibly for the Cuban Palm Walk in Lodi Gardens and the mahogany tree from Africa (the only one in Delhi) that I am reliably informed may be found in Sundar Nursery.

It cannot be denied that beyond the ‘little nobodies from nowhere playing at being king and queen’ there were interesting goras too in our past who took care to document and add to our natural heritage.1

Their work may be found below the miasma of our wholly independent making, of stale samosas, rotting piles of garbage and traffic fumes, in fugitive snatches of fragrant history. Some measure of gratitude to God and man seems wholly appropriate: a cup of tea?

— Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture