All The World In A Mango Tree In India

Monday, September 23, 2013

All The World In A Mango Tree In India

Padmashri Kaleemullah Khan has produced a living masterpiece: a strange monster of a mango tree. When I visited the man and the tree, I discovered that there was, in this curious demonstration of skill and patience, a metaphor for the entire nation of India. In a single tree, there is an entire world.

Just a short bus ride out of Lucknow, the town of Malihabad is famous for its mango orchards. This so-sweet fruit, which grows in hundreds of varieties, is one of India’s most famous products. Grown now throughout the tropics, it is native to the Indian subcontinent and has been cultivated since ancient times. Some mangos are perfect for juicing, yet others are perfect for slicing. For one variety, the recommended way to enjoy it is to pulp it within its skin, roll it between your hands and then pierce it with a straw to drink the syrupy nectar. At market bazaars and plazas throughout India, mangos are available, diced and salted with salt and spices. Sticky, sweet, inexpensive and delightful, it is the king of fruits and the most beloved of desserts.

In Hindi aam means mango. But the same word also means “common,” or “in general.” There is a modern colloquial phrase aam aadmi, or literally, “mango man.” By this, the common man is meant as the average joe or the regular bloke. Of course, everyone worldwide knows that they are average (or at least, above average), thus we are all aam aadmi.

The fertile soil of the Ganges plain and the insistent sunlight of Uttar Pradesh combine with a long history of agriculture and experimentation in Malihabad’s orchards. The weirdest experiment of all must be Kaleemullah-ji’s masterpiece tree. Fame and renown have come to him for combining, in a single tree stem, more than 300  flavors of mango.

I left the casual comfort of the Lucknow Homestay early in the morning and walked past Chief Minister Mayawati’s sprawling compound, which dwarfed the smaller residences surrounding it. On the main road I flagged down a bike-wallah. As a passenger on a cycle rickshaw, I passed the crowded roundabouts and busy street traffic of Lucknow towards the bus stand. The hot vinyl seat was tilted forward and it was with precarious balance and tightly gripped fingers that I kept from tumbling forward onto the rickshaw-wallah. He successfully dodged the motor vehicles, traffic lights and pedestrians, and came to a sudden halt in a queue of rickshaws at the bus stand. I stumbled into the shade of the open-walled structure.

It was, at first glance, a swirl of humanity. It was not too dissimilar to other Indian bus stands and felt somehow familiar. There were food vendors: small stalls selling hot, deep-fried food, stale nuts packaged in flimsy plastic or, blessedly, fresh fruit from the subtropical fields. With steel kerosene stoves roaring beneath blackened steel pots, there were chai-wallahs mixing carefully measured portions of spices and tea in a generously sugared broth of milk. There were also personal-care shops displaying cosmetics and plastic trinkets, and telephone shops selling electronics and phone credits.

Passengers waited on metal benches and chairs that were well polished from the clothes of those who had sat there before. Their luggage was piled around — zipped, bundled or cloth-wrapped. In simple uniforms of khaki, the government bus drivers could be seen milling about and refreshing after their long rides. In more elaborate uniforms of similar fabric, police officers walked through, but it was their wooden staves that seemed to command the most respect. Voices, car horns, music and the growl of engines all vied for dominance in the air.

For all of the distraction and activity, there was a clear logic to the place. Just beyond, buses were ranked, with handwritten destination signs in Devnagiri script placed in the front window. There were scheduled government buses for which the timetable was posted on the wall. Advance tickets for these were available from a deliberately calm ticket-wallah at the front of a long queue. One must attach themselves at the back end of these queues and then jealously guard their position in the order. There were also sometimes-scheduled private buses, for which timings you simply had to ask around for. Tickets for these were sometimes available from a satellite counter.

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On the bus to Malihabad, I slipped through the standing passengers towards the front. The driver was only too happy to be distracted by my strangely accented inquiries. The passengers were all familiar with Kaleemullah’s orchard and beamed with excitement that I would be travelling out of Lucknow for such a curious mission. It was on the road in interactions like these, halting and awkward, that I practiced my newly learned Hindi, explaining that this orchard, and this tree, were worth travelling all the way from America for.

Once we escaped the urban sprawl of the ancient city, I could glimpse grain fields and mango orchards behind the roadside tree plantings of jamun and eucalyptus. Just before we arrived to town the bus lurched to a halt and I hopped off on the side of the highway. With a yell and a wave, I bid farewell to the driver and passengers who continued on their way with smiles at the job accomplished.

I crossed the road and was at the gates of Kaleemullah’s orchard. Though I had not called ahead, I suspect that the speed of rumor had surpassed me and that someone had texted or called. I entered and, not knowing what to expect, cautiously hollered an English “hello.” I was promptly greeted by a grey-bearded man, dressed in the white skullcap and tailored cloths of the Lucknavian Muslim Padmashri Kaleemullah Khan. A young man in a tailored uniform, who beamed a winning, natural smile at me, accompanied him. We were soon sitting drinking tea on plastic chairs next to a large toolshed. I explained, easily enough, that I had come to learn about his mango masterpiece.

To be precise, we were not speaking Hindi but its Persianized form, Urdu. My hosts were my first introduction to the famous sophistication and genteel elegance of Lucknavian Muslim traditions. Like Delhi, the city had a long history of elite culture and intellectualism, but unlike Delhi, there had been less of an exodus towards Pakistan in the time of Partition. While I had made several friends within the city, it was on this visit to Kaleemullah and his assistant that I learned to slow down, observe and partake in the ancient formalities. It was, of course, the same graciousness and hospitality that humans share throughout the world, but there is something comfortingly confident about the politeness of a senior Urdu gentleman.

Padmashri Kaleemullah produced a thick binder of photographs, articles and awards. He had collected several accolades and prizes for his mango cultivation, and his famous tree had been profiled by a handful of journalists before myself. His honorific title, Padamshri, meant a great deal; I believe it was sign of high-level government recognition. We flipped through the pictures and did our best to bridge our language divide. When we reached the final page of the binder, it was obvious what to do next. Eagerly, and with visible satisfaction, he led me down a narrow path to show me the masterpiece. As we pushed past the dark leaves of the growing mango trees, I marveled at the joy and pride people gained from such a simple pilgrimage.

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Patiently, Kaleemullah had tracked down every variety of mango he could find — every flavor, shape and color. On a single stem he had grafted branches from more than 300 separate lineages of mango, a singular accomplishment. It was to this stem that he led me, and as we approached a short but sprawling tree, I could see that it was both strange and curious.

Most trees have a unity of form, color and texture to their leaves. You can immediately recognize the pattern that underlies its visual appearance and its actual structure. There is a self-referencing integrity, but this tree was a fused patchwork of different colors; its very existence was an education in detecting subtle variations. In one portion of its crown the leaves were held upright, yet in another they were even. In another place, glossy yellowish leaves grew, and in another, dark dull green leaves were there. Some sections were just beginning flower buds and some were flowering in full bloom. There was, unfortunately, none fruiting at the time of my visit.

We entered into the shadowed canopy of the tree. The stem was remarkably slender and there were very few interior branches. In this enclosed space he showed me one of the grafting points. With hand motions he demonstrated how we would slice notched angles and then attach the orphaned cutting to this new, hybrid tree. It seemed tremendously simple, but I knew that there was a fine art to the timing and tending of the grafts.

Inside this tree I was struck by the variety surrounding us. It was like a sky full of constellations, or like a land filled with diversity and contrast. In slow and clumsy Urdu I spoke to Kaleemullah about the whole world in a mango tree — aam mein, duniya  — “mango in, world is.”

Like the vast country around us, there was flavor and spice, sweetness and sour. And, like the world around us, there were many different types, all linked to the same stem. It was a simple observation and, fortunately, a simple phrase to put together. Padmashi Kaleemullah and I — our rapport built quickly around a shared enthusiasm for the mango tree –were both aam aadmi. Aam mein, duniya hai.

By YD Bar-Ness


About the Author

YD Bar-Ness 100x100pxYD Bar-Ness is an outreach and conservation ecologist based in the far corner of Australasia on the island of Tasmania. He is on a long-term mission searching for the Kalpavriksh, the mythical wish-fulfilling tree of ancient Sanskritic myth. He hasn’t found it yet, but will make sure to tell you when he does. He’s online at and

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