If you’ve never been able to keep a hardy house plant alive for more than a few weeks, taking up residence in a bungalow in Lonavla for a month each year, to harvest the bounty of a small fruit garden you’ve tended all year all year, is quite a leap. Lonavla is a hill station just two hours from Mumbai, perched on the rural-urban fringe, acting as a link between the city and the countryside, between local and national economy.
Summertime in Lonavla is when most local fruit trees produce their bounty. The highlight of a month in the country is the harvesting of a heavily-laden lychee tree, another full of kokum fruit, plus jackfruit, chikoos, mangoes and more from my garden. Exciting as harvesting seems, the average non-farming type has no idea how much hard work is involved. It takes five people about eight hours to harvest the bumper crop of more than 5,000 lychees produced by this single tree. You really have to get the lychees on the right day, before the rest of the natural world does. We’ve learnt that in the daytime, squirrels and birds take great pleasure in devouring the ripest fruit and what they drop is foraged by honeybees, wasps, ants and lots of smaller insects. At night, fruit bats and flying foxes have a feast. And then there are jungle mynas that gorge not only on the fruit, but on ants and insects feasting on fallen lychees. The occasional bush-chat darts in for its share and shy butterflies flit around waiting for the opportunity to take their pick.
Post-harvest, of course, we’re always overwhelmed by our lychee crop. The best thing we’ve done is enlist the help of local women to reduce our 5,000 lychees to pulp. Meanwhile, I slave at a stove churning out massive quantities of lychee products: umpteen litres of delicious lychee squash, bottles of yummy lychee jam and stewed lychees.
One summer after all this was done, we discovered we still had about 1,000 lychees to go and so began frantic phone calls and Internet searches to figure out how we could make lychee wine. A simple recipe (lychee pulp, sugar, yeast and water) worked beautifully, and though we only slept at 3am that night, we had 30 litres of lychee wine in the works. After six months of racking, this wine turned a lovely light gold and is a full, ripe, fruity wine that can compare with some store-bought varieties.
After the lychees, the chikoos, mangoes and kokum fruit are rather easy to harvest. Chikoos and mangoes get boxed to ripen while kokum must be processed into squash. It’s simple since it involves no cooking. One merely cuts each kokum fruit in half, deseeds it, packs it with sugar, piles it in glass jars, covers it and leaves it in the sun. Forty-eight hours later, you remove the pulp and strain off the deep red syrup. A fortnight of sunshine later, the kokum syrup makes an amazingly cooling summer drink. Infused with some lemon and herbs from my very own herb patch, started from scratch, it makes a superlatively refreshing summer drink.
After a month of the joys of home-grown fresh fruit, clean air, hosts of bird and insect visitors, I always wonder if I should make this my everyday world. A world where plants, though they have a mind of their own, welcome your care and bloom and blossom abundantly. Is it possible to live life without a ringing cell phone and 24x7 television news? For a while the quirks of the markets and the foibles of national politics seem not to exist. Even if it’s just a month, each time I sip my full-bodied white, semi-dry lychee wine, I can once again taste the sweet bliss of another life.
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