A walk in the mango orchard
A trip to the Noor Bagh orchard in Uttar Pradesh is a lesson in the history of a feisty fruit that has its very own Partition story and a sweetness that belies its size
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The king of the Noor Bagh orchard in Rataul, Uttar Pradesh (UP), is the small but delicious Rataul mango, which has been claimed by both India and Pakistan as their own. When the late Pakistan president Zia-ul-Haq gifted prime minister Indira Gandhi a box of “Anwar Ratauls” from Multan, villagers back home in UP were quick to make a presentation to Gandhi about the feisty little mango’s Indian origins. A certain Abrarul Haq Siddiqui had migrated to Pakistan post Partition with saplings of the Rataul mango and planted them in Multan. He named the mango “Anwar Rataul” as a tribute to his late father, Anwarul Haq.
In UP’s Baghpat district, the sleepy village of Rataul is enveloped by mango orchards that seem to outnumber the imposing brick kilns. The charming Noor Bagh now belongs to retired Delhi university professor Zahoor Siddiqui, whose great-grandfather, Hakim-ud-Din Ahmad Siddiqui, set it up in 1905. Apart from being a mango aficionado, Maulvi Hakim-ud-Din, as he was fondly known, was also the deputy revenue minister in Bhopal during British rule, and his travels led him to sample his favourite fruit from all over UP and then bring back a variety of seeds to his own orchard in Rataul.
In Delhi, historian, academic and film-maker Sohail Hashmi, who organizes heritage walks in the city, let his love for the fruit turn into a day trip to Noor Bagh, part of a “mango walk” he has been organizing for six years. A friend of Zahoor Siddiqui, Hashmi wanted curious Delhi folk to know more about Rataul’s 300 varieties of mangoes, and Noor Bagh seemed like the perfect place to begin. So on a cloudy Sunday morning in early July, three busloads of eager Delhi residents were driven to Rataul.
Just 40km from the Capital, bumpy roads signalled that we had reached, and the smell of mangoes and wet earth took over as we drove into Noor Bagh. The orchard was lush, and we were tempted to start plucking mangoes right away. But Hashmi and the orchard’s chief caretaker, Islaam Mian, carefully took us through Noor Bagh’s history first.
The India-Pakistan war over the mango was narrated with humour: “Soldiers fought in Kargil, but there are wars over the Rataul mango too,” said Hashmi. In the middle of the muddy orchard, a friendly hen kept following everyone around. Children were busy splashing in puddles. Encouraged by Hashmi and Islaam Mian, we kept stopping to pluck ripe mangoes, much like an enjoyable rerun of childhood shenanigans.
After retiring from Delhi university, Siddiqui returned to Noor Bagh not just to manage the orchard but also to start a school for girls in his ancestral haveli. Naming it after his grandmother, who had rebelled against her family to ensure an education for herself, Siddiqui and his wife Nishat Saiyada set up the Salma Public School in 1993. Just a short walk into the village, the haveli is tucked into a small lane, with a small board indicating its location. Built in the old style, and wearing a beautiful blue on its walls, the arches and large courtyard form the perfect backdrop to the several varieties of mangoes laid out in buckets filled with water for us. The mangoes had been left to ripen in one of the large classrooms.
First, however, came a sumptuous lunch of besni roti, seetaphal ki sabzi (with mango), mirch-lehsun ki chatni, poori-aloo and chhole. It didn’t deter anyone from feasting on the mangoes, of course. There was, apart from the Rataul, the Langda, Dussehri, Gulab Jamun, Chausa, Taimuriya, Haramzada and Bhagalpuri Dudhiya.
The Rataul had several takers, but it rarely makes it out of the village, given its limited production. For, unlike Pakistan, where grass-roots farmers have been encouraged to cultivate the fruit in larger quantities, the saplings have not been developed in government nurseries here. The future might not be shining bright, but Noor Bagh is hoping to keep the sweet Rataul alive.
The annual “mango walk”, held in July, costs Rs2,000 per person, inclusive of lunch and travel by bus from Delhi to Rataul and back. Details of the event can be found on the Facebook page, Delhi Heritage Walks with Sohail Hashmi, in early June every year.