On a hot summer afternoon, my parents and I drove from Lucknow to the nondescript town of Malihabad. The road was lined with makeshift stalls selling the region’s famed mangoes. But we didn’t spare a glance for them, for our destination was the Abdul Nursery run by Kaleem Ullah Khan. In 2008, Khan was awarded the Padma Shri for his contribution to horticulture, earning him fame as the “mango man" of Malihabad.

On reaching, as we waited to meet Khan, we were invited to help ourselves to mangoes soaking in a bucket of water. Sitting on chairs in the shaded grove, looking up at trees laden with fruit, we got our hands messy with sweet mango pulp.

Khan emerged in a crisp white kurta pyjama, ready to leave for Lucknow to receive yet another award. But he took time out to show us around the nursery, proudly pointing out the “magical" mango tree on which he has managed to grow 300 different varieties. Hundreds of mangoes were growing on it, in different sizes, shapes and colours. They even smelt different. The fruit was abundant, the branches hanging low with the weight.

Kaleem Ullah Khan at his orchard in Malihabad. Photo: Hindustan Times
Kaleem Ullah Khan at his orchard in Malihabad. Photo: Hindustan Times

Khan began work on this unique tree in 1978, and still adds new varieties to it, using advanced grafting techniques. In fact, in the process of adding new varieties to the tree, the sexagenarian has invented new grafting techniques. Though he has only studied till class VI, he has spent five decades mastering knowledge of mangoes and their many varieties, and keeps making new ones by combining two or more. Some of these varieties have been named after celebrities, like Aishwarya, Akhilesh, Sachin and Sonia.

In recognition, he has received about 400 awards, he features in the Limca Book of Records, one of his multi-variety trees is planted at Rashtrapati Bhavans’ Mughal Gardens in Delhi, and another at the Lucknow high court.

His parting words to us, as we left in a car loaded with varieties of mangoes, were: “If 300 different mango varieties can coexist peacefully in one tree, then why can’t we?" Just as the fragrance of the mangoes lingered in the car for days, that remark too stayed with me.

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