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Men who guard the forbidden fruit

THERE STILL are a few plum jobs left in New Delhi. Tota Ram considers himself lucky to have one, even though it means he must sleep rough for three months under a tree each summer, while the Indian capital simmers and sweats.

In a job that can be traced directly back to the British Raj, he gathers and sell jamuns, the sticky black fruit from the ornamental java plum trees, which Sir Edward Lutyens insisted on planting along New Delhi's most imposing avenues more than 80 years ago.

"Even before roads were laid out, Lutyens ordered flowering trees to be planted along proposed routes," said Khushwant Singh, an author and the octogenarian son of Lutyens's Indian contractor. "They are slow-growing, long-living trees which will give shade to our great grandchildren and their great-grandchildren."

Tota Ram, 41, has tended a a stand of 30 jamun trees opposite the national museum every summer for as long as he can remember. He shares the work with his extended family, including a toothless great aunt who perched on a branch in 1931 to glimpse inaugural ceremonies for imperial New Delhi. They all sleep beneath their trees on rope beds, guarding the fruit from thieves. The temperature here is at least 10 degrees cooler than in Old Delhi.

This morning, Tota Ram sits barechested in the shade, a bidi cigarette tucked behind his ear, and catches the breeze off the boating ponds near parliament. Compared to road labourers and construction workers toiling in the sun, he lives an enviable village idyll in this city of 10 million people.

His nephews have skived off to splash naked in the water as the temperature climbs past 35C. Since June they've been on night duty, chasing marauding bats away from his juicy plums, which are inedible unless ripened on the branch.

Tota Ram hikes his purple lunghi above his knees, squats beside his youngest son, Lakhmi, and lights up a joss stick as thick as a cigar, which he then plants in the middle of his wicker basket. It is heaped high with what looks like fat black olives, and the scented smoke will ward off flies. Since 8am, customers have come by rickshaw and bus to buy 10-rupee packets of his jamuns.

The smaller variety, a folk cure for diabetes and dysentery, sells out early. They often are ground up in concoctions for toothpowder, hair dye, or deodorant. Tota Ram never has to hustle. His clients seek him out under the jamun trees, alongside dozens of other jamun-wallahs.

"Politicians and office workers won't buy any plums until the afternoon," said Tota Ram,pointing out a passing parliamentarian wearing an immaculate white tunic. "These big shots always want to appear spotless. Doesn't matter which political party. But they'll come to me on the way home. That's when the big jamuns taste best."

He can earn up to 80 rupees per kilo (about pounds 1.35) - equivalent to the local price of grapes. Afternoon crowds on motorscooters clamour for this summer delicacy and cause long traffic tailbacks.

Tara Khotaria, a flight attendant, delights in her jamuns. "It's a forbidden taste from my childhood holidays. That's why I love them so. We'd get bellyaches if we ate too many and mum always scolded us for staining our clothes. It's impossible not to. See? I've already got juice on my sleeve."

Just before monsoon breaks, scores of itinerant fruit-pluckers like Tota Ram converge on Delhi from nearby villages. Generations of families have battled parakeets and each other for this bounty from the capital's shade trees - ever since irritable memsahibs first objected to Lutyens's messy jamuns, which seem to ripen all at once and leave indelible purple stains on anything they touch.

His horticulturist from Kew Gardens, WR Mustoe, failed to predict such a prodigious crop when he transplanted these trees to Delhi's plains. With a taste like a cross between a persimmon and a blackcurrant, jamun plums were spurned by colonial Britons.

Yet Indians quarrelled over the jamuns like schoolboys collecting conkers. When the first crop appeared in New Delhi, villagers blocked the new capital's roadways to shake the plums on to outsized dropcloths, while children scrambled up branches to feast on the ripe ones and hurl any bird-pecked fruit on to people passing below.

In the Raj times administrators issued licences for each tree. These days, New Delhi's city corporation sells the jamun tree contracts, which the traditional fruit-pluckers band together to buy