Men who guard the forbidden fruit

City Life NEW DELHI

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

JAN MCGIRK

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor