By Kunal Mukherjee
At one end of the grounds, next to the giant swing and the lawns, was the papaya grove. This grove of trees was planted by my father when I was about eight years old. In the tropics, papaya trees grow quickly.
Papita or Papaya, is one of the ubiquitous treasures of the tropics, but nowhere so revered and exalted as in India. Its medicinal qualities and benefits to health and digestion are legendary.
I loved papaya chutney made in the Bengali style in the early summer months. Thin slices of raw papaya were cooked in light sugar syrup with a little fresh lime juice. It is a very simple dish, and is delicious when eaten with the curries of the summer season when the weather is very warm.
“Papaya chutney saved your life when you were a baby” my mother said to me.
“How?” I asked.
“Well, you had a really bad attack of diarrhea and nothing seemed to be working. You were getting very dehydrated when your aunt told me to feed you raw papaya chutney. You see, the milk in the raw papaya has binding qualities and helps cases of upset stomachs. The papaya is a very good fruit indeed.”
All through my childhood I suffered from numerous maladies.
“You were such a sickly child. I am so glad you are not sickly any more,” my mother told me. “Thanks to the papaya, I was able to cure you when you had colic, had teething problems and all kinds of stomach disorders.”
After the papaya seeds were planted, Rinku and I would run out every day to see if the seeds had sprouted yet. We were familiar with the whole process of germination, having planted seeds as part of botany experiments. I remembered the mono cotyledon and di-cotyledon seeds that we planted in jam jars as we watched them germinate and grow. The papaya seeds that we planted were actually prepared by us prior to planting.
“Aparna, these papayas are excellent! They taste like rose water,” my mother would say, when being presented by slices of ripe, yellow and sweet papaya by Mrs. Ganguly.
“Really? Well then you must have some seeds,” with that, Mrs Ganguly would give us a little packet of dried seeds.
Sometimes my father would come back from the bazaar, with a large papaya, convinced that he had found a winner. He was usually right. The papaya would be allowed to get completely ripe first, turning a bright shade of yellow with some yellow-green splashes. Then it would be cooled in the refrigerator. When it would be time to eat it, my mother would cut it open. The papaya usually had an oval cross section, the center would be naturally hollowed out, and filled with hundreds of black papaya seeds, each covered with a translucent and gelatinous coating. The milk was not visible once the papaya was fully ripened.
“This has a flavor of rose water,” my mother would say, admiringly. Rose water was the epitome of subtlety and delicacy in flavor, a legacy of the Muslim rulers we had endured over the centuries. We would giggle because this was exactly what we expected her to say. We would scoop the seeds out and place them on a piece of brown paper and leave it in the sun. The hot dry sun of the summer season soon reduced the gelatinous and wet mass of seeds to a heap of dried out black seeds, flecked with gray.
Soon after the seeds were planted, the shoots appeared. We carefully scooped the earth around the plants, making little moats and connected them to the main gully that Shankar had dug down the length of the garden. It was always fascinating to see the water flow out of the great tap attached to an underground pipe. The earth was always parched in the summer months and looked thirsty. As the circular knob that worked as the head of the tap was turned, water would gush into the gully and flow down, slowed greatly by the parched earth that drank thirstily first, before it would allow the water to flow on. Ants would scurry frantically, many of them being swept away by the current of water, but they usually managed to scramble out along the sides of the gully, as the water was inevitably slowed down by leaves and twigs, the flotsam and jetsam left behind by the summer storm. We made sure that the papaya shoots had plenty of water every day. It was a joy to see the tender shoots appear – tentative little green stalks that soon masterfully thrust through the carefully prepared soil and were soon adolescent.
The papaya plants were soon about five or six feet tall, their slender trunks serrated by little ridges that were a little darker than the cream brown of the thin bark. The leaves were beautiful, coming out in bursts of four or five points from a center of verdant green. The leaves were attached to the slender pole like trunk by long stems.
Soon the fronds had gotten much more green and thick, and the bark had turned a dark golden brown and I was getting impatient. Little flowers had appeared on some of the trees and not the others. In fact, most of the plants had no flowers. As the summer days grew hotter, little papayas appeared where the flowers had bloomed. Shaped like oval green orbs with little nipples at the end, they looked juicy, firm and full of promise. But some of the trees never bore either flowers or fruit.
One of my earliest sex education classes was when I discovered that the papaya tree apparently has a sex. It can either be male or female. The male trees do not bear fruit.
“How much longer before all the papaya trees will give us fruit?” I asked my father.
“Only the girl plants bear fruit. The boy plants never bear any,” my father said.
“How can you tell from before which tree is a boy and which is a girl?” I asked.
“You will need to pull down its chaddi (underpants) and see for yourself,” my father laughed.
I still carry an image of a papaya tree with a polka dotted pair of boxers, pulled down, crumpled at its roots, the tree about to step out and walk away.
Finally the rich green of the papayas was splashed with gold and this gold soon spread all over the fruit to give it an orange yellow skin. The papayas were borne home aloft held carefully, and placed in a jute bag where they would finally ripen to a burst of sunshine yellow gold. And then it was time to eat them. Heavenly and sweet and flavored like rose water, we ate papayas all through the summer. The flesh was soft and it melted in my mouth. The peel was thin, the seeds were bright and shiny, like tiny little fish eggs. I scooped them out and dried them in the sun.
“This is for the next generation of papaya trees,” I said to Rinku. I looked at the dried out seeds. “Wonder which of these are boy and which are girls.” I said.
“Pull their underpants off, and you will know” Rinku said.
We both giggled.