“Four annas, that’s how much a handful of jamuns cost in 1960,” exclaims my grandmother, holding up the ripe fruit in her hands. In those days she took the bus from South Delhi to Shah Jahan Road in the city’s centre and walked to her office at the Ministry of Rehabilitation (then at Jaisalmer House). Her eyes light up as she remembers the wide roads around India Gate lined with the vibrant jamun trees all through summer.
“They [the vendors] wouldn’t count each piece or even weigh them, they just picked up a fistful from the pile and packed it in small paper bags topped with a delicious masala,” she laughed. “Like a jamun chaat.”
The next morning, a bowl of plump jamuns graces our breakfast table.
“Lutyen’s Delhi or New Delhi,” my father tells me, “as opposed to any other part of the city, is personified by its grand historic mansions, expansive avenues and of course, its trees. Lutyen’s Delhi is a haven for the jamun tree.”
Pradip Krishen, in his book Trees of Delhi, calls New Delhi’s trees a British legacy. “The original intention was to have major avenues point in the direction of a particular feature, like a monument,” he once said. “The trees that lined the avenue would frame the monument. The British chose trees like the Peepal or sacred fig, the Neem or the Indian lilac, the Jamun or the Indian blackberry, and the Arjun tree.”
And so it came to be that both sides of Delhi’s grand Rajpath became home to the lovely large-canopied Jamun.
The tree, scientifically called Syzigium Cumini, Jambu Phalinda in Sanskrit, Jambu or Jamun in Hindi, or the Indian Blackberry in English, is one of the few trees indigenous to India, but can also be found in areas of Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. However, it is perhaps the only fruit I associate wholly and completely with India. To me, their histories are inextricably linked, and I know that sounds peculiar.
Fruit of the Gods
The leathery fruit holds a firm place in Indian mythology. Called the fruit of the Gods, it is said that Lord Ram lived on the jamun for years after his exile from Ayodhya. His skin is often compared to the slick texture of the fruit, and temples constructed in his honour will always house at least one jamun tree. Lord Megha – the God of the Clouds – is said to have descended onto Earth in the form of a jamun, which is why the colour of the fruit is as dark and stormy as the fierce monsoon clouds.
The ancient Puranas narrate the splitting of the cosmos into seven concentric island continents, at the centre of which was the Jambudvīpa, literally translating to “the land of the Jambu trees”. In the Viṣṇupurāṇa, these trees are described to be as large as elephants and when the fruit they bear becomes rotten and falls onto the mountainous ground, a beautiful river is formed from their rich purple juice.
The rather tall tree grows to the height of about 60-100 feet and due to its multi-branched crown shape, remains dense and shady throughout the year. It flowers in February and March and gives fruit once a year from May till July.
And though it has come to be synonymous with the grand British capital of New Delhi, the city’s bond with the jamun fruit can be dated much further back to 1332 AD, when the Arab historian Ibn Battuta visited India. In his Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, he writes about the trees being abundantly available around Delhi: “the Jamún is a small fruit resembling an olive, but sweet.”
For my grandmother, it has been her childhood companion. She fondly recalls the orchards that lined their ancestral lands in Muriali, Dera Ismail Khan (now in Pakistan). Revisiting her walks to the office in 1960, she tells me about how the vendors would gather around the trees lining India Gate, four men holding each corner of a large cloth placed strategically under the magnificent tree and how one would climb to the top and shake its branches vigorously. The ripe purple fruits would fall effortlessly onto the sheet and the still immature red or green variety would cling firmly to the branches.
That morning at breakfast, she collects all the seeds of the jamuns we had collectively polished off – dry, rough and greenish-mauve in colour – and carries them to the kitchen and lays them out to dry. Then like a seasoned practitioner of desi nuskhe, she begins to list out the medicinal qualities of the jamun.
“I eat one teaspoon of the ground seeds every morning. If you leave them out to dry, they will eventually turn black, but bake them for a while and watch how they last for years.” She shows me a glass bottle full of a powder of ground seeds and tells me that this is from last year’s fruit. Impressed, I raise my eyebrows.
“It is recommended for my diabetes, both the fruit as well as the inner bark. Jambolan – jamun vinegar – can be made to cure diarrhoea and other digestive problems. Pachan Shakti.” At this she gestures to the stomach, “strengthening digestion”.
She tells me about the delicate scented soaps, delicious Kalakhatta syrups, sherberts and ice creams made from jamun. Her face breaks into a wide smile and I can tell that our conversation has her drowned in the curious anecdotes accompanying this crimson-black fruit. Its grape-like texture, its bitter, slightly acidic taste has overcome her senses. Its earthy tinge has transported her from our present day life in the Capital, to the pre-partitioned Dera Ismail Khan to the Lutyen’s Delhi of the 1960s. Its deep purple colour has stained both her tongue and her memories.