India's rich and poor alike enjoy 'people's fruit'

For two weeks, Mercedes and rickshaws ply New Delhi's streets to buy jamun from enterprising families who come to harvest and sell.

The monsoon rains are clearing the New Delhi air of dust, and putting an emerald sheen on the stately jamun trees that line the wide boulevards designed by Edward Lutyens in the 1920s. For 50 weeks a year, the jamun trees provide gracious shade and aesthetic pleasure to capital dwellers.

But in early July, the trees do more. They yield a small and unusual plum-like fruit that turns the fashionable streets of Janpath and Ashok into a drive-up, open-air market. Hundreds of jamun sellers, children, and grandparents line the road, tending little piles of the ripe black plums that fall from above.

Business is brisk. Shiny Mercedes jockey with sputtering auto rickshaws and wily scooters to park and partake of the fruit, which goes for about 20 cents a pound.

Fruitwise, it must be said, the jamun is nothing extraordinary, The plums don't command the culinary clout of your top-shelf seasonal delicacies like mango or pear. Jamuns look like a cross between an olive, a plum, and a cherry, and have an oversized seed and an ambiguous, grapey taste that variously chemicalizes in the mouth between slightly sweet and slightly sour. Locals dip it in salt.

No one has ever heard of a jamun orchard, making it something of an egalitarian "people's" fruit. In fact in Punjab, the northwest Indian state, it is known as "the poor man's fruit."

In just this sense, the roadside jamun scene is an example of the small but well-defined stitching in the complex social and economic tapestry called India.

Jamun sellers are not local riffraff. They come mostly from a single town, Meerut, in neighboring Uttar Pradesh. Entire families camp out under the trees to guard the fruity manna that falls during the brief two-week harvest. Most are subleasing a tree or two from a jamun mogul in Delhi, who pays the city for rights to the trees around India Gate, where they mainly grow. Especially for the children from Meerut, the annual trip to downtown Delhi is something extraordinary - and their delight adds to the festive spirit.

Some don't go back to the farm. Conditions in Meerut are awful, says Sri Krishna, a placid young man who sits on his haunches for hours across from the National Museum of Art. So now Mr. Krishna stays in Delhi, where he makes and sells baskets in the old city. Hawking plums, he nets about 120 rupees, or $2.70 a day - princely, as far as he is concerned.

About 4 p.m., a city police truck drives along the road. The officers warn of rush-hour traffic, and check permits to ward off unauthorized plum sellers. Some of the officers buy a handful of the fruit, chatting with whomever is on the scene. The weather and the streaky, burnished-yellow sunsets have been so nice lately.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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