In what place will you get the following: lessons in liberal Indian medieval history; a charitable primary school run for village children, and the most delicious mangoes which will not only tickle the palate but also churn your belly at the suggestion of over-indulgence?
The answer lies north-east of the Indian capital along a bumpy road that winds its way through the western fringes of Uttar Pradesh – India’s largest state by population. The highway is a typical Indian state highway where the weirdest of motorised innovations jostle for space with man, animal, and motor vehicles of different shapes, capacity and antiquity. As always, there are streets sellers all along – even in patches where there is little habitation. These smaller highways, after all, are the sales windows to most of rural and semi-urban India.
Given the Indian diversity in the number of fruits grown, there is always a fruit which is available in abundance and at a pittance because of a lack of proper cold chain and adequate food processing units. It is the peak of summer and this is mango season. So the highway is strewn with bullock carts loaded with mangoes.
So where does one get the best mangoes of the region?
“Go to Rataul,” you are told. Rataul is a small settlement with a population of approximately 15,000, and that it is an important destination on the mango map of India is evident as people give more than adequate directions on how to reach the place without any thought. It almost appears that people know that the moment a car stops and a window is rolled down, the face with the quizzical look will invariably seek directions to Rataul.
The village is in the district of Baghpat – political and ancestral home to Charan Singh, India’s fifth prime minister who managed to stay in office by quirk of fate without ever facing Parliament for a single day. It now is his son Ajit Singh’s bastion. He is India’s civil aviation minister.
Recalling Baghpat’s link with this nugget of Indian history is not an exercise in futility as Zahoor Siddiqui is the one to greet us. He was a history professor for decades before retiring from Delhi University. But in our conversation we restrict the conversation to what brought us to Rataul – mangoes in which his family history played an important role and a school which he runs along with his wife to “give back something to society.”
For years one has heard about Rataul mangoes but never knew the story of their evolution. On a hot summer afternoon, the historian turned mango-cultivator and educationist says that the tryst of his village with mangoes began with his great-grandfather, Hakim-ud-Din Ahmad Siddiqui, who worked for the British government in colonial India. He liked mangoes and the job took him from one place to another. Whenever any variety of mango rested pleasurably on his palate, he secured a plant and got it sent to his village and planted in the orchard that he began developing.
By the early years of the 20th century, the orchard developed and got a name – Noor Bagh, Noor after his grandson Noor-Ud-Din Ahmad Siddiqui and Bagh for the Hindustani word for orchard. Within decades the place boasted of 300 varieties of mangoes. The fame spread and so did the clones. One particular narrative that has survived decades of Indo-Pak hostilities is a quaint one about General Zia-ul-Haq gifting Indira Gandhi a hamper of premium Pakistani mangoes named Anwar Rataul.
Popular lore has it that an agitated delegation from Rataul, went to complain that theirs was the real Rataul mango and the one which the general had carried from across the border was just a variant of the original one. As if to prove that the narrative was true, a small green ripe Rataul was handed over by Nisar, the manager who is introduced to us by Siddiqui as the real mango-cultivator. Without any doubt, this small mango was among the finest that one has ever tasted.
But mangoes give the village of Rataul only its touristy identity – without which it would be lost as just one of the many settlements in the dust bowls of Uttar Pradesh. What gives Siddiqui an identity beyond being just an inheritor of the orchard is Zahoor’s creation – Salma Public School which he established along with his wife Nishat Saiyada, a trained teacher who taught previously in a government run school before seeking premature retirement.
Siddiqui and Saiyada sound extremely proud when they say that out of almost 500 students almost forty per cent of the students in this primarily level school for pre-teenagers, are girl students. Since the students are primarily Muslim, it means a lot given the abysmal rate of female literacy among Muslims.
The school charges nominal tuition fees which barely cover the salaries of the teachers – but this is levied more because of the belief that education should not be free – there must be a desire in the family to educate children. The school has continued to run for the past two decades thanks to occasional contributions from friends and admirers and even volunteers who come in often to conduct workshops for teachers.
But constraint of resources is not the only hurdle. Siddiqui explains: “We do not look at our effort in isolation but as part of the overall growth and education of the child who comes to us.” His wife adds that a major concern has been to oversee the transition of children from their school to the secondary level school and then college. “The highest dropout rate is among girls when they are in the 4th or 5th standard (between 10 -12 years old) – families then want the girls back in the homes so they can contribute to the daily chores,” Saiyada says.
It is an uphill task no doubt. For both the famed mangoes of Rataul and the educational venture of the Siddiquis. The mangoes face the danger of losing out to more cultivated varieties as more and more orchards in the vicinity either stop replanting trees or their owners branch out to new areas and leave the orchards in the care of sub-contractors focused on yield for the year.
Like many other places in India where issues and tradition is undergoing a period of transition, Rataul and its mangoes are struggling to find acceptance beyond a handful of connoisseurs who regularly troop there every mango season with people like Sohail Hashmi, a Delhi-based cultural personality-cum-activist who also organises heritage walks and a few other ‘friends of Rataul’ who pass the word around. Of course, they are helped in spreading the love for Rataul mangoes thanks to Siddiqui who always welcomes guests with warmth year after year.
Those interested in further details may connect with Sohail Hashmi on his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/sohail.hashmi?fref=ts