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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Retracing the journey of ‘Indian’ apples

ormal learning must begin with fruit. Whether it is "a for apple" in English, "aa for aanar" in Hindi or "aa for aam" in Bangla, our text book writers have decided that all knowledge must begin with the taste of fruit. It is easy to spot the Biblical quotient in this education: a new life, punishment lest we forget, came to Adam and Eve after tasting the fruit of knowledge. And so for the primary schoolgirl. Not seed, not sapling, not spud, not branch, not flower, not any of the things that begin the reproductive process, but the fruit. Moral: begin with the telos.

Alma Whittaker, in Elizabeth Gilbert's novel, The Signature of All Things, challenges the popular belief that it was the apple that was the forbidden fruit. "It was either an apricot or a quince," she said. "More likely an apricot because quince is not so sweet as to have attracted a young woman's desire. One way or another, it could not have been an apple. There were no apples in the Holy Land ... and the tree in Eden is often described as having been shady and inviting, with silvery leaves, which could describe most varietals of apricot ..." But that is another story.

In a brilliant chapter on the history of the apple in North America, Michael Pollan, in his book, The Botany of Desire, traces the many routes that led to the canonisation of the apple in popular and religious consciousness. Central to Pollan's thesis is the belief that apples were desired primarily for their sweetness two hundred years ago, and therein his tracing the journey of the man who changed the destiny of apples in the United States — John Chapman, popularly known as John Appleseed. It was Appleseed, the man with his sack of apple seed, travelling to the Frontier, turning meadows into apple plantations and selling them to future settlers, who was responsible for making the apple "the American fruit", as Ralph Waldo Emerson called it. Pollan also traces the origin of an-apple-a-day rhetoric there: "The identification of the apple with notions of health and wholesomeness turns out to be a modern invention, part of a public relations campaign dreamed up by the apple industry in the early 1900s to reposition a fruit that the Women's Christian Temperance Union had declared on" because of the relation between apple "juice" and alcohol. 

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This journey, through many stops and with many inter-species marriages, from Kazakhstan to Kashmir, is one that has turned the Kashmiri apple into an “Indian fruit”.

gainst this background, it is interesting to see the journey made by our apples from Kashmir. Pollan believes that "the ancestor of the Malus domestica — the domesticated apple — is a wild apple that grows in the mountains of Kazakhstan". This journey, through many stops and with many inter-species marriages, from Kazakhstan to Kashmir, is one that has turned the Kashmiri apple into an "Indian fruit", a long distance cousin of Emerson's "American fruit". Given how easily crates of apples travel to the interiors of the country, it won't be a far-fetched joke to say that the Kashmiri apple travels with less bureaucratic constraints than a Kashmiri man. "Bill Clinton once called Kashmir the most dangerous place on earth," writes Basharat Peer in Curfewed Night. Does that danger leave a mark on its apples too?

                                                      Apples still come from Kashmir
                                                  pale pink in crates in winter's market.
                                              Each grew through the year till it absorbed
                                                the valley's sweetness and undertaste
                                                and reached its final shape and weight.
                                                They are not dead, but come to fruition.
                                                     When you bite them, not blood,
                                            but the valley's clear juice floods your mouth.

This is a poem by Amit Chaudhuri. As if to reverse the "a for apple" chronology, Chaudhuri places "Apples Still Come from Kashmir", right at the end of St. Cyril Road and Other Poems, his collection of poems published in 2005. Like a conscious gesture, a moral even, yes, fruit must come at the end.

But these apples are not apples alone: "the valley's clear juice floods your mouth". Apples in Kashmir must now always be metonymy. Here is Basharat Peer again: "And the apples in our orchards would be ready to be plucked, graded, packed into boxes of thin willow planks, and sold to an apple merchant. Village children stole apples; my brother and I would alternate as lookouts after school. Few stole from our orchard; they were too scared of my grandfather. 'If they steal apples today, tomorrow they will rob a bank. These boys will grow up to be like Janak Singh,' grandfather would say. Many years ago, Janak Singh, a man from a neighbouring village, had killed a guard while robbing a bank. He was arrested and sent to prison for fourteen years. Nobody had killed a man in our area for decades."

Recently, I read a newspaper report about "Apple Diplomacy" in Kashmir. It mentioned Rahul Gandhi's "Kashmiri lineage" and his "pink cheeks", describing them the way one would describe ripe apples. I do not know whether it was the Internet's prescience or algorithm that made a toothpaste advert appear below the article. In it, a girl's weak gums leave tell-tale bleeding signs on an apple that she has bitten into. "They are not dead, but come to fruition," writes Chaudhuri. That sign of blood on the body of the apple from Kashmiri must be a metonymy too.

I'd like to believe that apples still come from Kashmir. Even if, at Rs 200 a kilogram, it has become a forbidden fruit.

 
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