Carol Andrade column: In praise of the Muzaffarpur leechee

Not a word! I will hear nothing against the Muzaffarpur leechee, surely one of God’s gifts to the world through Bihar, to make up for the hot, enervating loo of a northern Indian summer. When the ground would practically ring, like iron when subjected to high heat, when flesh dessicated after half an hour in the sun, when mothers threatened to break small kneecaps if one put a nose out of doors in the dread stillness of a May afternoon, there was always the leechee.

When one had finished one’s own share, carefully and jealously overlooked as numbers were counted out, there was the prospect of endless sporting delight at winkling out a few more hidden under a pillow. And there was the added delight of the process of actual ingestion of each promising red oval globe, the rough skin an endless appeal to the mind to just imagine the translucent flesh within… and to think it is being roundly maligned by the political ignoramuses in Bihar as the cause of those poor children dying of acute encephalitic syndrome.

For a couple of days, I was actually subjected to doubts about whether I could ever eat another leechee (yes, that’s the way we pronounced it, none of this litchi rubbish, you draw the word out like “darling”)… So okay, you guessed that I cut my leechee teeth in Bihar, thus forever being ruined to the pathetic offerings of the season in Mumbai, which, I should inform you, comes at the absolutely wrong time of the year, when it is raining cats and dogs.

To be enjoyed, the Muzaffarpur leechee must be bought in bulk, the way we did it. Nothing less than 100 a time, with at least 25 each apportioned to the children, leaving a generous 25 to be shared among the adults.

Each purchase would come in its own basket, long, straight stems considerably leaved and within, the deep red Muzzaffarpur leechee snuggling like nuggets in unpromising soil. You took them out each stem carrying a bunch ranging from two to many more, and examined them for firmness. You admired their rich colour, then opened up the hard outer skin by the simple expedient of pulling off the stem itself. Through the tiny opening created, you got the first scent of the fruit itself. Magical, said the adults. Like rose, said my mother, that’s what distinguishes these from every other. Like leechee, was my own thought, mild flavoured, aqueous, delicately rosy with faint notes of…who am I fooling, I just thought gimme more.

You got the skin off in one long peel if the fruit was at its peak. Then you admired its pearly translucence and popped the whole thing in your mouth, sucking it for a while in anticipation, before biting down, releasing the mild flavour, delicate rosiness etc etc. You sucked the seed for a while, already savouring the next one, before spitting it into your hand and hefting it. A good Muzaffarpur leechee has seeds that are small and flat, belying the size of the 40 gm fruit. Then you repeated this exercise 24 times.

My heart bleeds for the 146 children who have died so far of AES in Muzaffarpur. Coming from desperately poor families where hunger is a constant guest at non-existent meals, the litchi in the orchard becomes an enemy at this time, only because their systems are already impaired by malnutrition. Think of the irony of orchards filled with fruit that we can eat to satiety because we eat plenty of other food as well to balance the sweetness of the litchi so that blood sugar does not fluctuate.

The chief secretary of Bihar has gone on record to say awareness is being raised that children shouldn’t sleep on an empty stomach. Presumably, he means after eating litchi, raw, semi ripe, ripe, wherever they can get them in the orchards where their parents work. Someone please tell this thick-head that the reason they eat litchi is because they have nothing else to eat. For us, they’re leechees. For the poor, the death-dealing litchi.

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