‘Mango Man’ is the fruit’s foremost poet, philosopher, fan and scientist

‘Mango Man’ is the fruit’s foremost poet, philosopher, fan and scientist

India News


Theirs is a friendship of over half a century, the old man and his mango tree.

His days, spent with a monklike contentment knowing that each could be his last, are now largely reduced to the tree’s shade and the tree’s care.

The tree, at least 120 years old, was there long before Kaleem Ullah Khan, 82, first came to this field in Malihabad, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. And it will be there long after he is gone.

But Khan has spent a lifetime grafting hundreds of different kinds of mango onto this mother tree — and by doing so, he has grafted his own life story onto it as well.

His profound affection is obvious as he runs his hand over the bend of a cut in the tree’s bark as if caressing an old scar. He walks the nursery surrounding the tree with the care he would use in tiptoeing over sacred ground, as he checks on the new saplings, readied to be sold far and wide. He has moved his bedroom to the edge of the nursery; he has stored the planks for his own future coffin nearby.

“If you look at it from a distance, it’s a tree. But when in fruit, you are in awe — what is this show?” he said, pointing to the tree’s dense branches that curled out like the tentacles of an octopus. “If you see through your mind’s eye, you will see that this is at once a tree, an orchard, and most importantly it is a college for the world’s mangoes.”

Mango has been not only been Khan’s livelihood, but his identity. He has gained national, even global, fame as the “mango man” for his decades of experimentations.

The kinds of mango grafted over decades of work on branch after branch of the mother tree, now drooping with the sweet fruit, are so many that he struggles to remember all their names.

There is the NaMo mango, named after Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, when he swept to power with the promise of growth and development for India; a mango named after the Sachin Tendulkar, who led India’s national cricket team and is thought of as one of the sport’s outstanding batsmen; another named after the legendary Mughal-era dancer and courtesan Anarkali, whose story is told in many tales and films. The pulp of each side of an Anarkali mango has a different color, different aroma and different flavor.

One of Khan’s earliest varieties is named after Aishwarya Rai, the actress and model crowned Ms. World in 1994.

For his efforts, the Indian government awarded him one of the country’s highest civilian honors, the Padma Shri, in 2008.

Khan is philosophical about the fruit, and obsessive — like a scientist who, at the end of a lifetime of discovery, is resigned to the vastness of those still beyond his reach. He repeats to anyone and everyone his faith in the fruit’s infinite potential.

On a recent afternoon, he left the nursery to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Yogi Adityanath, the powerful chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Khan was hoping to get a minute with Modi, the guest of honor, to make a pitch about what he is dedicating the remaining days of his life to: an effort to prove that extracts from the mango flower and the tree’s sap (which he adamantly refers to as “the tree blood”) can cure anything from impotency to heart disease.

But he never made it to the event, stuck in a traffic jam.

“My intention was to announce there that five men who are having strength problems — I will cure them for free,” he said, referring to erectile dysfunction.

Khan’s view of the mango — that we are all fleeting, but that the fruit is almost eternal — embodies the passion for it found across much of India. The country is the world’s largest producer of mango, much of it consumed domestically, often during heated debates about which region produces the most delicious variety, or how exactly the mango should be eaten. Sliced? Cut into cubes? Or slowly squeezed to pulp in your fist and then the juice — sweet, tangy, vibrant — sucked out of it through a hole at the top?

“We come, we eat mangoes, and we leave the world,” Khan said. “But as long as the world is there, this fruit will be there.”

He was born in 1940 in Malihabad, where his father, Abdullah, ran the tree nursery and raised 11 children.

The son was a distracted and miserable student. Before the news of his failing seventh grade — for the second time — reached his father, Khan packed a basket of mangoes and took a predawn train to his grandmother’s village about 200 miles away.

“I stayed there 17 days so I don’t get a beating,” he said with a smile. “When I came back, I quietly joined my father at the nursery. He didn’t say anything.”

That was the beginning of the son’s life of experimenting with the fruit: crossbreeding, grafting branches, growing new saplings.

One of the earliest trees he experimented on as a teenager dried up soon after, leaving him scarred — and with questions he wanted to answer. But it would be decades before he could return to grappling with those mysteries, as he had to focus on the nursery’s commercial work, to raise and support his own family.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that he turned his attention again to developing new kinds of mangoes, mainly on the 120-year old tree to which he has grown so close.

The tree’s original type of mango — the “Asl-e-mukarar,” which translates to something like “the original, repeated” — is named after a tradition in local poetry readings where the audience, with shouts of “Mukarar, Mukarar,” requests a favorite line to be read again.

Khan continued to graft onto the old tree, eventually producing 300 kinds of mangoes — each varying in color, size, taste, density and aroma. His method is exacting. First he carefully slices a wound into one of the tree’s many curling branches, then he inserts a piece cut from the branch of another type of mango tree and ties them together so they generate new tissue.





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