Those labour days

mandavi mehta | Updated on April 18, 2014 Published on January 31, 2014

Blooming dale Spring blossoms will soon bedeck the apple trees in Thanedar - Mandavi Mehta


Remembered pleasures of a ‘working holiday’ in Thanedar, when the apple trees were laden with fruit

August 15 is a big day in Himachal Pradesh. While the rest of the country gears up to hear the Prime Minister speak from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the state prepares for the unofficial beginning of the apple season. For about a week before that, you see empty 16-wheeled “trollas” huffing and puffing up the mountain roads, with licence plates bearing witness to long journeys from Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra, West Bengal and every other State in between.

I have lived in Shimla for five years, been a bemused bystander to endless apple-talk — it’s another language altogether — but I had never witnessed the apple season firsthand. So I decided to go to a friend’s orchard in Thanedar, the birthplace of the Himachali apple, and lend a ‘helping’ hand. I had visions of sitting on a sunny slope — gorgeous green hills all around me — while an apple-laden branch helpfully lowered itself into my wicker basket.

Today, it’s hard to imagine the higher altitudes of Himachal without apples, but they were only introduced here in 1916 by an American from Philadelphia named Samuel Evans Stokes. Stokes came to India as a young missionary of 22 to work in a leprosy centre in the state. Over time he grew apart from the missionary organisations that had brought him to the hills, but his attachment to the Kotgarh area had grown by then. So he decided to buy some land in the small village of Thanedar, marry a local girl and settle down. Increasingly drawn to Hinduism, he converted in 1932 and adopted a new name, Satyanand. A remarkable man in his own right, he was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi’s, and a freedom fighter who was once imprisoned by the British for his pro- independence stance.

Steep terrain and limited transport links had made the upper hills of Himachal economically backward. To boost the local economy, Stokes decided to import new varieties of the apple being developed in the US, which he thought would be suited to the local climate. He brought in saplings of Golden, Royal and Red Delicious apples, grew them on his own land, and once they took root, he distributed them to the villagers. This was the start of the apple revolution that today fetches an annual revenue of about ₹3,000 crore every year.

I have been to Thanedar many times. It is beautiful in every season, but particularly so in March and April when the apple trees are in full bloom, laden with clusters of pink-tinged white flowers as far as the eye can see. Just before they put on their show, you have the apricots and cherries dabbing splashes of pink blossom over the hillsides, one pale and the other dark pink. I have stood and stared down the hillside to where the Satluj shines at the bottom of the valley and tried to imagine what this place must have looked like before apple cultivation; before the steep slopes were terraced, before the trees bloomed, before long lines of nets snaked down its length.

I still remember the four days I spent apple-picking and helping out at the Seetalvan orchard last season (between August and September). The usual two-and-a-half-hour drive from Shimla to Thanedar was slow going because of truck traffic, until we reached the town of Theog, where the road branches off to Jubbal and Kotkhai — areas with a greater proportion of new plantations. We drove on, past the town of Narkanda and onwards to Thanedar through a sublime forest of spruce, fir and yew. A bend in the road at edge of the forest, and it hit us. First the nose. A delicate fragrance of apples laced the air. Then the eyes. Everywhere you looked were trees bent over, virtually to the ground, with thick clusters of apples — mostly red, interspersed with trees bearing green and golden fruit. The sheer quantity of fruit in every orchard was staggering, and this was supposed to be a bad season with unseasonable hail — an increasingly frequent phenomenon — that had destroyed a sizeable part of the crop in this area.

There was a pressing sense of activity all around, a sense usually missing from these tranquil parts. Blue plastic crates and the more traditional kiltas (woven conical baskets of bamboo) were piled along the roadsides. Commission agents called aarthis had also set up temporary stalls by the road. We walked into one of these to hear the bidding take place on a consignment. Buyers and transporters or ladanis from around the country huddled around the agent, surrounded by towering cases of apples, as sample boxes were opened. An entire year’s work — pruning, grafting, digging, tilling, grass cutting, manuring, transplanting, spraying, netting — all came down to this, right here. Sadly, I missed the infamous ‘hanky-panky’ — the system of hidden bidding conducted under a handkerchief, accompanied by cryptic hand signals.

The apple season has always been heavily dependent on migrant labour as thousands of crates of apples have to be carried up or down steep slopes to road heads. Most of this labour arrives from Nepal or from the lower hills of Himachal, and occasionally, from Bihar, but the Nepalis are considered unmatchable for their strength and stamina. Unfortunately, the numbers of Nepalis coming for the season has been declining precipitously, much to the despair of orchardists. My friend’s orchard was facing a shortage of hands too, so my inexperienced ones were immediately put to good use.

Each day began at 7 am and ended at 7 pm I cut waist-high grass that was strangling laden branches with a fancy machine that was immensely satisfying to use. I shooed away a huge gang of monkeys who arrived to demolish the apples (good monkey-chasing dogs are more valuable than gold here, with many a story of feuds triggered by gaddi dogs lured away from one house to another). I supported overburdened branches on jhinchus or crutches to lift them off the ground. I tentatively climbed trees and deliberated endlessly about which shade of red apple seemed ready to pick, then reached to tug at one, while a dozen other much ruddier apples showered down upon me. I then cowered in shame under my tree and prayed that no one had heard or seen, as fallen apples develop bruises that show up a day or two later, and are discarded. I sat under the tree and feverishly ate said apples so they wouldn’t go to waste!

After a few hours on the field, you discover your own steady rhythm — your feet feel surer on the ground, your hands steadier and your eyes sharper. Even your back stops aching. You start to feel strong and capable, rather than a waste of space. You are actually doing something. At the end of four days, I had lost 2kg and my city-slicker hide. I was also armed with a newfound respect for the humble apple — a fruit, that so far, I had bought and eaten without much thought.

mandavi mehta is an art historiana happy transplant to the hills of Himachal Pradesh. She is also a schoolteachernovice apple-picker.

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Published on January 31, 2014
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