By Namrata Mehta

Ravi’s grandfather is a pioneer of some sorts. Several years ago, a muslim farmer he knew in Delhi encouraged him to start a Ber orchard in Kankrola, a village on the outskirts of Gurgaon, now rapidly being approached by industrialisation. Today the farm stands on 12 acres of land on which grows several varieties of Ber – some trees are over 50 years old – Guava, mustard and wheat. We first heard about the orchard from a newspaper article Soaib read. All we had to do was call up an acquaintance at a nearby golf course, inquire about a Ber farm in his area, and before we knew it we were taking a left turn off the Gurgaon-Jaipur highway, onto bumpy roads, and into the village of Kankrola.

Ravi studied Sanskrit at the Gurukul in Jhajjir, but unlike many of his classmates who went on to become teachers, Ravi returned home eight years ago, to tend to the orchard his grandfather had successfully established. Given his educational background, the fact that his father is a lawyer, his uncle a doctor, and his brother a professional body builder, it does surprise us that Ravi decided to take up Baghbani. The dishonesty and red tape in the courts didn’t suit him, he said, and he wasn’t interested in teaching Sanskrit – “hum zameen se jude hain” (I am attached to this land).

It has paid off. Ber from the orchard is famous for its size and sweetness all over Gurgaon and parts of Delhi. The Ber (ziziphus mauritians) is a sweet ovular shaped fruit that grows between January and March. We missed the Ber season by three days, and unlike other fruits it can not be frozen. None the less the fruit offered to us is bigger and sweeter than any we have had before. Ravi and one of his workers tell us that this is hardly as good as they get ”inko zero maan ke chalo” (consider them zero). We learn that a single Ber fruit from the orchard sometimes weighs up to 100 gms. As we walk around the farm, under the umbrella shaped trees, tiny twigs on the ground start to prick, and we realise it is a pretty thorny tree – a feature that is common to plants that grow in largely arid regions. A Ber tree needs about 100 sq ft to grow, and even though its water requirements aren’t too heavy, water appears to be one of the biggest challenges that the farm faces.

An electrical motor pumps up water that is used to water the orchard each morning, using a sprinkler system. When we are at the farm, two electricians from the Bijli Board (Electricity Board) are examining why the motor isn’t working. They walk about with a light bulb attached to a long piece of wire unable to identify the cause of the problem. Ground water tables have depleted since industrial development began in the surrounding areas, largely impacting what it is possible to grow on the orchard. Guava trees no longer grow on the land and have been replaced by Ber, Kinnu a form of citrus fruit no longer grows on the land either. Inconsistent and unreliable weather conditions don’t help the situation. Some years ago a hail storm destroyed all the crops. Each year people visit the orchard. They are gardening enthusiasts, employees or professors at the near by agricultural universities, or media representatives. Many are interested in setting up their own Ber farms. Ravi’s grandfather encourages them all, but “growing tress is equivalent to bringing up children”, and while many do start to grew Ber they give it up after 4-5 years. The analogy he draws is that of milking a cow, if it produces milk, you love it, if not you hit it.

Ravi seems to have overcome these challenges that deter most others, something he owes to his hard work, love for the trees and his grandfather’s blessings. It isn’t the same with many others from the village. Today the agricultural land around Kankrola is dissapearing for several reasons. Many villagers from Kankrola have sold their farmland to developers, or have been forced to give up their land to the government for the construction of roads. Still more have built boarding and lodging units of single rooms with attached bathrooms or kitchens, that they rent out to factory workers, BPO workers, security guards and drivers. According to Ravi and the electricians from the Bijli board, about 50% of those who sold their land for large sums of money wasted it on alcohol and cars. Ravi doesn’t think of the urban development in Gurgaon as progress ”vikas ke naam pe vinaash hone lag raha hai” (in the name of progress we are destroying everything). There is poison in the air and in the water, he says, and there is little use of progress that spreads sickness to future generations. The government has very little support for farmers and though they can help by not encouraging developers, they come around, eat Ber and leave. Seeing the way things are going, Ravi doesn’t think the future is bright for agriculture, and although he doesn’t wish to sell his land, he wouldn’t want this children to tend to it either.

As we sit in view of Ravi’s modest home amongst the Ber trees, and listen to him talk about the good luck that has been bestowed upon him, we learn that it is believed to be inauspicious to grow Ber at home. (perhaps for altogether different reasons, but…) Soaib is convinced that the story of the Ber tree, is the story of Gurgaon.