Walking down many of the leafy lanes of Central Mumbai or for that matter any other city in India, this season, one cannot miss the purple violet splats on the street and pavements as little plum-like fruits lie squashed and trampled upon. These are obviously over-ripe fruit, that cannot hold onto the woody branches and crash down in the mild pre-monsoon winds. The fruits grow out of inflorescences and though common people sometimes refer to these as black berries, because of its dark skin, almost black and small size – this is not black nor is it a berry. It is actually closely related to the Indian king of fruits, the Mangifera, as this woody stemmed tree flowers as an inflorescence and the fruits have single “stones” as seeds with the pulpy flesh surrounding it. The difference lies in the size, with these fruits averaging an inch or two in length; the colour – deep purple or violet against the golden yellow and the sweetness quotient – the mango being far sweeter than this purple cousin. Though native to the Indian peninsula, and surrounding countries, it found its way to other continents through Indian migrants, so it is not unusual to see these fruit laden trees in East African summers or Malay twin summers. Though noble in colour, given the perishability, this fruit is not particularly expensive nor craved for; but health benefits have pushed up the demand of this tart and mildly sweet fruit as an antidote to diabetes. And interestingly, the stony seeds which are edible too, are considered more healthy.
This fruit finds interesting place in our history and mythology, including being the staple food for Rama during his exile. The story I find very interesting is what my title above is all about. It is set in the Sangam period in present day Tamil Nadu, in a forest near Madurai. Avvaiyar, a poet and litterateur would travel across the kingdom singing her poems and spreading the richness of the Tamizh language. And on one such sojourn, she was passing through this forest on a hot summer afternoon. Tired and weary, she looked for shade under a large tree. She was surprised to see a local village boy sitting atop the tree happily eating some fruits. She looked up, tired, hungry and thirsty and asked the boy for some. The boy’s immediate question was “do you want the roasted fruits or the unroasted one?”. Avvaiyar was surprised to hear of “roasted fruits” – so she questioned the boy on how he could pick “roasted fruits” from a tree. The boy chuckled and repeated his question slightly impatiently. Avvaiyar wanted to test the cheeky lad, so she asked for the roasted fruits. The boy immediately shook a branch, and down fell a cluster of fruits, scattering on the dusty ground. Avvaiyar picked up a fruit, and to dust off the soil, she blew on it, and gingerly put it into her mouth, (just in case it was indeed “roasted”). She looked up at the boy, and said that for a roasted fruit, it was not warm, and that the boy was a prankster. But the boy innocently looked at her and asked her, “but did you not blow it just as you would to cool a hot roasted fruit?” And that is when Avvaiyar realised that this was no ordinary boy. So she reverentially looked up and asked him, “who are you?” The boy revealed his real form, he was Muruga the lord, son of Shiva. He was testing old Avvaiyar, and through this interaction urging her to continue her quest for knowledge, as she had not learnt everything. This egged Avvaiyar on to keep writing and contributing richly to Tamil Literature. Today, you can visit the place, where this interaction reportedly occured – at Pazhamudircholai, where a temple dedicated to Murugan is widely visited and a shrine devoted to Avvaiyar in the complex takes you back to the Sangam period, with a Fruit Tree bearing witness to this day.
Of course, since this is an indigenous fruit, there are many Indian names to it – mostly related to its colour purple; though the Portuguese explorers of the 14th and 15th Century dubbed this the “Malabar Plum”. Of course, the Dutch who found this fruit in Indonesia called it the Java Plum. You have guessed it right, it is the Jambul, or Jamun or Naavl Pazham.
Did you have any this summer?