Every summer, a mournful, undulating call would rise, just for a few days of the year.
Phalse, kale phalse, thande meethe phalse..
(Phalse, black phalse, cool and sweet phalse).
The Phalsa is an Indian fruit that is available for a few short days before the monsoon hits the country. As fruits go, the phalsa would lose out from other bigger, fleshier fruit. We have so much hybrid fruit in the market now, that people value only the shiniest apples, the grapes with the smallest seeds, and mangoes which are sweet rather than with complex, sour notes. The Phalsa perishes very fast, unlike fruit grown to be carried over long distances.
If the rest of fruit-kind was to sit respectably in a classroom, the Phalsa would be the rebel standing outside. This is a fruit that’s neither sweet nor fleshy. It has a big seed. It is so small that the uninitiated would think: is this a fruit for a bird, or a person? Unlike Alphonso mangoes, seedless grapes or larger varieties of bananas, eating the phalsa is a lot of work. As you put it in your mouth, the seed will pit itself against your teeth. The fruit itself is sour, and so you mix it with something special.
The person who sells the Phalsa knows best what this something special is. Usually, phalsa is sold by an informal vendor. He will likely carry the fruit in a home-made, conical basket, kept on his head. When you ask for the fruit, he will reach into his pocket, cut a square of newspaper and deftly wrap up a black-grey masala like he’s rolling a pan.
It looks a lot like sand, and I have never understood what is in it. No other masala from a formal packet you buy off the shelf tastes the same. You take the masala home, that extra special something, and mix it with the phalsa. The whole thing starts looking like a semi-solid mass of purple with shades of wine, the darker parts gleaming blackly. Its an explosion of sour-spicy-barely sweet taste in your mouth.
There’s nothing quite like it. You would have just tasted a fruit that is eaten in a rather particular way, and one that is bursting not with sweetness, but with character.
I am telling you this, because today, people have forgotten both the phalsa and the phalsa-seller.
In wondering what to do for the environment, here is my advice: remember the words and customs of your childhood.
If you’ve started thinking about Phalsa at this point, you may start remembering other words too. The Bael, the wood apple which makes a better drink than cola in summer. The pink-white-red Karonda, a berry like fruit that makes a smouldering chutney. The yellow-green Ber, a fruit that birds and people love alike. The incredibly sour Amrakh, the Starfruit, with a tangy taste one can never forget.
Eating local has two benefits. You are eating food that has a small carbon footprint, and is suited for our climate. And, if you buy local, you give dignity to that seller who often waits for a season for an income. I want to see a world where the Phalsa seller has as much power as the Alphonso farmer.
Finally, knowing where we live, and what our soil and air can support, is a way to understand our place in the world. In this hot, mostly dry country, there is a reason some plants (and food items) have survived. They are evolved for this particular place. They are ancient. The phalsa grows even in poor soil. The Karonda, with its star-shaped flowers, can happily tolerate drought. These plants—these genes—deserve appreciation. To care for the environment, the simplest way to start is to observe what is local, what is indigenous, and then to appreciate it.
Through fruit and flower, we can learn what plant communities are around us, and look to preserve and grow them. Indian trees such as Jaal, Salai, Pakhad, Palash, Kullu, Kadam and Chudail-papdi need champions.
Cast your mind back to forgotten words from your childhood. And observe the landscapes around you. You’ll be surprised at what you find.
And: Imported fruit is great, but I’ll take a Phalsa shake.