Tree of My Life
I discovered the avocado when I moved to Bangalore first. Until then I had read about it only in South American novels. But the avocado I found in a shop baffled me. What did one do with it? This was before the time I had begun travelling or when the world was brought into our homes by cable tv. Someone told me you could eat it beaten with cream and sugar. I was offered a little bowl of the avocado cream to taste. It was disgusting. I put aside the avocado as an over-rated fruit.
About twenty years ago, I moved from a second floor apartment to a groundfloor one whch was a garden flat and the garden had a giant old avocado tree in it. I had begun planning my first novel The Better Man, But in the new apartment, I couldn’t find a place that was right for me to sit down and write. It was then I decided to build a little brick and stone bench under the avocado tree. It was a narrow strip of a garden but as all my gardens have been, I did away with the manicured look of lawns and flower beds and instead planted buffalo grass, bamboos, and had a waterbody in which there were more frogs than fish. Creepers grew but the avocado tree was the emperor of that garden and in its shade I began my literary career.
My first book had just been published and Darius from NDTV came to shoot a small snippet on me. As they were setting up, he walked to the garden and stopped in surprise at the avocado tree. “This is still here?” Heasked.
“Why?” I asked.
This land used to belong to a Mr Nariyalwaal and I used to play as kid under this tree. Even then it was an old tree. This must be at least a hundred years old.”
I smiled. I felt like the mother whose child in nursery school had just managed to recite a poem in full on the stage without forgetiing the words or bursting into tears.
He peered into the branches and said, “Look, there is plenty of fruit.”
My smile slipped. What on earth was going I going to do with a tree full of avocado when I couldn’t bear to eat even one?
But times had changed and I had begun both travelling and cooking widely. I had a slew of recipes. However I still was resistant to the idea of avocadoes.
Then a friend dropped in and I saw his mouth fall open at the tree of fruit. He asked for a knife and he chose a perfectly ripe low hanging fruit to pluck. I watched him slice through it and scoop out the giant seed. He used a spoon to scoop out the creamy yellow flesh and offered it to me. It was like eating the yolk of a boiled egg except that it was creamier. I sighed deeply. I was in love.
Over the next seven years I wrote two novels The Better Man and Ladies Coupe and two children’s books Who Let Nonu Out and World Myths & Legends and edited an anthology Where the Rain is Born under the avocado tree. During its season, I ate as many as I could and gave away the rest to friends who came back saying it was the best avocado they had eaten. Ever. Anywhere in the world.
I began growing the seeds in the pot. When I bought a piece of land to build my house, I planted the trees so when they grew tall, my study would still be under its shade. References to avocadoes began to appear in my journalistic writing. So much so when I went to Colombia and a former president of the country hosted a banquet in my honour, he had them prepare an elaborate dish called Ajiaco [ahiaco] which is built around the avocado. He smiled at me and said, “I know how much you like avocadoes!”
The rest of the guests gaped…. Its not everyday the president ( even a former one) of a country knows the favourite foods of a writer from across the world.
The old tree, the emperor, has been cut down by the owners of the flat. But in my garden, his children, the king and queen thrive. They now stand laden with fruit. But everyday a band of monkeys come and eat their fill and waste twice as much. They bite fruit that isn’t ready and throw them on the ground. I collect the fallen ones that are not ruined by the monkeys and ripen them. The seeds are planted into pots and when they are saplings I give them to dear friends to transplant into the ground.
As I write this I look at a small box on the table I write on. I call it the box of memories. In it are letters from 2005 to 2011 and the story of Khuswanth Singh and my avocado trees. I met him first in February 2002 and apart from everything else I fell in love with the way he had taken control of his time. If ever there was a still life of an author’s home, it was this: outside the door a board that said don’t ring the bell unless you are expected. The 8.30pm deadline when everyone knew it was time to leave. The early morning rising to write, the whisky, the egg sandwiches and the blazing fire in the fireplace. Editors, socialites, friends, acquaintances, social climbers, wannabe authors, all dropping in and embraced indiscriminately with an insouciance that came from knowing you can get away with anything because you are at an age where everyone indulges you… He liked my books and loved my eyes he said, with a wicked glint in his old but piercing eyes. I clung to that first comment like a talisman, and blushed at the second. You have attained immortality in your youth, he wrote to me later.
We discovered a mutual fondness for avocados and somewhere in 2007, he wrote me asking me to tell my avocado trees to hurry up. I am 93, he wrote.
That year I spoke to the avocado trees in earnest. You have to hurry up. I told them. Someone is waiting for you. I hung two broken bits of terracotta tile around their trunks so they didn’t forget. One read : Khush. The other read : Want.
Trees listen when you explain it to them. Next year, they bloomed and bore fruit and thereafter till 2012 I sent him avocados every year. He said they were the best he had eaten.
I would call in on him when I was in Delhi. But for the last three years of his life he wasn’t upto meeting guests. They exhausted him. I never saw him again.
Outside my study are the avocado trees. Each year when they bear fruit, I think of him. And today, I look at the trees with last of the fruit and think, “Here’s looking at you Khuswant!”
My favourite avocado salad
- 2 ripe avocados.
- 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 2 Tbsp to 1/4 cup of minced red onion or thinly sliced green onion.
- 1-2 serrano chiles, stems and seeds removed, minced.
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar
- 1 Tomato deseeded and cubed
- Lettuce leaves
In a medium bowl, mix apple cider vinegar into the onion and keep for an hour. Scoop out the avocado flesh , lime juice, and salt. Stir in Serrano chillies. Refrigerate 1 hour for best flavor. Add the lettuce and tomatoes before serving .