Ranju is a busy woman today, even busier than our own Modi ji as she claims.
She has no time for guests or anybody; even a Devta wouldn’t be entertained- for it’s the first day of the much-awaited ‘Apple season’.
A tiny easy-to-miss village on way to Manali is bustling and so are other hamlets in the Kullu valley. People here are buried in work- carrying crates full of glossy red apples, some busy grading and some packaging.
The frolicsome kids following them and the even more playful Gaddi dogs following the kids. In the front are strings of mountains with patches of sprawling thick apple orchards, a long narrow road dividing it into two and a rather muddy Beas river, above which is the famous ’15mile bridge’- a favorite of directors from Bollywood.
“For an apple grower, autumn is the best and the most crucial time of the year.”
A Day before: Vinod and Ranju devise and arrange work for the month ahead. They distribute tasks and roles to each laborer and themselves for efficient results. Each task is further broken down into detailed steps from plucking the fruit and then carrying. A tent is set up for grading and packaging.
That morning, Ranju woke up before dawn to neaten the house, prepare ‘halwa’ along with breakfast and arrange for all the articles and commodities requisite for pooja. Vinod, the head member of family, after a quick shower is also ready. Both worship the ‘kul’ and the local-devta. After this pooja, Vinod plucks the first apple of the season and a few more to present it to both devta’s as ‘prasad’.
And thus the apple season begin’s for Ranju and Vinod. For some it may start the same day and others depending on the ripeness of fruit and convenience. Ranju distributes the cardamom flavored hot ‘halwa’ topped with dry fruits to family members first and then to the laborers hired for the days job. Subsequently breakfast is served to all for there is hard work ahead in the day to do.
The apples are hand plucked on basis of their color, the redder ones picked first before being carried in a traditional conical shaped wooden ‘kilta’ is a task done with utter caution. Vinod diligently supervises and guides the laborers about how to pick the fruit. One needs to oversee that those involved in fruit picking should not have long nails was it injure and damaged the apples.
Its been few years now, since Vinod and Ranju made a switch to standard size cartons sold by Himfed to avoid loss and exploitation by middlemen- a serious move taken by the government. One person along side grades the apples in accord with their size, as they are brought in.
The Midday and Evening
Ranju, a tad bit tired, is ready with tea followed by lunch at around 1:00 pm. Sometimes the tea is served at 12:00 and lunch at 1:00. In a close knit community, this is kind of a social gathering and a celebration. However with time the trend is fading away since with increasing labor and other costs, farmers find it more profitable to give the orchard on contracts. However, Vinod has some other reason for this-‘ Aaj kal sab laalchi ho gaye hain’, he says in dispair.
The toiling continues and ends at 5 pm with a cup of ‘chai’.
The process is repeated for every day that the crop is harvested from the orchards. Once packaged according to quality, size and colour, the first batch of apple boxes are ready to be marketed. Loaded onto carriers (truck or pick up) then they are dispatched to big markets in metros, smaller mandi’s or auctioned at the local markets.
This is purely a decision of the apple consignment owner. The apple harvest is one long process without a holiday till the last apples have been dispatched to the market for being sold. The last day is feasting time. The labour, graders and packers are all served home cooked mutton with rice for dinner.
For Ranju and Vinod, the years harvest hold good prospects of fetching good prices in the market. For one, the crop was not damaged by summer hailstorms that can often devastate apple orchards in Himalayan valleys and secondly with the production expected to be lower than the previous year, a surging demand is expected to give better prices. Ranju is very busy, yet happy.
Note: The process and tradition may differ depending upon the place, size and capacity of a orchard and orchard owner. The day recorded in this report reflects a day in the life of a marginal apple farmer during harvest time..