A reticent, velvety darkness still loomed over when Mohanchandra Pradhan—fondly referred to as Vakilsahib or Pradhanji by loved ones—stepped out of his bungalow on a prematurely frozen October morning. The previous day’s snowstorm had cast a white blanket over the lofty Himalayan peaks guarding Rangpo, a secluded hill station in Sikkim.
“Chotu,” Pradhanji called out to the servant boy, hurriedly stepping back in, his spine stiff from the fleeting exposure to cold. “Bete clean out the pavement quickly. I mustn’t be late.” He blew air in his cupped palms, rubbing them together to generate heat and placed the hands over his ears first, then his cheeks. It wiped out the tilak on his forehead from the early morning puja.
The boy brought out plow and shovel and gingerly moved ice off the walkway, his face safeguarded in a monkey cap. Pradhanji stepped onto the hand-pulled rickshaw that had been waiting at the gate, his knees numb despite three woolen layers and a shawl, and directed him to the bus station. It was a twenty-minute ride through the town, naturally landscaped with the majestic, snow capped Kanchenjunga, alpine meadows, waterfalls, passes, valleys, perennial rivers and glaciers. Pradhanji had spent a lifetime here. Each solitary ride through it brought a sparkle to his eye.
The rickshaw pulled up in front of the bus station terminal where Pradhanji boarded a bus to Siliguri. It was circa 1965. An old acquaintance of Pradhanji from Siliguri had organised a regional farming convention and had insisted Pradhanji attend. The convention was an outdoor one set up in an outsized farm with myriad tents filling up the space. Farmers and vendors had gathered from the state to sell a wide assortment of plants and plant-derived products. Pradhanji was overwhelmed, a little lost even, never having been to an event of this magnitude. His acquaintance took Pradhanji on a quick tour and dropped in at a corner tent where a farmer was assertively selling petite apple trees to onlookers. “My friend owns a lot of land in the north,” his acquaintance disclosed unwarranted information to the farmer, pointing at Pradhanji. The overenthusiastic farmer jumped at the opportunity, spoke in one breath and divulged all he knew about apple farming. Pradhanji felt framed by the two men. A bout of discomfort followed. He wanted to turn away.
“These are specialty trees, dai. Wild apples, but not crabapples. Gooliyo. Mitho. They’re much sweeter.” The farmer badgered with his sales pitch. “They’re from Lachen. Our people say they’re so sweet because they’re ripened by the sunrays that Kanchenjunga reflects. I can guarantee that they would bear 140–150 kgs of fruit per year way before maturity.” He coaxed Pradhanji into trying a sample, his eyes bright and expectant.
Reluctantly, Pradhanji acceded to the offer and picked up two freshly cut slices. “Badhiya!” He uttered, savoring them. “These are as sweet as Imarti.”
“Told you, dai. These are specialty trees. You won’t find them easily.”
Intrigued, Pradhanji bought fifteen apple trees and brought them back with him to Rangpo, buying extra tickets for the entire last row in the bus, stacking them against the back of the bus, constantly safeguarding them.
Having recently inherited extensive farmland, Pradhanji was scouting for ideas to put it to good use. The living space he had more than sufficed his and his family’s needs. So he involved a cultivator friend and had all the pieces of land inspected. The friend handpicked the most fertile land for the apple trees and taught Pradhanji how to plant and care for them.
Even though still young and not spread out enough, the apple trees bore fruits the next spring. The farmer evidently hadn’t overpromised. Within the first month of fruit bearing season, Pradhanji reaped about ten kgs of apple. They were the brightest ruby red, the color of pomegranate, juicy yet taut, delectable, just like the sample one he’d tasted before. The word spread rapidly across certain neighbourhoods in Rangpo. First came the neighbours, then the relatives, then his son’s classmates; it was an endless loop. Pradhanji was ecstatic. Motivated by the joy he could share via homegrown produce, he had several other fruit trees planted in his orchard.
One fateful morning when Pradhanji reached his orchard, the sight he was confronted with startled him. About half of the apple trees had gone missing. Pradhanji winced. Being in denial, he scurried through the endless strip of land to see if they been miraculously shifted spots. No such luck. Pradhanji sprinted back to their original spots, his face jerking in random directions, trying to fathom it all. Upon closer inspection, the trees seemed to have been carefully uprooted. In a town he considered his extended family it was hard to imagine anyone resorting to this lowly act. Crimes, big and small, were almost unheard of in Rangpo. Pradhanji was puzzled but Badri, his hotheaded son, was miffed. “Find them and punish those thieves, baba,” he fervently appealed. A calm Pradhanji laughed. “Let them steal, Badri. It’ll give me an excuse to plant some more.”
Pradhanji tracked down the farmer who’d sold him those apple trees, made a trip to Lachen and bought dozens more. He had proof now that these were the finest in the region. And he had learnt the tricks of cultivation as well. But history repeated itself. More specialty apple trees were stolen from his orchard once again. The saga continued for months.
“Until when will we suffer, baba?” Resentment and disappointment on Badri’s face were hard to miss. Pradhanji comforted him, an easy calmness radiating from his forehead. “We’re not suffering, Badri. Leave the thieves alone. Let them carry on until they fill up their orchards. Eventually they’ll run out of space and stop stealing.” He reassured with compassion, warmth and pulled Badri’s cheek lightly to make him smile. “And it’s good for Rangpo in any case. More apples for everyone to eat. Right?”
Unable to comprehend Pradhanji’s philosophy and magnanimity, little Badri made a face and pulled a blanket over it.
Badri’s confidant and Pradhanji’s neighbour, a resourceful man, got the wind of the ongoing orchard theft. When the neighbour probed, Pradhanji simply avoided the topic and suggested everyone move on. But Badri egged on the neighbour and in less than a week, with much snooping around, the two thieves were brought in front of Pradhanji. Rakesh and Prakash, brothers, greedy, lazy, dressed in dhoti and sweaters, stood with their eyes lowered and asked for forgiveness. Badri watched from behind the curtain the shamed faces of the thieves. Munching on freshly plucked guavas topped with red chili powder, Badri was hoping for a colossal drama to unfold. Familiar with his father’s temperament, he didn’t expectsevere punishment but hoped that the barrister side of his father would preside and the thieves would get some scolding at the very least if not a warning or a threat. Instead, Pradhanji patted their backs and asked, “Are the apples any good?” They hung their faces low, their hands folded.
“‘Forgive us, Pradhanji. We are so sorry.” One of them spoke in a trembling voice, almost inaudibly.
“It’s all right. There’s no need to be ashamed. I’m happy that you shared the joy. But next time you need something, just ask.” Pradhanji warned with his forefinger.
Tears streamed down Rajesh’s face, big, relentless. Prakash’s lips quivered and so did his hands. Pradhanji placed a soothing hand on their shoulders, one after another, and blinked, forgiveness etched in his eyes. The men took off after apologising several times.
Just as Pradhanji was about to leave the orchard, the chappal on his right foot was stuck on to a sharp object from underneath. It disoriented him slightly. “O teri,” Pradhanji quickly stepped out of his footwear and attempted to pick it up. The shoe seemed stubbornly stuck.
“Badri, help me out bete.” Badri put the three eggs and four aloo paranthas from his breakfast earlier to work and yanked the shoe out with all his might.
“Baba, look!” Badri spoke in wonder. “There seems to be a knife underneath.” Badri called out to the farm workers who came running with their tools; sickles, shovel and secateurs. The knife was stuck between two rocks in the soil and it took some time and effort to uproot them. Then one of the workers pulled it out only to find out there was more to it than just a knife. He cleaned it with his vest and handed it to Pradhanji. Pradhanji put the weathered object in his wide palm and narrowed his eyes to scrutinise it. It looked like an ivory keychain style pocketknife with a black nylon sheath. The ivory was scrimshawed with a shloka in Sanskrit engraved over it.
Kashm bal ashanktana bhushanam kshama
Kashm vashikrute loke ka ki shmayna sadhyate
Pradhanji instantly knew what that translated to. Forgiveness is the strength of the weak and the ornament of the strong. When the entire world can be conquered by forgiveness, what can’t be accomplished by it?
The peach under eye circles on Pradhanji’s face turned a shade dark, his face somber. A wave of familiarity swept him over. It was a keychain owned his father. A family vacation, Haridwar, a small shop selling natural stones next to the river bank, the shopkeeper refusing to engrave a long shloka on the ivory shaft, his father being persistent; it was a distinct memory. Pradhanji ran a smooth finger over the shloka, a lump forming in his throat and closed his eyes, memories from yesteryears filling up his heart. He kissed the keychain and bowed his face to touch it with his forehead, paying respect, experiencing the magic touch of his father’s hand on his head blessing him, basking in the joy of this accidental phenomenon.
It had been three years since Pradhanji had lost the battle to diabetes but his presence was still palpable. On the dining table, in the black barrister coat that hung—slightly wrinkled—on his bedroom wall, in the wooden rocking chair on the terrace, in the foggy mornings at the orchard; he was unmistakably there. Just like the apple trees, Badri had taken onto responsibility at a young age. He looked after the land, his mother and his younger siblings, juggling it with his education.
One morning he came across an announcement in Sikkim Herald about a regional food fair in Gangtok. It caught his fancy and he set off on a journey to explore. That’s how he was built; impulsive and impatient.
It was a massive food fair with everything from dried Kashmiri chilies to dried Nepali lapsi and from Himalayan salt to Himalayan goji berries. Badri thoroughly enjoyed discovering the unique flavors, layouts and packaging. The fruit section had myriad products on display: juices, preserves, jams, stuffed rolls, dried fruit, biscuits. There hadn’t been even half an entrepreneur in the family but it got him thinking; what if he could start a small-scale business to make edible products out of apples? His orchards had about 600 trees now, 350 of which were the specialty apple trees. Nothing substantial was being done with the enormous produce other than selling it to the local wholesaler. He extended his stay in Gangtok by a few days and put himself on task immediately. He researched, found collaborators, distributors and charted out a plan.
Six months later, when his small factory sealed the first bottle of apple jam, he held it in his hand and wept uncontrollably. Pradhanji would have been immensely proud.
Soon the news of his factory, machinery and products spread all across Rangpo.
“Two people are here to meet you.” A laborer told Badri who was supervising one of the machines in his factory.
When Badri walked to the entrance, he nearly had an anger fit looking at Rakesh and Prakash, the apple tree thieves, who looked beat by the years.
“What the hell are you two doing here?” He hadn’t expected them to ever come face to face, especially on his turf.
“Calm down, Badri. We’ve heard great things about your factory.” Rakesh patted Badri on the back and smiled. Badri recoiled and shook his hand off. Unaffected by that physical reaction, Prakash continued his pitch. “The thing is, we also have large orchards with a huge throughput of fruits. We’d love to do what you’ve done. We were hoping to get some information.”
“Bastards,” Badri became a man possessed. “Wait till I show you.” He jumped into his jeep, scurried off to his factory, took a few men with sickles in his jeep and headed towards Rakesh and Prakash’s orchards. In a heartbeat, he had his men destroy the terrain. Every tree cut half way through the trunk lay lifelessly on the ground. Savagely brutal, his acts were giving him a closure he’d forgotten he wanted ever since he was a kid. Then he had his men pluck as many apples as were reachable from the fallen trees and throw them in a container. The brothers, unsuspecting, unaware, reached the disaster spot right then, their modest houses adjacent to it. The orchard was on a cliff. Badri yelled, snatched the container and tossed a huge chunk of fresh apples with all his might. From up above, it’d look like a trail of blood flowing down the hill. “This is what you get for stealing our trees.” He spoke with irrepressible rage to the brothers.
“You shouldn’t have done this.” Prakash, now in his fifties, said in a gloomy tone, collapsing on the damp earth, his hands cupping his head. His eyes were teary. “Your father had forgiven us.”
“But I hadn’t.”
Good times had modestly hinted at their arrival. The first shipment of apple jams and dried fruit was being meticulously prepared at the factory. Badri was as excited as a little boy with paper boats during the first shower of the season and nervous all at once. It had been an enormous learning curve with no expert eye to guide him. He’d taken decisions mostly based on hunches all through the process. The instruction manual stated that 100 kgs of apples could technically produce 50 kgs of jam or 10 kgs of dried fruit. He had about 2500 kgs of apples to work with.
He’d been waiting impatiently, walking around speedily in his undersized factory, keeping an eye on the machine that filled the jam bottles. Dried fruit had been extracted and packed in large brown boxes, numbered and stacked upon each other. Jam was all he was waiting for. He intently watched the small squarish bottles go through the assembly line, neatly laid out on the conveyer belt, equidistant from each other, mechanically stopping, being filled by cone like machine tips, being sealed and labeled. He picked up one bottle from the topmost brown box and read the label yet again. Dried Apple Slices, Pradhan & Son, Rangpo, Sikkim. He heart swelled with pride and a smug smile flickered on his lips as he stared at it.
There were still about a hundred bottles to go. All Badri wanted was to pack them in his jeep and drive off to Gangtok where he was to deliver it to the distributor. He’d been promised a two-year contract based on his first delivery. “Great taste, high quality packaging and the agreed upon quantity—none of those should be compromised,” his distributor had categorically warned. Badri had eagerly shaken his head in agreement, nodding, committing to it, on paper and in person. “I won’t give you a chance to complain.” He’d confirmed earnestly. A two-year contract was to include an extended product line in addition to jams and dried fruit, with a twenty percent profit margin built in. Badri was overjoyed. It’d bring prosperity to his home. It’d bring fame. And more than anything, it’d turn him into an entrepreneur. Then he’d buy more land, set up a huge factory, perhaps on the outskirts of the hill station. He’d have to talk to the zameendars about scouting some land.
“Badri dai Badri dai,” A laborer came running up to him. He seemed distressed, confused.
“No. The machine has stopped working abruptly. There isn’t enough jam in the machine. Still seventy five bottles to go.”
“What!” Badri retreated momentarily, then scurried inside.
Pretty soon, it was all clear. The complete story. His estimates had gone wrong. There had been enough fruit to fill all the bottles but he hadn’t anticipated the high number of rotten or damaged apples. Quality had to be maintained at all costs. He collapsed on the floor feeling numb, stoic. Inexperience had triumphed in the end. It devastated him.
Damage control! He’d have to talk to his distributor, convince him to buy the stock even with lower quantities. Strike some kind of a deal with them. He could do it. He was a good negotiator. Everyone told him that. A reduced profit margin would most certainly do.
He had all the boxes stacked in his jeep, jumped into it and hastily drove to Gangtok, not stopping even once for petrol or food, anxious thoughts on auto play in his head.
Three hours later, he stood in front of the distributor in his office overlooking the lake. “It’s not how we do business. I’m sorry.” The distributor was unsympathetic, inflexible, curt.
Badri requested, pleaded. Nothing. Dejected, Badri stormed out and jumped into his jeep. He banged his head against the steering wheel forcefully, repeatedly and sat there, defeated. The ivory keychain style pocketknife with the Sanskrit shloka dangled in the ignition catching his attention. A beam of sun reflected off the broad ivory shaft and pierced his eyes, blinding him briefly. It also brought along a thought. Those crooks could have been his cronies, his business allies… if only he hadn’t destroyed their trees.
Parinda Joshi is the author of Live from London (Rupa & Co., 2011) and Powerplay (Fingerprint, 2013). She has contributed to anthologies as well as publications like The South Asian Times (New York) and GQ (India) on a variety of topics ranging from music, technology to trends that affect South Asians globally.