This has been a grand year for litchis (Litchi chinensis) as far as we are concerned. The bowl you see here is the final batch, which we found at the local vendor a little after the end of the season. These photogenic red skinned litchis are not the best though. For almost a century, the queen of litchis has been the variety from Muzaffarpur, a district of Bihar just north of the Ganga. The season for this variety lasts for about two weeks, and the skin is a dusty brown in colour. But for all that, the fruit is juicy and delicious.
As I began to write this post I wondered why the spelling that I use, litchi, is beginning to be eclipsed by lychee. Both are transliterations of the Chinese word for the fruit (荔枝, which in Pinyin would be written as Lìzhī). Litchi was the first published transliteration, having been used in the first botanical description published in 1782 by Pierre Sonnerat. I turned to Google ngrams, and found that the alternative spelling has been popular in brief spurts in every century. The first time lychee eclipsed litchi was in 1860s. Then again the variant was briefly dominant in the 1960s. My guess is that these spurts are due to passing cultural fads. So what could be the recent dominance due to?
The spelling lychee outdid litchi for a period which started in late 2005. Recently litchi has been catching up again. Casting a net for the name of the fad, I found that the phrase Web 2.0 closely tracks the excess of lychee over litchi. Is the declining dominance of the spelling lychee then an indicator that the social media boom is now heading to a bust?
This week The Family found litchis at our bhajiwala. When I was a child, litchis (Litchi chinensis) would herald the beginning of a wonderful period of the year. Two weeks of litchis, a couple of months of mangoes, and then the monsoon: that is the rhythm of summer in the sub-Himalayan plains of India. I didn’t realize then that this seemingly unchanging marker of time was historically recent.
The litchis that we eat originally come from southern China, the region of Hainan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan, and north Vietnam. They still grow wild in virgin forests in this region. They were taken to northern China as early as the first century BCE. Litchis were first cultivated in Myanmar only as late as the 18th century CE, and were brought to India a few decades later, at the very beginning of the 19th century. Even now, most of the acreage given over to litchi in India is in UP, Bihar, Assam, and Tripura.
There were two varieties that I specially remember from long ago: the rose scented Shahi of the first week, and the Purbi from the second week. I suppose the Shahi variety was named after the nawabs of Awadh, since litchis arrived in India after the decline of the Mighals. The few that finally arrived on our table this week were the sweet but thick-skinned Purbi.
Summer is the time of mangoes. In the part of the country where I grew up, the decisive beginning of grishma (summer) would be the brief week or two when the house would fill up with seemingly unending baskets of lychee. But they would be over before I could ever anticipate it, and suddenly one day the house would have the first mangoes of the summer. There are almost no lychees in Mumbai, and the summer starts with the delightful apoos (alphonso). The other delightful aspect of this, the most terrible of seasons, are the flowering trees. My favourite is the red of the silk cotton flower (Bombax ceiba), named after the silky feathers which waft through the burning air in May, carrying seeds from the burst fruits. On the other side of the road, peeking out from behind a building I can spot another favourite, the red flowers of the gul mohar (Delonix regia, the flame of the forest). The easiest to photograph from my window are the copperpods (Peltophorum pterocarpum, yellow flame) which line the roads around us. Nearby, and invisible to me now, is a jacaranda tree which must be in flower. None of these popular road-liners are native to Mumbai. The first rains of the next season will knock all these flowers off the trees, and for a few days the roads will be carpeted with vivid patches of colour decaying into mush.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now I can see the morning’s light moving along my kitchen wall. A couple of weeks ago the sun, as it rose, would burn me as I made my morning’s tea. Now that spot in my kitchen is safe, and the sun’s first light falls on the southern wall. The cool land breeze of the morning stops earlier now, and the equally cool sea breeze also sets in earlier. The sound of the birds has changed; perhaps they have moved to different parts of the garden, and someone else in getting the early morning concert that I would a few weeks back. In Mumbai you feel the summer more by an increase in the humidity as the sun warms up the ocean. I can feel it already.