Come summer, the sellers of ice apple (nungu in Tamil), the fruits plucked from palmyrah trees, sit in Ashok Nagar, Chennai. The semicircular formation of their positions would look very much like the umbrella fielding set for the bodyline bowler Larwood, the English cricketer, during the Ashes series.
They will have behind them in gunny bags, a collection of fruits, bigger than cricket balls.
The shells will be meticulously slashed with a sharp sickle, the dexterity with which their hands cut an outcome of years of sedulous practice. Each kernel will have three fruits, embedded into its individual slot. The seller would disentangle the fruit from its moorings, using the sharp tip of the sickle, making sure the fruit is not punctured, squirting out the sweet fluid. The slippery, gelatinous nungu, in full shape is a treat to watch, never mind its unmusical name in Latin, Borassus flabellifer! Phew!
Treating it as the God’s gift in compensation for the hot and humid weather, I buy them regularly during my morning constitutionals. My wife’s smile of welcome, will be more for the bag in my hand bulging with nungu. She will meticulously peel the skin covering the fruit and serve me a couple, though I prefer to eat them with their skins on. The cold nungu payasam she makes, using coconut water, sugar and ice should be taken sip by sip like cognac from a long stemmed balloon glass, and not gulped at one go like the after dinner port.
Palani, who usually sits in the third-slip position of the umbrella field setting, is my regular seller. The moment he sees me, he will pick up a few fruits and go at them. From his homily on nungu, I had learnt there are male and female palmyrah palms, the female of the species yielding to humanity, fruits that would cure nausea, sun stroke, pimples, constipation, chicken pox, breast cancer, the list seemingly interminable.
But now to the jarring note. Kishmu, my acquaintance, is perhaps the one-man anti-nungu brigade. He admits feeling jittery when he sees the nungu removed from its slot with a sharp sickle. The reason is bizarre. He was in Bhagalpur when the carnage occurred. The prisoners eyes were gouged out by diabolical policemen, as punishment. Though it had happened decades back, the sight of a nungu still takes him back to his Bhagalpur days. I wouldn’t know if he had consulted any psychotherapist to dispel his continued connect between nungu and the Bhagalpur gouging. But summers go on for him without ice apples.
J S Raghavan