Papita or Papaya, is one of the ubiquitous treasures of the tropics, but nowhere so revered and exalted as in India. Its medicinal qualities and benefits to health and digestion are legendary. It was also the reason for my first sex education talk at the age of eight.
All through summer, my father bought raw papayas from the market. I loved papaya chutney made in the Bengali style in the early summer months. Thin slices of raw papaya were cooked in light sugar syrup with a little fresh lime juice. It is a very simple dish, and is delicious when eaten with the curries of the summer season when the weather is very warm.
“Papaya chutney saved your life when you were a baby” my mother said to me.
“How?” I asked.
“Well, you had a really bad attack of diarrhea and nothing seemed to be working. You were getting very dehydrated when your aunt told me to feed you raw papaya chutney. You see, the milk in the raw papaya has binding qualities and helps cases of upset stomachs. The papaya is a very good fruit indeed and good for colic, teething problems and all kinds of stomach disorders.”
But sometimes my father would bring home a large ripening papaya instead of a raw one, convinced that he had found a winner. He was usually right. The papaya would be allowed to ripen first, turning a bright shade of yellow with some yellow-green splashes. Then it would be cooled in the refrigerator. When it would be time to eat it, my mother would cut it open. The papaya had an oval cross section; the center naturally hollowed out, and filled with hundreds of black papaya seeds, each covered with a translucent and gelatinous coating. Fully ripe papayas did not have any milk.
“This has a flavor of rose water” my mother would say, admiringly. My sister Rani and I would giggle because this was exactly what we expected her to say.
In order to prepare the seeds for planting, we scooped out the seeds and placed them on a piece of brown paper and left them out in the summer sun. The heat reduced the gelatinous and wet mass to a heap of dried out black seeds, flecked with gray.
We picked a good spot for our papaya grove. The gardener helped us till the soil and we planted the seeds with great aspirations.
After a few days of impatiently checking for signs of life every hour, shoots appeared. We carefully scooped the earth around the plants, making little moats and connected them to the main gully that Shankar had dug down the length of the garden. I never failed to be fascinated by the way the water flowed out of the great tap attached to an underground pipe. As the circular knob that worked as the head of the tap was turned, water gushed into the gully and flow down, slowed greatly by the parched earth that drank thirstily first, before allowing the water to flow on. Ants scurried frantically, many of them being swept away by the current of water, but they managed to scramble out along the sides of the gully, as the water was inevitably slowed down by leaves and twigs, the flotsam and jetsam left behind by the summer storm. We made sure that the papaya shoots had plenty of water every day. It was a joy to see the tender shoots appear—tentative little green stalks that masterfully thrust through the carefully prepared soil and were soon adolescent.
The papaya plants quickly grew to be five or six feet tall, their slender trunks serrated by little ridges that were a little darker than the cream brown of the thin bark. The stems were beautiful, exploding from the verdant green trunk in bursts ending in four or five points of leaves.
Soon the fronds had turned green and thick, and the bark was a dark golden brown and I was getting impatient to see fruit. But I had to wait first. Little flowers appeared on some of the trees. As the summer days grew hotter, little papayas materialized where the flowers had bloomed. Shaped like oval green orbs with little nipples at the end, they looked juicy, firm and full of promise. But to our disappointment, some of the trees never bore either flowers or fruit.
“How much longer before all the papaya trees will give us fruit?” I asked my father.
“Only the girl plants bear fruit. The boy plants never bear any.” my father said.
“How can you tell from before which tree is a boy and which is a girl?” I asked.
“You will need to pull down its chaddi (underpants) and see for yourself” my father laughed.
I still carry an image of a papaya tree with a polka dotted pair of boxers, pulled down, crumpled at its roots; the tree about to step out and walk away.
Finally the rich green of the papayas on the trees was splashed with gold which spread all over. The moment had arrived. The papayas were carried home carefully, and placed in a jute bag where they would finally ripen to a burst of sunshine yellow gold. And then it was time to eat them. Heavenly and sweet and flavored like rose water, we ate papayas all through the summer. Ah, it was heavenly! The peel was thin, the flesh was soft—melting in my mouth and the seeds were bright and shiny, like tiny little fish eggs. I scooped them out and laid them out to dry in the sun.
“This is for the next generation of papaya trees” I said to Rani. I looked at the dried out seeds. “Wonder which of these are boys and which are girls.” I said.
“Pull their underpants off, and you will know” Rani said.
We both giggled.