One thing I never tire of during my travels, is to see how the same plant, crop or tree is used so differently in various places where it grows. Take the chinar, for example. It dominates the horizon in Kashmir, especially in autumn when each tree in the Valley looks like a giant globe of smouldering coal, all red, russet, copper and gold. But in Iran, the chinar is a rather unexceptional tree, that neither has such dense foliage as in Kashmir nor the height or girth. And, saddest of all, the leaves do not turn red in autumn, but turn yellow before falling off the tree. It is the same with the other of Kashmir’s tree: walnut. It grows in the uplands of Pahalgam, usually can be found in the neighbourhood of a river or stream, and because it is used in the walnut wood carving industry, few trees are allowed to grow to their full girth in today’s Kashmir: they’re usually felled for wood long before that.
In Mussoorie, the last place that I would have associated with walnut trees, I stayed in a wonderful hotel called JW Marriott Walnut Grove Resort and Spa. And lo and behold, my room looked out onto a valley through the branches of a spreading walnut tree. The term ‘grove’ called to mind a plantation of trees all in a row, but that was not an accurate descriptor of the few trees on the sprawling property that had been built to abut wheat fields and deciduous forests in the greater area of Mussoorie, but far, far away from the madness of the chaotic tourist drag. Walnut trees became a leitmotif of my trip – the umpteenth one to the hill-station. I was taken to a charming little village, Bhatoli Gaon, approximately 15 kilometres from the hotel, which had 20 houses but 60 walnut trees growing all around it. This particular Marriott hotel was part of a very special ecosystem where the adjoining field was rented by the hotel, but the landlord – an elderly widow – got to have a share in the produce that was grown on it and the owner of the walnut trees would clamber up its branches to claim sackfuls of fresh walnuts in autumn. If that wasn’t enough, the village headman of Bhatoli, Sejwan-ji, had been co-opted to welcome hotel guests into his house.
Sejwan-ji’s double storeyed house, indeed all the other houses in Bhatoli, were made entirely of wood, with simple yet effective geometric designs picked out on the front of each house. The courtyards of each house abutted the neighbour’s, and that is where picking over of wheat, minding small children and washing clothes was being done. The whole of Bhatoli lay in the shade of enormous walnut trees: about two trees per household. In comparison, village houses in Kashmir would have been larger and would have dwarfed any walnut trees in the neighbourhood.
Sejwan-ji’s extended family followed me all the way to the hotel: the naturalist was his nephew and the two local ladies who had been hired by Marriott Walnut Grove came from a neighbouring village. So, during my visit to the hotel, I was treated to delicious greens made from nettles, the uber-filling gohat ki dal and a succession of chutneys and raitas that the two phuphis (literally, father’s sister and the de facto way of referring to ladies of a certain age around Mussoorie) kept heaping on me.