Sowing seeds of friendship: the asparagus man from Kinnaur
In the heart of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh where tourists on their way to the desolate yet beautiful valley of Lahaul and Spiti often stop by for a breather or some stretch-the-legs treks; there lives an old man. With a finely lined face, a green Kinnauri topi on his head and a Zen like peace surrounding his persona, 69-year-old Om Prakash has seldom stepped out of Himachal. Yet, by some strange design of destiny, the world has come to him.
At least once every week, Om shuffles into his son’s apple orchard surrounded Prakash Regency hotel to check if he has got any mail. It’s not as if a lot of people are writing to him. He just waits patiently for those occasional postcards and envelops that come from friends he has made in the hotel – tourists from across the world. Sometimes these letters are accompanied by pictures of children and pets and homes in Germany or Sweden or New South Wales or Birmingham; sometimes by photographs where they stand with their arms around Om. Once, a guest even mailed him a calendar he had designed which had Om’s pictures on its pages. Despite the fact that he can’t speak English and reads very little of it, Om loves those letters.
If there’s anything he loves even more are the seed packets that his pen friends sometimes send; that he promptly goes and plants in the kitchen garden where seeds from all over the world grow side by side under the golden apple trees. The result is that Om is growing exotic European vegetables like asparagus and broccoli and chives in a village where people don’t even eat them.
When I first spot him from my balcony one crisp June morning, the Himalayas are standing before me, chest out stomach in, and sending me morning breath that is making my skin break out in goose bumps. What fascinates me about Om is that he seems completely oblivious to their handsomeness (probably because he sees them every day). Bent over a patch of strawberries, he is picking the juicy red fruit with his dry calloused hands, firm yet gentle; piling them up in a bucket resting on the grass beside him; stacking up drying yellow leaves in a separate pile. Stifling a yawn and pulling on a jacket, I wave to him and take the stairs two at a time to catch him before he leaves.
When I reach the apple orchard, a bit breathless, Om is waiting for me. He holds out a fat strawberry as a gesture of friendship and after some ice breaking -- “Oh! I’m a pahadi too” -- conversation and some devoured strawberries, walks me down to another patch where fat green stalks of asparagus are catching the light of the rising sun.
“Aap asparagus jaante hain?” he asks with childlike glee, snipping them off with his muddy farmer’s hands and holding them out for me to inspect. When I tell him I do, he insists upon cooking them for me in his kitchen. He too doesn’t run into too many people who recognize asparagus. Sitting under an apple tree, we both crunch on stalks stir fried in Amul butter; and then the resilient farmer tells me how he started growing broccoli, chives, zucchini and asparagus in a village where nobody knows them or wants to eat them. It is an unbelievable story.
An exotic harvest
Om Prakash is an apple farmer who retired from the Animal Husbandry department of Himachal Pradesh. Seventeen years back, he came across an Australian backpacker who was looking for a place to stay. “Sangla didn’t have many hotels then and he couldn’t find a room. I took him to my house in the village where my three sons and I lived,” he smiles. It turned out that Robert Ritchie, the Australian, was a farmer too. He was so impressed with Om’s orchard where he was growing fruits like peach, plum, pear as well as vegetables like, cabbage, cauliflower etc that he suggested that Om start growing asparagus too which he said was a vegetable well suited for this kind of weather conditions.
Om and his family had never heard of asparagus so Ritchie promised to send seeds when he went back. “I didn’t take that seriously but imagine my surprise when a parcel was delivered to me some days later from New South Wales with the seeds inside.” It was signed by Robert Ritchie.
Two years later, Ritchie came back with more seeds that Om sincerely sowed as well. In five years, Om was not only growing asparagus, he was also giving seeds and tuber roots to other farmers who he confesses were not really very keen on growing it. However, thanks to Om’s persistence, 13 farmers in Sangla besides others in the villages of Bhakseri, Raksham, Bhakseri and Kilba are now growing asparagus.
On a Delhi trip to sell his apple harvest four years back, Om gathered courage and went down to the posh Khan Market to ask if they would buy his asparagus. The shopkeepers had never heard of Kinnaur but they were very impressed with the quality of his sample and implored him to grow more and start selling it to them. He learnt that they were buying asparagus from countries like New Zealand and Australia. A business opportunity was beckoning. Om went back to his village and shared this news with his farmer friends.
“It’s not easy to grow asparagus,” he says. When the plant is one year old, it dries up; but roots stay and bear fresh stalks after a year. These need to be transplanted at a depth of four inches, at a distance of 1.5 feet from each other. It takes three to four years for the shoots to come out. “After that, there is no stopping them. Cut them six inch and they start spouting again,” he says.
“When foreigners come to my son’s hotel I serve them asparagus and they are delighted. When I tell them the seeds have come from Europe they are even more happy,” says Om Prakash. Guests have started sending the old man seeds from their own countries as a gift. Om Prakash happily tears open the packets that come in the post and plants a new patch in his garden. He now has broccoli and tomatoes from Israel, zucchini and pumpkin from Switzerland, asparagus from Germany and Netherlands, chives from Birmingham, and some more asparagus from Denmark growing around his orchard.
From Kinnaur fields to Delhi market
Om plans to start selling green asparagus commercially from 2016 through the Reliance outlets in Delhi and Chandigarh. He and the other farmers plan to form a cooperative and send their produce by the night bus to Chandigarh and then onwards to Delhi. Money is not very high on Om’s priority list. “I want everyone to know Sangla gaon. I want high society people to eat asparagus grown here. Anyway, we don’t eat it,” he giggles like a happy child. With that he hands me a bunch of asparagus stalks, signaling that our breakfast chat is over. Gathering all his letters and pictures, he shuffles back to his room. His strawberries have been deposited at the hotel check in counter; they are a gift for new guests. The asparagus is more special to him.
It’s fascinating that a small packet of seeds that came in the post now covers two patches of 7400 sq meters, and 4000 sq meter respectively.
About the Author:
Rachna Bisht is an Indian writer who has spent more than two decades putting words together for an eclectic mix of eccentric editors. She was a winner in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition (for her first short story ‘Munni Mausi’). Penguin has recently published her first book, ‘The Brave – Param Vir Chakra Stories’, which makes her an author besides being an Army wife and mother to a precocious 13 year old.