Peacocks call out in the distance as visitors squelch through the rain-moistened undergrowth at the Thathachariar Gardens in what is to many, an annual pilgrimage to seek out the sweet and soft-as-butter Imam Pasand mango that is the signature produce of this family-owned farm.
So special is the fruit, that enquiries start coming in as early as February and March, says Mr. S. Rangarajan, 81, the former bank official who has been at the helm of affairs at the farm for several decades.
The Imam Pasand is not native to the Tiruchi district, but the silt and water of the Cauvery river seem to have done it a world of good.
“My uncle S.R.V. Thatham started the farm in 1945, and one of his friends brought the first graft of the Imam Pasand from Andhra Pradesh. We developed the graft further, and so basically all the Imam Pasands growing in this region are supposed to be from our graft,” says Mr. Rangarajan.
The number of varieties has been brought down to six from the original 20, in order to lessen the chances of crop losses.
The origin of the prized variety’s Hindi/Urdu name (which translates as ‘The Imam’s Favourite’) is lost in the mists of time. Some say it was originally grown in Kerala and beloved of Mughal emperor Humayun (and was called Humayun Pasand), but mango lovers would rather just relish the fruit rather than quibble over etymology.
In the 70-acre farm that we visit, Thathachariar Gardens has 700 mango trees, of which around 300 are the Imam Pasand, followed by other varieties such as Banganapalli, Roumani, and Kallamani (Bangloura).
Thathachariar Gardens has also developed the ‘Pacharusi’ mango that is tart and tangy in taste, and is meant to be eaten raw.
What makes the Imam Pasand even more exclusive is that it has a very short season between May and June every year. The fruit is plucked shortly before ripening, when its green coat sports an ash-grey look that will eventually bloom into straw-yellow on maturation.
Farming methods are a judicious mix of modern and native norms that are defined by years of experience.
“After the mango is picked (an Imam Pasand tree can yield anywhere between 40-100 fruits per season), we lay the fruit on the ground for a day to let the sap run. Then we arrange the raw mangoes on a bed of hay to allow them to ripen naturally,” says Ganesan, who looks after the upkeep of the trees and also functions as a lease agent for the farm during harvest time.
This year’s yield has been 25% less than the usual figure due to insufficient rainfall, says Mr. Rangarajan. “We had excessive heat, but that atmosphere is conducive only during the flowering stage for mango,” he says.
“Only 1% of flowering trees bear fruit, but this year most of the blossoms wilted in the harsh sunlight,” he rues.
There are several other challenges for farms like Thathachariar Gardens, which uses inter-cropping (alternating coconut trees with mangoes at six-acre intervals as a natural pest control measure).
“We need to spray insecticide to stop the hopper insect from infiltrating the gestational-stage mangoes, but it’s hard to get the skilled labour for this,” says Mr. Rangarajan.
The lowering of the water table is also of grave concern, he adds. “Earlier we used to get water at 40-50 feet with a three or four-horsepower motor, but this year, the water diviner says that we’d have to dig bore-wells up to 120 feet.”
The recent rains haven’t helped either. “They are good for the trees but bad for the fruit,” says Ganesan.
Even these problems don’t seem to deter fans of the Imam Pasand, as customers continue to drive up to the farm to claim their orders.
“We have a very good local market,” says Mr. Rangarajan, “though we have never had to advertise. We did export once to the Middle East, but we stopped because it affected our local demand.”
The stipulation of uniform-sized fruit by exporters doesn’t work in favour of the Imam Pasand, as each mango could grow up to 800 grams in weight.
“I wasn’t able to get a good price for the export-rejects locally,” adds Mr. Rangarajan. “So we prefer to avoid the middleman and let customers come directly to us.”
The mangoes are sold by the dozen, with an average price of Rs.300-600, which can skyrocket depending on the season’s duration.
Mr. Rangarajan, now 81, remembers coming to the farm at seven every morning and supervising its operations everyday, even during the rainy season.
He hopes the farm will continue its tryst with the Imam Pasand mango for generations to come.