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May 12, 1997


V Gangadhar

Mango, delicious mango

Dominic Xavier's illustration Around March/April every year, news editors of various Bombay newspapers ask their chief reporters, "Where is the mango story? Isn't it time to do one?" The chief reporter would nod solemnly and summon one of his juniormost colleagues, "Go to Crawford market and find out if the mangoes have arrived. Then, do a story. Focus on the current crop, arrivals in Bombay and prevailing prices. And don't forget to talk to the common man. What are his chances of consuming the fruit this year?"

A couple of days later, the by-lined story would feature on the local pages of the daily. The readers would be told that the 'king of fruits' was likely to cost more, arrivals at Crawford market were erratic and the best qualities of the fruit had, as usual, been exported to the Gulf. The routine is repeated every year.

The news stories seldom do justice to the mango, but at least there was the consolation that the golden fruit was the only one to be featured in the media year after year.

Mangoes always bring back memories, most of them sweet. In school, I came across a lesson in a Tamil text where King Adhiyaman, known for his patronage of the fine arts, was given a divine fruit. Anyone who consumed the fruit would be blessed with eternal youth.

The king sent for the famous poet Avvaiyar and offered her the fruit, without revealing its secret. Finally, when she learnt the secret, she was overwhelmed with emotion and wrote several poems praising the king. Though the species of the divine fruit was not revealed, I am sure it must have been a mango.

Somehow or the other, it is always the north and west of India which are more associated with the mango. When we were childrenand growing up in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the mango season passed us without much fanfare. But I remember one particular variety of mango in Kerala. It was very small, juicy and meant to be sucked. The fruit was called Chandrakaran and one can easily polish off dozens of it. I do not know if this variety still exists in Kerala. We used to buy the fruit in baskets and finish them off in the couple of days.

There were also a couple of mango trees in our ancestral house in Palakadu, which yielded fruit every alternate year. The fruits were huge, pulpy and wonderfully sweet. The mangoes were kept packed in straw in the store room and the entire house filled with the fragrance of the fruit. We had mango for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-between snacks. It was a mystery why the trees did not yield fruit every year.

The mango season held many attractions for young boys. While returning from school in towns like Madurai and Vellur, I had to pass through several mango orchards. It was impossible to resist the temptation to pick up stones and throw them at the fruit-laden trees. Sometimes, the watchmen or orchard owners rushed at us wielding huge sticks, but we were always faster then them! Most of the fruit we collected were raw. But, with a bit of salt and a dash of chilli powder, they tasted wonderful.

At home, mother often prepared mangai pachadi, using the ripe fruits. No doubt, it was good, but there was nothing like eating the soft, sweet flesh of the fruit. I often quarrelled with my mother because I regarded it a waste to use good mangoes for preparing pachadi. But, then, the elders in the family liked the dish and it was prepared quite often during the season.

Of course, I enjoyed mangoes, but it was not a magnificent obsession with the people down south. In that matter, Gujarat takes the cake. Despite spending 19 years of my life in Ahmedabad, I still cannot get over the local people's passion for mango. From April to July, the average Gujarati had only one purpose in life -- to consume as many mangoes as possible. Every household, poor, middle class and affluent, purchased huge baskets of the fruit, according to their buying power. The baskets were found everywhere; the rich had special rooms while the poor pushed the baskets under cots and other pieces of furniture.

Throughout the mango season, the average Gujarati did away with his usual shaak (vegetables) and subsisted on roti (Indian bread), dal (a pulse) and kheri (mango). He did not even bother to slice the fruit. Instead, he washed the fruit in water to make it soft, then bit into it carefully to suck the juice. After that he cleaned out the skin and the seed, leaving them totally bare. The job was so thorough that even a squirrel could not have bettered it. It took me several years of worship to achieve that level of perfection.

The season began with the arrival of the expensive Ratnagiri variety of mangoes. By mid-April, the hapus -- the local favourites from Bulsar -- would flood the market. The season was in full swing. Then came the small, ras (juice) mangoes, followed by the Rajapuri and Shravani varieties. Those were bigger in size, concealing within them huge quantities of juice. As the season ended, supplies of the kesar variety from Saurashtra -- green outside and bright red inside -- landed in the market.

At least once or twice a week, the menu in most households would be puri (fried Indian bread) and aamras (mango juice). Nothing else was needed. The lady in the house squeezed out the juice from dozens of mangoes. The puris were broken into small pieces, dipped into the ras and consumed. When you invited guests for dinner, or dined out with friends, mango ras always figured prominently in the menu. After the meal was over, the leftover ras was mixed with milk and kept inside the refrigerator. It made a nourishing drink at any time of the day or night.

Considering the profit margin, almost every Gujarati was involved in the mango business. In a housing society, half the members would hire trucks and transport the fruit from Bulsar to be sold among their friends in Ahmedabad. The profit margin would not be much, but it was their way of making their friends happy.

The hot sun and the abundance of mangoes led to several other activities. Every household prepared its own quota of mango pickles (the sweet chunda being the most popular), pappad, murrabba and chutney. These were dried on the terraces, under the hot sun. It was also a big social occasion, with each housewife ready to help others. In fact, the mango was a great unifying force in the city.

The scene in Bombay is different, though. The passion and frenzy of Ahmedabad was lacking; people grumbled about the high prices of the fruit. The fruit was slowly going out of the reach of the common man. The well-heeled, of course, can participate in the mango festivals organised by five-star hotels, where columnists and food critics gorge themselves on mango preparations. But then, mango does not need this kind of 5-star treatment. One bite is enough to transport you to a different world.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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