I haven’t eaten a single mango this year. It’s not that the circumstances haven’t been favourable: I stay in the country, travel home often and belong to a family that is considerably excited about the fruit. I just don’t harbour any strong feelings for it. It’s expensive, demands attention, needs expertise to get the preparation right and dominates the food industry. So honestly, I would rather eat a watermelon.
Even as I write this, an uncle has dropped off a wooden crate from his Konkan farm, 100 mangoes blanketed in dried hay. The arrival of the crate lifted the mood at home: voices got louder and smiles became broader as the green-yellow fruit was passed around with pride. Relatives started calling in, checking if they could drop by, and my mother announced a feast of aamras. It may be the reigning king of fruits and everybody’s favourite, but I just don’t get it. So I decided to release my prejudice, give nostalgia a chance and find out what the fuss was about.
I’ll start with what I know. Synonymous with the season, mangoes are an element of summer, we eat Alphonso for breakfast, Pairi for aamras during lunchtime, and mango milkshake for dessert. In my mother’s hometown in Nagpur, I ate mangoes with a primitive greed. On the train journey there, every other family would be carrying a carton of mangoes and my mother would pack boxes of mango barfi as gifts.
Fonder are the memories of the activities around the mango. When the mercury would rise to 45-46 degrees, the kids would be assigned the task of filling the large desert-cooler with water, as our grandmother would lovingly slice four large Alphonsos onto steel plates. The biggest slices were the first to be picked and devoured with the juice flowing down our hands. I learned there was no right way of eating the seed, and that there were people who ate even the peel. My eyes would be wide open to see how much everyone else was enjoying their fruit. But all the others had theirs closed.
We would then head for the carrom board or towards a deck of cards, with our fingers still smelling faintly of sweet mango. Early in the evening, the local aamwala would stop by, exhibiting small, almost unremarkable fruits from the nearby village. An adult would expertly examine them, inhaling the scent and pick the good ones. And the grown-ups would sit with the children, squeezing the small fruit, sipping the pulp and looking pretty pleased but also rather ridiculous.
We grew up and our trips back to Nagpur became few and far between. I think that’s where I lost my mango mojo.
Now, I only hear about mangoes. They’re heralded much before their arrival. Honestly, the first intimation is the addition of the raw mango (kairi) as a topping over my bhel. Personally, I prefer kairi, it’s versatile: you can make chutneys, slice it and sprinkle chilli powder, make pickle, or use as a guest star in dals and vegetables. I like my kairi khatta, though I would forgive a misplaced sweet one sold along Marine Drive in folded squares of newspaper.
The other indicator of the approaching season are the rumours. Rumour has it, mangoes are out. We’ve already eaten our first mango, an uncle will boast proudly. Soon, I know my father would succumb to pressure and set out to buy our first mangoes. He would return triumphantly and head straight to the kitchen sink to ready them for aamras, turning them around in his hands and loosening the seed. My mother, a junk food enthusiast like me, would sigh, knowing that summer had arrived.
In any Maharashtrian household, aamras is eaten excessively. The affair is simple, ghee-topped aamras first, accompanied by lesser-elaborate vegetable preparations. For special occasions, aamrakhanda, the fancy cousin of shreekhanda, is the dessert favourite.
But mangoes did make a small comeback for me. A few summers ago, my editor suggested we all go out for aamras. Sitting at a restaurant called Crystal in south Bombay with its broken fans and chairs, my colleagues and I ordered many bowls of fresh, cold, yellow-orange aamras. It was scooped up and polished within minutes. That year, I returned home and asked for aamras, and returned to Mumbai with two mangoes because my roommate loved them. She walked into the house and said, “I know there are mangoes around”.
Mangoes make people happy, it connects them to their childhood, summer vacations, thick afternoon naps and family visits. My mavshi, who helped around the house in Mumbai, once asked me to buy her two mangoes because her daughter had passed the board exams. My friends studying and working outside India bemoan the absence of the fruit. It is what summer tastes like.
Alas, the first showers have arrived and mangoes must make a subtle exit. Ironically, little is said about their departure. Almost like people don’t want to bring it up. They’ll scoop up the last bit of the aamras, sigh deeply and wait for another nine months for the first aam.
Amruta Lakhe is a freelance writer in Mumbai.
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