Consider the Mango

 Five writers wax eloquent on that most beloved of Indian passions — the mango. From stories on the origin of its name, to the Mughal poet Ghalib's all consuming obsession with the fruit, here are five short stories on the King of Summer.

On the Poet Mirza Ghalib and His Love for Mangoes
William Dalrymple

For Ghalib, the late evening was also the time for indulging in mango-related pleasures, especially the exquisitely small, sweet chausa mango, a taste he shared with many other discerning Delhiwallahs, past and present. At one gathering, a group of Delhi intellectuals were discussing what qualities a good mango should have: ‘In my view,’ said Ghalib, ‘there are only two essential points about mangoes — they should be sweet and they should be plentiful.’

In his old age he became worried about his declining appetite for his favourite fruit wrote to a friend to express his anxieties. He never ate an evening meal, he told his correspondent; instead, on hot summer nights he would ‘sit down to eat the mangoes when my food was fully digested, and i tell you bluntly, I would eat them until my belly was bloated and i could hardly breathe. Even now, I eat them at the same time of day, but not more than ten or twelve, or if they are of the large kind, only six or seven.’

William Dalrymple is a writer and historian. His books include City of Djinns; The Last Mughal; and Return of a King: The Battle of Afghanistan (which has been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper and PEN Hessel-Tiltman prizes). Twitter: @DalrympleWill. This excerpt, published with permission from the author, is from The Last Mughal. 

Coming of Age
Bijoy Venugopal

I did not eat my first mango until I was nine. Spending summer vacations at my off-the-map Malabar village, I watched in disgust as country cousins in mundus sank their fangs into the interminable feast, viscous juice dribbling down their bristly chins and over their bare chests. 

Mango preceded breakfast. Curried and pickled, it was present at lunch. Mango was the ineluctable postprandial dessert.

That cloying smell of summer fruit ripening in a fruit-fly haze adhered to everything. The ennui of the vacation was punctuated by births and deaths and comings of age, and sweat-sodden nights without electricity in whose torpor even nightmares lost their funk. At the end of it, my family would return to Bangalore like refugees fleeing genocide. 

Every Malayali clan on the homebound train wheezed under excess baggage — mountains of banana chips, sacks of coconut and jackfruit, and wicker baskets bursting with mangoes. My father, the ringleader of our family’s trafficking racket, would alight at Cantonment with the swagger of a don, haggling with porters and auto-drivers until the loot was delivered safely home.

My father knows the family tree of every mango cultivar. To his nuanced palate, the ‘commercial’ Alphonso kneels before the kingly Malgova. The Neelam is nobility. Mallika, its love-child with Dasheri, is a princess. The Benishan of Baiganapalle may be a prince, but the Raspuri’s aroma is more fetching. Come April and May, he’d cut corners in his pocketbook, skimping on groceries but always putting mangoes on our table. 

In the vestige of my mother’s ancestral home stood a Kasturi mango tree, a native of Borneo now extinct in the wild. Every other year it bore a cornucopia of fist-sized, ruddy-skinned fruit with an aroma potent enough to rouse the dead. A few family elders had been cremated in its vicinity, perhaps with the promise of a blissful afterlife. One day, chasing a squirrel, I shinnied up its trunk and found myself within arm’s length of the fragrant fruit. Eye to eye with the squirrel, I watched as it nibbled, exposing the enticing golden flesh. 

I slid down, ran to the store-room, and gingerly picked up a ripe Kasturi mango. My father, smiling like an archangel about to reveal an epiphany, demonstrated how to squish it to pulp within its skin, puncture it slightly, and suck the juice through the slit. 

It wasn’t mango. It was manna. I ate to bursting. And I have never stopped since.   

Bijoy Venugopal used to eat more than he writes, but that's changed with age. Besides his day job as the editor of Flipkart Stories, he is the founder-editor of the nature blog, The Green Ogre. He tweets at @bijoyv and co-hosts a weekly travel tweet-chat at hashtag #TravelIST 

Food writing on the mango

What's in a Name?
Zuri Camille de Souza

Roots travel through soil, carrying with them microbes, minerals, moisture and seeds. A familiar tree in an unfamiliar location inspires the reaction how did that get there? Did a seed fall into a river, float into an ocean and cross over to another continent? Was it carried by a bird as a treat-for-later? Or was is packed, stored and shipped in a neat box?

Networks of trade and exchange lay pathways over which goods move; travelling over soil and water to reach new lands. And, as they travel, so do their names, creating narratives of origins, flavours, and value.

The most fragrant spices from the cool, mist-laden hills. A rare wine from a special valley. 

And the fullest, most delicious, most ripe mango from the southern coasts of India.

Mangoes — familiar, beautiful and indicative of summer holidays, full, happy stomachs and bright yellow ice cream — reflect a narrative of movement, interaction and symbiosis between several languages, cultures and communities. Sculptures in temples in the Indonesian Archipelago depict the mango tree, suggesting trade and cultivation as early as the 4th century and Buddhist pilgrims write that Gautama Buddha was presented with a mango tree as a space for meditation by Amradarika in 500 BC. Ibn Batuta also writes about the mango in his travels in the 14th century.

Grown in the hills in India — some say in the hills that border Burma — the fruit was called aamra-phalam in Sanskrit. As their popularity grew amongst traders, mangoes travelled over the northern lands of India, and the name transformed into aam-phal, reflecting the languages spoken communally and locally. When the tree reached the southern Vindhyas — where Tamil was commonly spoken — the word for fruit changed. The Hindi phal became the Tamil kai — the word for unripe fruit. Aam-phal was now Aam-kay. And as mangoes travelled further south and to the coasts, they picked up new variations and changes to their name.

The Malayalam word for mango is an adaptation of its Tamil root, transforming maangai into maanga. In 1498, when Portuguese traders reached Calicut and encountered the delicious fruit, they adapted the Malayalam word Maanga into Manga or Mangueira . 

Still, the origin of the name is derived from the Tamil word for raw fruit--kai. This is because the fruit were shipped as raw, green mangoes by the Portuguese, who allowed them to ripen during the journey and arrive ready to eat! The Portuguese carried the fruits to the African colonies they inhabited and even further, but others suggest that Persian and Arab traders had brought mangoes to the Middle East and North Africa in the 10th century. This might explain why the word for mango pickle — or unripe mango — in many parts of the middle east is aamba and the Arabic word for ripe mango is Manju!

As the fruit spread, its name changed — although always referring back to its roots in the hills and plains of India; its flavours changed and developed, based on where and how it was cultivated, leading to mangoes in the Philippines, many parts of Africa and Latin America too.

Zuri Camille de Souza  is an spatial designer and writer. She works on themes of ethnobotany, architecture, food and the geopolitics of the city. You can find more of her work here

Food writing on the mango

A Sack of Mangoes and a Premier Padmini 
Amulya Shruthi

When I was around 6 years old, my family had a pista-green Premier Padmini that made sounds like an evening around Victoria Terminus. 

I don’t remember many drives in that car, but my enduring memory is of afternoons when I’d be summoned to help unload the backseat. These were afternoons when my grandfather had either spontaneously, or by design, gone venturing deep into Gandhi Bazaar, or any of the dozens of impromptu markets that dotted the long road between Jalahalli and our home in Hanumanthanagar. He’d announce his arrival at the end of our street with two short beeps of the horn, and I’d go running downstairs to open the gate and direct his car into perfect parking alignment.

I’d then pack him off upstairs to our first floor house (sometimes with a giant jackfruit cradled in a gunny bag) and take over the situation. I’d crawl into the backseat to retrieve bag after bag of my grandmother’s demands — those listed on the backs of old wedding invitations, and those simply understood. The dot-penned staples would include coconuts, oranges, chrysanthemums, musambis. But the unsaids included heads of pineapple, ready-to-burst seetaphals, the rare twig heavy with lychees. And every summer, my grandfather ensured the backseat bore at least one variety of my grandmother’s favourite: mangoes.

When my grandparents were young with five little children in tow, my grandmother forgot to ask for things for herself: new sarees, bangles — and never, ever mangoes. No Badamis. Nor Raspuris. Malgovas. Totapuris. Alphonsos. No Ginimoothis. Not Mallikas. So much so that decades later, when they'd come home in bags or boxes, she’d still complain, “Who is all of this for!?” 

My grandfather would bring them a few days shy of ripe. We’d carefully pile them in a sunlit shelf in the store room, and cover them with newspaper; their slow, steady ripening supervised by him. Before lunch everyday, he’d tie up his panche to his knees and hobble to the kitchen to pick out three mangoes — one for himself, one for me, and one (the most fussed over), for his wife. He’d stand over the kitchen sink and lop their tops off and slide the knife along the edge of the seed, making two oppu-s (halves) and a vaate (a core). And then, he'd send me to deliver his hand-picked and carved mango to my grandmother.

In a tiny chapter of their 60 years of marriage, I have spent some of my happiest days sitting in my mango-stained cotton petticoat between my toothless giggling grandmother coring her vaate, and my grinning grandfather slurping his oppu-s.

Amulya Shruthi is trying to be a professional describer of feelings. She lives in Bangalore.

Food writing on the mango

Food writing on the mango

The Post-Colonial Mango
Sana Javeri Kadr

I spend a lot of time worrying about mangoes, and their role in what I only half-jokingly call a cycle of ‘colonial consumption.’ If you look up #highvibefood on Instagram, you will discover an overwhelming selection of white women, alongside carefully arranged platters of tropical fruit. Mangoes will display prominently and conjure images of what we will henceforth refer to as ‘sanitized-tropical-erotica.’ It will lay bare all the fruits (pun intended) of warm, ‘exotic’ places, served with a side of sun-tanned beach bod. The beloved mango, our mango, being Columbus-ed by an army of #eatclean wellness divas, joining the sorry ranks of quinoa, turmeric, and goji berries. Or rather, since Columbus didn't quite make it to Indian shores, I guess I should say that it feels like the mango is being Afonso-ed. Wait, but isn't our favourite mango is named after... About that! 

Native to the Indian subcontinent, mangoes were ‘invented’ by the Portuguese when they arrived on the shores of Goa in 1498. They were so smitten that they baptised their favourite varieties, and renamed them all after themselves. Such is the delightful nature of colonialism and conquest. According to dubious historical record, the Portuguese may or may not have introduced the technique of grafting to India. Given that there is record of nearly 40 crossbred varieties of mangoes in pre-Portuguese West India alone, this seems a little improbable. So essentially, named and baptised after Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese naval commander responsible for colonising India's West Coast, the prized Alphonso mango, is quite literally, the taste of Portuguese conquest over India. 

When I mentioned to my grandfather that I was researching mangoes, and had spent the past month tasting every single kind of mango I could lay my hands on, he looked at me with distaste and said, “The Alphonso is the only mango, all others are mere vegetables.” I sighed at Abbu’s snobbery but it did get me thinking about Mumbai, and our city’s feverish obsession with the Alphonso. 

Our colonial hangover is evidenced by our adoration of the Royal Family, our perverse attachment to digestive biscuits, even our especially misplaced love for limp potato cutlets. I could be a pessimist and say that our love for the Alphonso mango is a sign of our dire state of internalised submission to colonial power, but instead, I’d like to propose the opposite. Colonialism laid claim to the very best that the Subcontinent had to offer, for centuries — labor, land, spices, you name it. I propose we call our local devotion to the Alphonso a reclamation — a sweet, saffron coloured, nostalgic, post-colonial summertime homecoming of a fruit with a very complicated history. It is a tangled fruit and I'd appreciate if those using mangoes as a symbol of ‘sanitized-tropical-erotica’ to prop up their social media’s exotic quotient, could put aside their Instagram filters for a second and really acknowledge the gravity of the mango before they go forth and Afonso de Albuquerque it. 

Sana Javeri Kadri is a sometimes salty, permanently hungry, rather creative human. She was raised in post-colonial Bombay, wound up in the produce aisles of California and can be found @sanajaverikadri on Instagram or in person wherever there are vegetables to be found.


Illustration by Neethi Goldhawk, an independent illustrator and textile print designer who loves drawing all things dreamy, inspired by nature and life. You can find more of her work here.