THE GREEN MANGO

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Photo: Shyam G Menon

“ People say that mangoes remind them of their childhood,’’ Gaytri said.

We were at her farm in Onde, a long drive from Mumbai.

It was mid-April.

A day could be described in one word – hot.

Towards afternoon, a palpable stillness settled on Vrindavan Farm.

No breeze; just the heat, like sticky ointment on the skin.

Both the dogs snoozed.

Gaytri took a nap.

I am stretched out on a bed in the veranda. My eyes rested on my toes; I discovered them, said hello toes, I counted them, I rediscovered them, said hello toes again, I counted them once more – so on. From a corner of my eye I could glimpse the surrounding green. I knew mangoes lurked in that green. An old taste surfaced in the brain. A craving grew. “ Shall we?’’ a little boy within, enquired.

There is a rule at the farm.

If you want to eat mango, you pick one that has fallen to the ground.

It was a bit like being lost at sea – water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.

I remembered the times I had thrown sticks, sent it spinning so that it slashes a mango’s link to a tree branch and drops it earthward. I remembered negotiating long bamboo poles with stick tied to their end like a slanted `T,’ through the dense foliage of a tree, up to a cluster of mangoes and bringing them down. I remembered clumps of leaves – the nests of fire ants – that came down along with the mangoes. You ran off seeing it come down and dashed in to collect the mangoes and move off to safety. Sometimes you climbed a tree, careful not to disturb an ants’ nest, stretched your hands out for the mango and oh hell – the ants got you! I remembered disloyal trees that grew in our compound but extended its fruits to the neighbour. How do you make sure those fruits could be hooked and brought down towards your side and not the equally eager neighbour’s?

Late afternoon, unfailingly that week in April, the breeze revived. Lying in the veranda, I never used the fan during those hot afternoons. It made the arriving breeze distinct. Delightful licks of relief. I saw the mangoes Gaytri had collected and kept on the veranda. I succumbed to temptation. I examined them. They were slightly soft, specks of yellow on their skin like grey hairs of wisdom to a human being. In fruits, they call it approaching ripeness. I come from a family split down the middle in terms of how it liked its mango. No, not the middle, more like lopping off the bulge of a mango, a side – I am that lopped off piece, the minority. Everyone liked their mango ripe and within that, many wanted it so oozy ripe that they loved squeezing and sucking the juice out of it. A ripe mango was often dessert after meals.

Kids loved to squeeze the ripe mango, authoring many a funny moment at the dining table. It is an art that gets perfect with practise and the rookie typically sent fruit juice shooting like a mini fountain toward someone engaged in serious discussion. You know what the Prime Minister should do? Psshhht….patch of yellow fruit juice on the nose. At least once, a cousin managed to send the mango’s seed flying. The adults would glare; the children would try to hush up their laughter and be poker-faced, all serious. The more they did so, the more they laughed. My cousin Manju – she was the queen of such infectious laughter.

I liked that fun. But my preferred style of mango was in minority; in retrospect, a sign of things to come in adulthood, for most of my tastes – from politics to social and cultural tastes – have reduced to minority. I liked the ripe mango on my plate to be firm when sliced. I liked it best when it wasn’t altogether sweet but bore a dash of the sour taste of its wild childhood. And I liked it best – as in best among best – when it was still green; firm, sour, white within and served with salt and chilli powder mixed in oil. The whole idea of climbing up a mango tree was to anticipate this marvellous, simple dish. The vast and sometimes overgrown environs of the house where my father’s younger sister lived, was favourite hunting ground. It had a few mango trees. We – our aunt included – knew exactly when to pluck the mango of such childhood dreams.

At Vrindavan Farm, from gate to farm house, I had seen mango trees. It was all green, green mangoes. I was beginning to feel like a fruit eating T-rex in a paradise of potential prey. Viewed from above, maybe atop the farm’s water tank, you see a procession of violently shaking trees as mango eating T-rex slices through the area. “ Great shot,’’ Steven Spielberg tells me as we discuss my role atop the water tank.

I applied for permission.

Gaytri Bhatia is a NOLS instructor; friend and colleague from work in the outdoors.

Friend, colleague – maybe rules bend? – I thought.

Her rules stayed firm.

It had to be fallen fruit.

She had a valid reason for it – each green mango plucked from the tree, is one ripe mango less by harvest.

I couldn’t be T-rex in a mango version of Jurassic Park.

So T-rex lowered its head to earth and walked around like a cow. The first couple of pickings were so-so. And terribly agitating, for just as you straightened from picking up the best you could find on the ground, your eyes encountered at nose level the choicest green mango still attached to tree and well, laughing in your face. You hoped you had high mental powers to bring the guy down without you physically doing anything that broke Gaytri’s rules; maybe in another lifetime when I am God. The slightly ripe ones I found on the ground, however returned a decent dessert after dinner that night.

The next day, the Gods smiled.

The farm had cashew trees. What all can you do with cashew fruit? – That had become an engaging question. With a kitchen at hand, I was determined to experiment and get a Nobel Prize even if it meant working with a gas mask on to handle the fruit’s pungent odour. In a world winning awards left, right and centre for all the silliest reasons, it is a long time since I got one. So why not – say, the award for surviving the most testing culinary experiment goes to…..?

Out collecting fallen cashew fruit and keeping an eye out for the one thing guaranteed to have me outrun Usain Bolt – the snake, I came across a perfect green mango fallen to the ground. It was wholly legal as per the farm’s rules to pick up and bang on in terms of required hardness. My heart danced and sank all at once. I was in tears. It was a moment of melodrama befitting the dreariest soap on TV. The mango was perfect! In the end the T-rex in me, won. The stomach and its enterprising ambassador upstairs – the taste buds, triumphed over sensitivity and philosophy.

I spent the evening relishing the mango with salt and chilli powder.

Did it remind me of my childhood?

Yes it did; fleetingly.

Then, I turned my back on years gone by and looked the other way, joining an army of people conditioned to do so.

I suspect it is because I am scared.

I fear the mango will take me back to a place I love too much to return to the present.

(The author Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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