City City Bang Bang, Columns

A mango state of mind?

The second most contentious subject in India, after politics, is mangoes. Every summer, respective camps start waging their campaigns, and as is the norm today, things quickly descend into name-calling. So, at the very outset, it is important to make it clear that this piece which is about mangoes, does not in any way express any opinion, explicit or implicit, personal or borrowed, about which varieties of said fruit are better than others. From someone who loves the fruit indiscriminately and ignorantly, this is a piece about the role that mangoes (any variety) have played in our lives.

Growing up in scarcer times meant in general having had to ration virtually all pleasures. But there were little pockets of plenty that were never quite explained. One could for instance, eat as much namkeen as one wanted, without any elder eyebrows being raised. Bananas, the potatoes of fruits, were also available abundantly. Surprisingly, for a brief period in the summers, the mango was another fruit that arrived in bulk. Baskets of the fruit, fragrantly encased in straw, would make its way into the house, and would gradually ripen into delicious fullness. These mangoes (whatever their variety) lay around waiting to be attacked, and life was lived in a happy haze of distended stomachs and mango-smeared mouths.

Sucking the life out of a mango is one of those primal pleasures that makes life feel worthwhile. The process is both elaborate and rewarding. The foreplay that loosens up the pulp inside, the careful incision at the top that allows access without a juice overrun, and then the sustained act of sucking every bit juice from the helpless peel. Senses detach themselves from the body and attach themselves to the mango, and even mobile phones stop ringing. The world momentarily rests in our mouths as we slurp, suck and slaver at the rapidly disappearing pulp. The mango is manhandled vigorously till only the gutli remains which is scraped off till it has nothing left to confess. As is evident, there is no elegant way to eat this kind of mango, no delicate and dignified method that approximates any form of refinement, which is just as well, for the only way to enjoy a mango is messily.

One of the principal perks of being born Gujarati is that aamras is considered a legitimate part of food, and not an absurd indulgence as it might perhaps appear to some. After all, the idea of taking all the best parts of mangoes, and gathering all the liquid gold together to make an entire meal out of it, could well have been seen as being as being somewhat over-the-top. There is a stunning clarity about the Gujarati mind that comes to the fore when one thinks of how it treats what other cultures know as desserts. Far from making it the tail end of a meal when the stomach has more or less surrendered, it locates it at the very centre, and builds the other trivial items of food around it. So, when aamras is made, it headlines the meal and everything else plays a minor supporting role. In the season, there would be at least 2-3 occasions when aamras would be served along with either puri or some specially-designated forms of rotis that go particularly well with it.

The principle of plenty did not quite apply to the varieties of mango that needed to be sliced. Here a little more restraint was in evidence and consequently the distribution of the slices becomes a political affair. Who would get stuck with the gutli part of the mango was a burning question. Shameless greed and heroic sacrifice were both seen in equal measure. But given that everyone got to have some mango, eventually, everyone won.

The joy of mangoes was not limited to the ripened ones alone. Slices of green mangoes smeared with masala was a particular favourite. Then there were the semi-picked mangoes, with the delicious infusion of brine and turmeric, that lay invitingly out to dry, that we were as children not allowed anywhere near, but always managed always to steal a few. The mango pickle was of course a fully realised pleasure. A single piece packed nameless layers of taste into its tiny brave body, and released them all at once into one’s never-fully-prepared mouth. The taste buds squealed in delight, sometimes in pleasurable pain, depending on the spice quotient of the accompanying masala. Every region has its own version, of the mango pickle and each outdoes the other. There are other forms too. The aam-panna that makes summer more bearable. The aam-papad, that makes the mouth feel tingly and naughty. The Gujarati chhoondo, a sticky treat for those oriented that way.

There is sweetness and there is mango sweetness. The sweetness of mangoes is ripe and golden, evoking the sun in hay. It offers sweetness without resistance, substantial but yielding. It offers It has an uplifting quality that no other fruit comes close to. It makes goodness and happiness real. The varieties are eaten sliced combine firmness and softness, sweetness with the just the right amount of tartness wrapped in a heavenly aroma, which is the product of a complex interplay of many different aromas. As a 2002 study by Singh, Lalel and Nair puts it ‘more than 285 different aroma volatile compounds have been reported which include 7 acids, 55 alcohols, 31 aldehydes, 26 ketones, 14 lactones, 74 esters, 69 hydrocarbons, and 9 other compounds’, whatever each of them mean.

In a larger sense, fruits represent an ambrosial ideal. Notions of paradise are almost always laden with fruit. Nature is seen at its most bountiful and benevolent when it showers us with the blessing that is fruit. Can you imagine the first time, a human being bit into a mango? At a time when there was no artificial sugar, and the senses were unused to sweetness, how would that first taste of mango have been?

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