“The air is beginning to heat up,” Nancy Gandhi blogs from her home in Chennai. “The mango tree burgeoned with flowers this year, more than ever before. Now they have turned brown and dropped off, leaving tiny fruit behind. The largest of these have already grown to egg size.”
The trouble with such evocative writing is that it stirs up delectable memories. In India, summer is fast approaching; it brings unbearably hot weather but as if to compensate it brings luscious mangoes as well. The season ranges from April to the coming of the monsoon in late June, a bad time for most overseas Indians to be vacationing in their homeland.
In the bountiful supermarkets of America, which stock a variety of produce from the world over, you cannot find mangoes from India, following a ban on its import 17 years ago. Desperate foodies, who have tried to smuggle them in, are thwarted by the green-coated beagles at the airport. The smart canine brigade works for the United States Department of Agriculture, which is charged with protecting the nation from foreign agricultural pests and thereby diseases. All the dollars in the world will not buy the Indian in America fresh desi mangoes. Ethnic stores stock cans of mango pulp and slices in heavy syrup, but they do nothing for a true mango lover.
“We have mangoes here in New Orleans, but they just don’t taste the same, you know,” my friend Maitri commiserated.
There are the homegrown varieties, and imports from other countries, as well. Mangifera indica grows in many parts of the world and among the many mind-boggling varieties of this species, all mango lovers have one particular favorite. Apart from being a matter of personal taste, the allegiance to any particular variety is largely a geographic consideration. But surely, I am not wrong in thinking that even the humblest of Indian mangoes is better than any variety currently available in America. Then again, what is patriotism, as someone asked, other than a love of foods we ate as kids.
“Every summer in Madras was filled with the sumptuous, succulent, luscious king of fruits, the intricate and sweet mango,” Maitri remembers. “How I love thee … how many white t-shirts I have stained with your inimitable juice?” she asks in jest.
Last May, my husband and I had a very bad case of the Mango Blues. Our craving led us to Toronto, since Canada does allow the import of Indian mangoes. Ostensibly, we were there to visit friends. One of them, a second-generation Canadian, graciously became our tour guide. My Bombay-bred husband was in gustatory heaven when we spotted boxes of Alphonso in Little India. “We are here only for the mangoes,” he blurted out, as he took his first bite.
My efforts to find the Banganapalle, my favorite, were quite fruitless. Does India even export it? Of course, I couldn’t be my usual picky self, especially when our host bit into the Alphonso and exclaimed, “What a mango! Not only is it sweet, but it has this flavor that no other mango I’ve ever tried has.” With all the zeal of a recent convert, he has since been recommending them to all his friends.
“Next May, then,” he said as he dropped us off. But soon, we may not have to go that far to satisfy our mango craving.
George Bush, on his recent trip to the subcontinent, signed a pact, which will allow great nuclear cooperation between India and America. On the same day, the possibility of bringing Indian mangoes back to the American market became an item on the wish list to improve trade and economic cooperation between the two nations. Like the nuclear pact, the lift on the ban of the Indian mangoes is not a done deal; time and effort will see both through.
But as the old Hindi proverb goes, the fruit of patience is particularly sweet.
Vijaysree Venkatraman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org