My friend bought a giant mango from Berkeley Bowl and gave it to me. I squeezed it to see if it was ripe; the way I saw my mother test them when the fruit seller came to the door of our flat in Mumbai many years ago. The mango felt soft to the touch – I cut and separate the three parts – the two kaduppu, and the fleshy portion around the seed. The mango is the color of fire, but my spoon soon gets entangled in the fibers. The threads stick between my teeth and I nostalgically think of the time when I used to eat the famed Alphonso mango, celebrated as the king of mangoes when I was seven or eight years old. During summer, when my parents could still afford a mango a few times a week, I would eat one kaduppu, my father would sometimes eat the other and my mother would make mango milkshake with the pulp scraped from around the seed. My mother would take a few sips of the creamy milk shake, and leave the rest for my father and me to drink and enjoy.
The Alphonso mango is cultivated in the Ratnagiri region close to Mumbai, in Maharashtra. I remember that the price was initially about Rs. 3, but then the price rose and on my father’s government salary we could not afford it. At the time, I was told was that all the mangoes were going to countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia. I was told that these countries had a lot of money to buy mangoes because they had reserves of petrol and all cars did need petrol to run. We did not have a car then but I had seen cars at the pump, on the road and in my building – then and there, I decided that I did not like the smell of petrol as it prevented me from having sweet mangoes!
As I wrote this essay, I consulted Wikipedia, my source for quick information and that explanation for the rise in the price of mangoes at that time made sense. The sudden price rise happened in the 1970s, and this was the time when OPEC countries exerted greater control on oil prices in the world market.
With the world demand for oil in the 1970s preventing ready access to the Alphonso that I loved, I satisfied my longing by digging into spicy mango pickle, made with raw mangoes of an inferior variety – my paternal grandmother worked tirelessly to turn small green mangoes into great tasting mango pickle. I mixed this mango pickle with cold yogurt rice, hoping to bring the spice level down a few notches by doing so. Or in my Maharashtrian friend Madhumati’s house, cheaper raw mangoes were boiled in water till they were softened; then the mangoes were crushed into a pulp which was mixed with sugar and water; we drank this on hot summer days as kairie ka juice.
In 1989 I came to the United States. I searched the aisles in grocery stores, but only found Mexican mangoes. In 1994, the year I defended my PhD, Prop 187 was passed prohibiting undocumented immigrants from using healthcare and public education, even as Californians were still gorging on Mexican mangoes. Later, I became a scientist and moved to Berkeley, but still had no luck locating the Alphonso. Then I saw a small article in India Currents, saying that the US import ban on the Alphonso was being lifted. I had not even realized that there had been a ban in place, since it is not as if the Alphonso needed a visa, or had immigration quotas! Digging further, I found that the ban on importing Alphonso mangoes was imposed in 1989, the year I came to the US and only lifted many years later in 2007.
But I am still searching for the Alphonso mango here. I also read that in May 2014 the European Union banned the import of the Alphonso mango and India had appealed that decision. With bans in place in countries outside India, it appears that the price has dropped in India. So maybe if I go to Mumbai this summer, I might be able to scoop out spoons of the Alphonso mango, letting my teeth glide softly into the inviting flesh. But till that blissful moment, I’ll make my mango lassi with Mexican mangoes and try not to complain.
Roopa Ramamoorthi is a scientist and poet who grew up in India and now lives in Berkeley. Her essays, poetry and fiction have been published including on Perspectives on NPR, India Currents, Berkeley Daily Planet as well as in anthologies – She is Such a Geek, Dismantle, Red Skirt Blue Jeans, the best of 60 years of Spectrum, and in Ursa Minor.