Mango  (mæengaeu)— n, pl -goes, -gos
1. a tropical Asian anacardiaceous evergreen tree, Mangifera indica, cultivated in the tropics for its fruit
2. the ovoid edible fruit of this tree, having a smooth rind and sweet juicy orange-yellow flesh
[C16: via Portuguese from Malay manga,  from Tamil mankay mango tree + kay  fruit]

At my inlaws’ home in Vellore, no summer meal, morning or night, may end without biting into the cheek of a Neelam mango. If my mother-in-law forgets to serve it, my father-in-law hovers over the dining area—even when he’s not seated at the table like a nawab—just to remind her that she must not forget to bring out the juicy mangoes cold from the fridge, cut them and serve them to him, the rest of the family and the guests.

oninglish_mango

My father-in-law is brooding over ripe mangoes this summer for other reasons. He would like to serve whole mangoes for his 80th birthday celebration here in South India. Right now, he’s losing oodles of juice worrying about whether he should serve several hundred mangoes for the feast. The logistics of arranging for those juicy Kala Pahad mangoes to be freshly bought at the market on the morning of his birthday, storing them in a cool bin somewhere, washing and serving them along with the many delicacies on the banana leaf is burrowing into his brain, like a worm blazing a maze inside an Alphonso mango.

My father-in-law governs over his big and small possessions as a king might guard his throne and his coffers. He lives in the constant fear that someone will walk away with his things. And so, for his upcoming birthday bash, he frets that the cooks and other help and, quite possibly, other hangers on, will swipe these mangoes before any remain for serving to guests. Funny as it sounds, my father-in-law’s anxieties are not unfounded.

Petty crime is a constant worry for most natives and tourists in India. A few years ago, my husband lost his new Florsheims the morning after he arrived in Chennai. The black leather slip-on shoes probably fetched a neat sum at a local used goods market. On yet another trip, I lost my brand new lacy Vanity bra that I had hung out to dry on a laundry line full of clothes in the backyard of our bungalow. Unfortunately, a strapping young woman was elastic enough to haul herself over the wall to filch the undergarment flapping in our yard.

And, in any case, who can blame that bra thief for loving the fit? Good taste must be admired. And so, like my gourmand father-in-law who can polish off a plate of well-puffed pooris at any hour of the day, I too will rant about this real problem of mango burglars. Like him, I too believe that these golden Indian mangoes are worth much more than their weight in gold. Like him, I too will choose to run after a truck bursting with Banganapalli mangoes in season than chase an armored vehicle loaded with gold biscuits.

The golden mango is iconic of India and the word mango has deep roots in this ancient country. The name originated from the Tamil word mangai or mankay or Malay mangga (via Portuguese). The skin of the mango and its juice evokes the heat of the tropics. Its form is redolent of erotic Indian sculptures. Its scent has aroused a primal, sensual response in the devourer since legendary times. India and Indians are obsessed with this fruit: mango motifs and paisleys are one of the most popular designs in silks, cottons and georgettes. They embellish Kashmiri shawls, sculptures, friezes and furnishings.

The Hindu religion also abounds with references to the mango. The perfect, ripe mango is often held by the elephant-headed Ganesha as a symbol of achievement and wisdom. Mango blossoms are also used in the worship of the goddess Saraswati. In Tamil homes mango leaves decorate archways and doors during weddings and festivals as a sign of peace and prosperity. Across South India, a New Year feast may not happen without that one delicacy, the mango pachadi, a puree made by boiling mangoes and seasoning the amber-yellow consommé with green chillies, mustard, curry leaves and a pinch of jaggery.

According to Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva wanted to test Parvati’s sincerity in performing prayer by setting fire to the mango tree under which she was seated. Parvati prayed to her brother, Lord Vishnu, who caused waves of nectar to cool down the scorching rays. The 3000-year-old mango tree under which she is supposed to have performed her penance still stands inside the Ekambaranathar temple in Kanchipuram, some twenty miles from where my father-in-law’s home is located in Vellore. This tree is believed to bear four kinds of fruit, each one signifying one of the four Vedas.

In India, about 1,500 varieties of mango are grown, including a thousand commercial varieties. The most sought after fruit, the sweet, juicy alphonso, is mainly grown in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, Bulsar in Gujarat and also in Karnataka. The state of Uttar Pradesh is known for four other varieties:Dashehari, Langra, Bombay Green and Chausa. The Himsagar mango is cultivated in West Bengal.

I believe—and I’m sure I’ll hear a hundred yays and nays with respect to this one—that no mango will ever match up to the one that I grew up with: theBanganapalli. Those golden nuggets of sun and sweet hung in clumps from the tree in our backyard and warmed in a huge basket filled with hay inside the store room of our kitchen for days before they could be eaten. They were, unfortunately, the apple of every urchin’s eye when I was growing up in Chennai.

Any number of young men vaulted into our yard in the heat of the noonday sun to steal these fleshy drops of gold. They catapulted stones at them for then, as well as now, there never has been anything more enticing than a mango in season.

Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga (this one’s from Chennai). To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.org and http://saritorial.com.

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