In India, Democracy Follows the Mango

When I left my house in Delhi on the last night of April, summer had just arrived in the north of India. The next evening, I found myself in a radio station in Copenhagen, discussing ideas of love in the 21st century with the Danish poet Mette Moestrup and two very opinionated musicians.

From Copenhagen, I voyaged to New York, where I had two weeks to myself in a flat on the Upper West Side with a marvelously idiosyncratic cat as my companion. I spent my mornings drinking iced coffee and writing in that grotto of sweet pleasures, the Hungarian Pastry Shop, and my evenings browsing in the city's magnificent used bookstores and drinking and dining in Chinatown and Greenwich Village.

From New York, I sauntered on to Washington, where I spent the afternoons admiring the work (and snoozing on the grassy lawns) of the residence of the great Indian painter Delna Dastur. I visited the offices of the Washington Post, a paper for which I sometimes write reviews, and the IMF and the World Bank for a small shot of education from an economist there. From DC, I flew to Germany, where my novel has just appeared in translation. I drank beer by the barrel in Berlin, walked by the harbor in Hamburg, dined with the crime writers Boris Pfeiffer, Ella Danz and Nina George, and watched Germany beat the Netherlands in the 2012 European Football (soccer to Americans) Championships in a bar packed with screaming fans. Finally, I came home to Delhi on a sweltering morning in the middle of June.

Wonderful though it was, I can't say, that my summer was entirely without regrets.

After all, I missed most of India's mango season.

Every year, from the beginning of April until the end of June, a parade of the most sumptuous and sensual of all fruits passes through the markets of India, emerging fragrant from hay-lined crates onto the shelves of hundreds of thousands of small shops and pushcarts, and from there onto the tables of Indian households, where both memory and imagination have for long kept the door open for their arrival. Huge shipments of fruit, particularly the Alphonso mango prized in the west of India, fly out all summer into the homes of the Indian diaspora in the rest of Asia and the Middle East. The annual size of the trade is about $360 million. There are as many as 300 varieties of mango, although perhaps only four dozen or so are grown commercially. My own favorites are the green-skinned Kesar, whose bright orange flesh is devastatingly sweet and tart and aromatic, and the small, pulpy sucking mango, the Chausa. I've now eaten six pounds of mangoes in two days, but I'm know I'm still well behind the game.

As an excellent mango map of the country published recently on Yahoo India shows, each region of the country supplies a different mix of mangoes depending on soil, rainfall and climate. (One remarkable tree in an orchard in Malihabad in north India is a one-stop catalog of a few hundred strains grafted onto it by a master horticulturist, Kaleemullah Khan.) India is the world's largest mango producer, accounting for about 40 percent of annual production with 15 million tons. The pleasures of Indian mangoes are both a mystery to Americans (where for two decades they could not be imported because they didn't meet FDA standards, leaving the stringier South American varieties a free run of the market), and a memory that provokes acute nostalgia in the Indian diaspora. For those Indians who left home to work in America, "the taste of mango was the price of immigration," wrote Sandip Roy in an essay on the mango in 2009. Recently, the Alphonso mango has made a return to America, but it still isn't as good as it could be because, as a recent piece in the New York Times noted, the produce is usually artificially ripened. At about $4 to $6 a mango, they aren't cheap either.

Reporting from a conclave of the US-India Business Council in Washington last week, Smita Prakash wrote in Mid-day:

It was quite a sight to see American and Indian businessmen, lobbyists and journalists push, shove and grab their bag of free Indian grown mangoes at the US-India Business Council meet on the sidelines of the 3rd round of the India-US strategic dialogue in Washington DC.

In 2007 the Bush government eased the way for the import of Indian mangoes to the US. Irradiated Indian mangoes finally reached American shores but they were so expensive that nobody wanted to buy them. At $40 a box they lie in a corner in most grocery stores waiting for connoisseurs to pick them up. Indian mangoes like Alphonso and Kesar are soft skinned and when they are subjected to irradiation they can only be air freighted, this makes them too expensive.

And in his essay "Mangoes and me" on the website, Sohail Hashmi supplied a catalog of mango memories from his childhood in Delhi:

We set out early morning after a quick bite, loading the tonga [a horse-drawn carriage] with a whole brick or two of ice, huge quantities of mangoes, bought from the Darya Ganj Mandi [market] at crack of dawn and every one would pile up. We would carry large tubs to cool the mangoes in and reach Okhla by 9 or 9.30 am and return only towards sun set. Once we reached the garden, sheets would be brought out and spread under the shade of trees. If we were at Hauz Khas the grownups would station themselves in the various verandas and the kids would run around the open grounds. Ice would be crushed, bucketfuls of water brought or someone would send for a water carrier, who would come with his bag of goatskin and fill the tubs with water. Mangoes would soak in this chilled water for hours; everyone would keep drawing from this seemingly inexhaustible source of mangoes and eat, occasionally breaking the monotony of eating mangoes by eating spicy mince meat cooked the night before.

Every so often, I'm asked to recommend a story from Indian literature that is so inextricably rooted in the subcontinent's history and landscape that it acts as a gateway into what is unique about the Indian imagination. I like to vary my answers, but most often I recommend the sublime story called "Gulab Khas," set in the great mango orchards of north India. It is by the writer Abul Fazal Siddiqui (1908-1986), who belonged to the landed aristocracy of that region, moved to Pakistan after Partition, and is now claimed as a Pakistani writer.

The story is about a contest that takes place every five years for the most aromatic and delicious new variety of mango submitted by the region's fiercely ambitious mango cultivators. During this great mango festival, writes Siddiqi, “The whole world was nothing but mangoes and life was lived only for the sake of this luscious fruit. Everyone spent their waking hours debating about mangoes and their sleeping hours dreaming about them. If someone woke up in the middle of the night, in his drowsy state the bed sheets and pillows felt as if they were under three inches of mango juice and pulp.” When a dispute breaks out between two leading mango growers of the region, the person appointed to arbitrate feels that "the eyes of the whole subcontinent were riveted on him," and that his task is "fraught with historical import."

Siddiqi liberally embellishes this claim by drenching his story in mango lore, reeling off dizzying catalogues of the best varieties, tracking with delight the conspiracies of growers to develop sublime new strains, and stretching every sinew of his prose to find words and metaphors to convey the transporting delights of mango colour, flavour and texture. When, in the end, a lowly gardener's daughter walks off with the prize, leaving an army of upper-class landowners outraged and baffled, it might be said that it is not just a mango that has won the day (and the world), but also the ideals and energies of a newly democratic India.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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