Growing up, I wasn’t particularly fond of mangoes, but like any lifelong love affair worth writing about, the relationship has matured and blossomed over time. My indifference towards this ‘king of fruits’ during my childhood was, perhaps, due to its abundance on my family’s farm, located in the fertile plains of Dumraon in western Bihar. From a tender age, I was non-conformist. The herd was never to be followed; and the herd was eating mangoes like they were going out of style.
My father and uncles endlessly repeated stories from their youth—about eating twenty, thirty, forty mangoes from a bucket in a single sitting. My generation, unable to match their superhuman feat, was considered inferior. My mother often skipped lunch and ate half a dozen mangoes instead. In a feudal family, mangoes were a matter of conquest. It’s not that I didn't enjoy the mangoes, but with all the fuss and performance anxiety, I could never get past two or three.
My paternal grandmother was from Saurashtra, due to which the culinary culture of the house was a peculiar mix of Gujarati and Bihari cuisines. And the two made strange bedfellows. There existed a constant one-upmanship between the east and west, which extended to the domain of Mangifera Indica. She would rave about the kesar and alphonso, while my father would rant about the local delicacies that grew in our orchard—langda, chausa, and gulab khas.
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She would organise dinners of her beloved aam ras and teekhi puri. My parents would get mango ice cream churned to perfection in an ice bucket. This battle of cultures went beyond dessert into the realm of pickles. While my granny couldn’t look past her chhundo, we preferred the eastern achaars and morabbas. However, the drinks menu, comprising aam panna and mango milk shake, was a great leveller in the unforgiving heat of the Gangetic plains and both enjoyed unanimous approval. By the end of the season, however, I would be absolutely done with mangoes. Fully fed up, as the Gujaratis would say.
By the time I went to college, I had completely rejected fruits and all other essentials for healthy living, surviving on a steady diet of distilled spirits and homegrown weeds. All I remember of mangoes from those heady days are the cartons of langdas my father would force me to carry back to Delhi after the summer vacations, as gifts for an uncle and a friend's mother for looking after his vagabond son. It was only when I arrived for work in Mumbai that I became aware of the mango mania of the west coast, driven largely by the alphonso or hapus. However, barring late night runs to Haji Ali for mango milkshake or Juhu for mango ice cream, I still did not partake in the festivities for the first decade of my stay in the city, discovering instead the joys of seafood, Persian cuisine and single malt.
After I got married and moved in with my wife, my dietary habits (along with all other habits) transformed, and fruits entered my gut with more regularity. It began with the humble banana, wolfed down with a bowl of cereal before rushing for the morning commute, a juicy apple grabbed on the way to the airport, or a luscious orange eaten on the way to an early morning film shoot. Gradually, fruits became essential and that is how mangoes re-entered the scene—as a seasonal contributor to my gastronomic evolution.
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In the early days, like any self-respecting northern migrant, I wouldn't touch the western varieties and would wait till the langda arrived on the market, relishing the sophistication of its flavour. I would then move on to the fragrant dasheri and finally cap the season with the sweet chausa.
Many seasons passed and we found ourselves in Pune for a couple of years. We employed a kind domestic helper, who hailed from the town of Devgad on the Konkan coast and gave us a case of hapus from her orchard. That act of generosity also shattered my ignorance about the hapus as I finally surrendered to its power, relishing the subtlety of its flavour and the consistency of its texture. Freed from prejudice, I moved back to Mumbai, an enlightened customer, changing varieties effortlessly with the flow of the season. Among my current favourites are the Devgad hapus, the white and tangy badami from Karnataka, the near-perfect kesar from Saurashtra, and the usual suspects—langda, dasheri, chausa—that arrive from the north in successive waves of pure delight.
During the lockdown of 2020, we were safely ensconced within the farm in Dumraon and had unlimited access to the mangoes from our orchard. I discovered gems like the amrapali, a tangy hybrid of dasheri and neelam; and the local rarhi, a pocket dynamo that packs a sweet punch. I must, at this point, confess that I am no connoisseur, just your regular mango lover, an aam ka aadmi. I have yet to taste many of the famous Goan, Bengali and southern varieties. But I’m in no rush, because like in every good love affair, one must leave space for mystique and experience the joy of its gradual unfurling.
Sidharth Singh is the author of the novel Fighter Cock.
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