Mangoes. Yes, you have looked at the calendar and you are saying to yourself: Isn’t it early to have a mango debate? But really what is a season any more? Is it ever too early nowadays to start campaigning for elections in Uttar Pradesh or arguing about the mango?
I am not here to praise the mango or bury it. Just to say that life is short and we must not live by mango alone. In our fruit-eating years, shouldn’t we be polyamorous and eager for variety? Why must mangoes live in our heads year-round, drowning all our relationships with other tender, loving fruit? Where are the long poems dedicated to the green guava (“no masala, just plain,” says my friend Supriya sternly) or the perfect papaya?
The other disservice that the mango does is that its perfect sweetness creates a resistance to a whole world of crisp-tasting fruits which are sometimes sour, sometimes sweet but always leave you feeling alive. Prime candidate from this category is the fruit known as chambakka in Kerala and wax apples or water apples in many other places (also in this category is the lololikka, aka the coffee plum).
This tendency to call highly specific local fruit “X apple” in English is very confusing. The delicious thaati nungu, which appears at the height of summer with its delicately flavoured, cool, translucent flesh, is called ice apple. Something else is rose apple. At one time in Bengaluru, folks selling tomatoes on the street would yell out tomato or love apple alternately. Don’t ask. I oppose the apple hegemony in toto.
Being extremely non-monogamous in the fruit department, I particularly enjoy how the journeys of fruits are reflected in their names. How satisfying is it that a most wonderful fruit known as the chicozapote in Mexico and Venezuela made a long trip to India in the 19th century and promptly picked a takhallus each for north and south India by splitting its name—chikoo and sapota? This is rather more entertaining than the seetaphal/sharifa dichotomy of the difficult and deeply satisfying custard apple. Or that the fruit without which no one was once allowed to visit patients in hospitals—mosambi—probably got its name from its point of origin, Mozambique?
A friend who is tragically allergic to fruit says he misses all the fruit he has never eaten but is acutely resentful of the kind of easy (facile, he implied) connection to nature to be gained by reaching out and plucking a fruit from a tree and eating it. I thought of the eagle eye that my Mizo friends keep in Bengaluru for zongta, a cluster bean that grows on high trees. Anytime is zongta time and any street a potential zongta orchard. But my fruit-deprived friend’s moroseness mostly reminded me of a moment in an apple orchard many years ago. Once, while passing through Almora, a colleague in a cropped Madonna T-shirt and blond highlights leapt out of our car to pluck an apple from a tree. He returned to the car, bit into the apple while looking into my eyes and said, “Suddenly, I feel full of wisdom.” He was being his clever, camp self, of course. But to know the name of fruit is the best kind of knowledge. Regardless of the experience of certain Biblical characters.
Barathi, a young writer and literary critic, says that bananas are sadly underrated fruit. “It’s my favourite but I think people are indifferent to it. Like it’s… there, nothing great but does the job.” The self-possessed-ness of superb, cheap fruit like the banana and the papaya leads to many annoying situations. Namely that of fashionable nutritionists never, ever putting it on your diet and recommending pale and lonely travellers such as the kiwi instead. I admit to having my head turned by dragon fruit and mangosteen but there is a stage at which a phirangi fruit becomes a native and I feel like the kiwi isn’t there yet. The starfruit is. The persimmon, which just a decade ago was Japani phal to Delhi vendors, is now tendu and comes down from the hills in an unassuming way to hang out with strawberries and cherries.
I love these partying fruit but my heart belongs to the chakka—the jackfruit. One of my few ambitions for my sons even before they were born was a fanatic plan to make sure they like jackfruit. As it happens, they eat jackfruit happily but due to some crossed wires in their tiny brains, they currently think that all fruit fall under the umbrella term jackfruit. I am loath to correct them. If ever there was a Pangaea of fruit, wouldn’t it be the jackfruit—a reminder of a delicious prehistorical existence in its spiky, outsized self? A fruit like a continent on which we could all live, where the smooth-skinned elegance of a mango is just the fever dream of a prophetic ape.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.