The Cult of the Mango: Take a Deep Sniff and Say ‘Aammmm’
My husband comes home and finds me and Ochoa eating mango slices from a plate in front of us. His face drops.
“Why are you eating mangoes like this?”
“Like how?” I ask.
“As a whole fruit, cut … in slices?” He shudders, like it is something evil.
“We like it this way,” I tell him nonchalantly.
Later at night, he takes a tiffin box from the fridge, full of the golden liquid he dreams about all year; aamras. He ensures Ochoa isn’t distracted by me or anything else, then puts spoons full of aamras in his mouth.
“And that is how to eat a mango, my son,” he says, triumphant as a high priest at his altar.
For most of the year, memory of the gorgeous yellow fruit unites us mango lovers; we are the same, weak-kneed creatures, dreaming of Indian mango season, clinging together to dull the cravings. But come summer, and the opposites that attracted us become all too real as we each return to the cults in which we were raised.
When I was a child, I would know it was summer when Baba brought home a packet of ‘dasheris’, the first batch of mangoes that arrive in Delhi. After dinner, he would sit and slice them, then we would eat, greedily and lovingly all at once. The piece that consisted of the flesh around the seed would go to Ma, the only goddess in the house, ready to forsake her love for the fruit. As the summer went on, Baba would move on to the other varieties and teach us about the texture, the sweetness or tanginess, and finally, the cost of each.
There were the small, green, raw mangoes, the ones Ma used to make ‘tok dal,’ or, tangy dal, a Bengali summer delicacy (good for the skin and hair); the sweetest oblong thing ever, the ‘chausa’ from Punjab; and the dirty green ‘langra’ soon followed. Baba, a great lover of the Bengali ‘himsagar’ aam from West Bengal, made sure we ate that specific breed in Delhi, somehow. But we rarely got to the mighty Ratnagiri Alphonsoes. They were expensive, and having many mangoes trumped having few. We were a voracious group, showing abstinence only in our wait for the sun to set, when we would take a mango from the basket together – a family communion.
But nothing about my history matches the reverence that my husband was brought up to have for the pulpy fruit.
For Gujaratis, loving the aam is a religion. The children are brought up on ‘vaatkis’ of aamras; carbs and proteins fall by the wayside for those four months, because aamras is the nectar of, if not the gods, at least of growing children. Bowls full of freshly churned aamras at every meal call adherents from all walks of life: Kids, running from the bus stop to their homes, games forgotten; fathers, who cut back on office work so as to duck out early; and mothers, who can relax over a dish that requires lesser cooking than usual. The mango unites them all.
But not just any mango. My family had a diverse pantheon in a basket. My husband’s venerates a ‘peti pack’ of real Alphonsoes. A month in advance, this large carton of the holy fruit finds pride of place in every store room. Slowly, like a god awakening from slumber, the semi-green pieces are checked, smelled and gently resettled, until they take on a richer yellow hue.
My mother-in-law attempted to convert me, once upon a time. Anticipating my disinterest in all thing kitchen, she gathered the accoutrement of her religion beforehand and just called me in, casually. As I entered, I saw five mangoes, a pot of milk, a bowl of castor sugar and a mixer.
“It’s nothing extraordinary.” How it must have pained her to utter those words. “Just watch, we can do it with our eyes closed.” She started to remove the skin of the mangoes, one by one, in a huge bowl.
Then, she squeezed the flesh out of them.
It was a ritualistic sacrifice that made me sad, not reverent. That was a good mango right there, before the good lady choked the life out of it.
“Mummy, isn’t it all a very queasy affair? Do you like turning the aam into mush?” I asked.
“Best things in life come after a struggle,” she said solemnly.
Any chances of me learning the sacred art of making aamras died that evening. While not hostile to her cult, I just couldn’t shake my own. To me, three pieces of a single mango cut in a jiffy is how to eat a mango.
Our kid Ochoa changed everything, though. While I and the husband were content to love aam the way we knew best, the toddler’s entry into our lives has pitted slices against aamras in a clash of the titans. It’s all-out spiritual warfare.
In all this mango madness, however, we may have not considered a few tiny details – that maybe, the kid doesn’t love the fruit that much. That he looks amused every time I or his father bring the mango close and ask him to smell it. That in a bid to initiate him into the fold, we overfeed him. That maybe, 20 years later, he will turn to a friend and say, “And that’s how I became an atheist.”