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A mango medley

Cutting across space and time, the mango makes its presence felt with myriad names that tell juicy tales. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN writes about the king of fruits.


HAVE YOU heard of the man who sold his mate to buy what he loved best — a basket of mangoes? Thailand's favourite mango is named "The Brahmin Who Sells His Wife'' to commemorate that legend. Cambodia speaks of a pregnant woman forewarned of the tragic destiny in store for her if she ate the forbidden mango. Indonesian lore has a shipboard hero searching for the bathing beauty on a far shore, a single strand of whose hair fires him with passion. She agrees to marry him after eating the fruit from the mango tree he had planted. Sri Lanka has a version of the Silappadikaram, where Kannaki is born of a mango stem. Today, the Mango Tree Story Telling Group in Newcastle, is named after the mango grove where the Buddha meditated in peace. And do you know that Hart Crane wrote the poem "The Mango Tree", shaping the written lines to resemble the tree which he believed was the original `apple' tree of Eden?

Mango tales are not confined to India, though ours is the nation that leads the world in mango varieties and production. Like everything else in this country, the mango's origin has a myth to go with it. The daughter of the Sun transforms herself into a golden lotus, but is burnt by her evil persecutor. Reborn from the fruit of the mango tree springing from the ashes, she marries her royal lover.

An Oscar Wildean allegory paints a mango orchard, producing its sweetest crop for the children who play in its shades. The miserly owner plucks and locks up all the fruit. When he opens the doors of his storehouse to take his crop to the market, every mango turns into a golden oriole and flies back to the orchard, delighting the children with sweet music.

More localised legends centre around wish fulfilment trees; like the huge one before the samadhi of saint Narayanatirtha, village Tirupunturutti, Thanjavur, whose fruit `guarantees' fertility to devout women.

A ubiquitous image in Indian art and lore, the tough, fibrous wild mango (mangifera indica) is said to be 5000 years old, the cultivated varieties appearing in the last 2000 years. Slowly, through travellers and traders — from Buddhist monks to Portuguese colonisers — the mango was transported to other tropical and sub-tropical locations east and west, evolving variations in China, Africa, the West Indies, Hawaii, Mexico, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines, Thailand and California. Don't we know Florida relatives like Kent, Keitt, Tommy Atkins, Haden — all cultivated from "mulgoba'' saplings? Haven't we read of the naturalist Gerald Durrell capturing golden bats in Roderigues Island, Mauritius, roosting on giant mango trees? Now that Australia has entered the field we may expect novel crops from Kangarooland.

However, none of these colonial cousins can match the ambrosial flavour of the made-in-India product, as Emperor Jahangir discovered long ago. "Notwithstanding the sweetness of the Kabul fruits, not one of them has the flavour of the mango," declared the Great Mughal epicure. Akbar too had prided himself on his huge mango grove in Darbhanga. Under diverse names in the different regions of the country, the wonder fruit cast its spell on European visitors, including ascetic friars and zealous diplomats. However, its global identity (mango) was established with a Tamil connection (mangai).

This fruit of the Devas, Maharajas, Badshahs and Viceroys, has always been the fruit of the common man as well. The rare Jehangir and exotic Himayat may be confined to the well-to-do, but the humbler varieties have been accessible to less affluent classes.

In his "House of Blue Mangoes", David Davidar describes a great mango yatra, starting in Kerala with the Ollour of "thick yellow skin and flesh and a faintly resinous after-taste". In Madurai, the mango pilgrims encounter "Rumanis as round as cricket balls and so thin-skinned that a baby could peel them, Mulgoas so enormous that they often tipped the scale at three kgs, and the highly prized Cherukurasam."

In Mumbai's Crawford Market, they taste the Alphonso with "a touch of tartness, a spill of honey, a profusion of fresh, light notes on a deep bass foundation", and Pairi juice as "thick and sweet as clarified sunlight''. In the East, they encounter Malda, Chausa, Himsagar, Bombayi, Langda, Malihabadi Dussehri etc. They are invited to a mango tasting festival by the Murshidabad Nawab who "first munched on a spicy, coarsely ground kabab so that his palate was completely fresh and then delicately picked at a little of the heart flesh of the Gulabkhas, a mango that tasted of roses."

This was reminiscent of the Lucknow ruler Wajid Ali Shah, who had fine background music for tasting mangoes plucked by women chosen for their long tapering fingers!

The mango continues to capture new addicts the worldover, like the students of Christ College, Cambridge, who launched their Mango Chutney Society after tasting the delicacy at the local Gandhi Cuisine(!) restaurant.

If the mango is the king of fruits, the Alphonso is the king of mangoes. Though the Chennai pavements are flooded with fleshy Banganapalli, with Rumani and Neelam following in due course, boxes of expensive Alphonsos (marked export quality) beckon temptingly from the fruit stalls. It seems a sin not to yield. True, some hybrids resemble this magnificent fruit, but only as a nityamalli may suggest the jatimalli. Nothing can equal the rich feel of "aapoos" on the tongue. The gourmet eats it with eyes closed. Is there a queen of mangoes? Langda? Paadiri? Banganapalli? Rasalu?

The thought activates a flashback to a college picnic at the Qutb Shahi Tombs, near Golconda Fort, Hyderabad, where classmate Sakina offers an unknown mango, its aroma seeping into you like a grand, leisurely raag.

Its skin is a blaze of green and gold, peeling smoothly to the shade of shenbagam blooms, with slices of pale dawn yellow. "Himampasand," she explains, pointing to one of the tombs to identify the king who sent a basket of the same fruit to a maiden who resisted his love. "Naturally, the girl was won over."

When the fruit unfolds itself in a slow alapana, as strong as it is dainty — so are you.

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