Summers at home in Kolkata are yellow. Mangoes don’t grow in our garden; our garden grows in and around mangoes. By early March, soft green leaves appear, soon followed by bunches of mango flowers, their lovely little bouquets all over the tree. Spring is incomplete without admiring the sight of the first few baby mangoes and leaning over from the terrace to inhale their scent. Soon, summer kicks in with a vengeance and so does the craving for cool, sweet-and-sour, raw mango recipes: toker dal (mango dal, served cold), aamer tok (watery mango chutney), aam panna (chilled mango drink). The pleasure of savouring farm-fresh produce, direct from tree to table, never fades—even though it does get tempered with other emotions as the season progresses. As the green of the mango turns yellow, and April hands over the summer to May, there is utter mayhem in the household.
Mango flower bouquets in Spring
May mornings begin with Ma springing from bed and dashing into the garden to collect the mangoes that have dropped overnight. She will count them, wash them, sort them according to the state they are in (with whole or torn skin) and store them away in the fridge or in bamboo baskets. Whoever is in the house has to take turns doing this throughout the day, at roughly two-hour intervals, and it is still impossible to keep up with the pace at which the ripe mangoes decide to descend upon us. This is so because Baba believes in letting Nature take her course, and so we don’t usually get the mangoes picked manually. Every fresh dhup from the garden makes us wince and prod one another to go serve our turn in soul-sapping heat, praying not to be struck by a mango missile. Often, our windowsills are lined with mangoes that we were aambushed by in unsuspected corners of the garden. Soon, mangoes take over the fridge, the room, the house. Every shelf and tray of the fridge is stashed with mangoes, compelling us to switch on an old, small fridge upstairs appointed specially as a mango warehouse. The best-ventilated room turns into diwan-e-aam. Every day witnesses a new culinary experiment with mangoes, and everyone, irrespective of dietary preferences, is compelled to turn mangovore, since every few hours brings qatl-e-aam.
We have four mango trees. Three of them—Himsagar, Amrapali, Baromashya—were planted by my late grandparents (Dimmu-Dadubhai) as saplings acquired by a relative working in the agriculture division of the state government. These purebreds have proven to be somewhat shy in serving their function; their yield has been low and erratic. But the tree that is the most consistently fruitful is my favourite kind of plant life: the ‘spontaneous’ tree, the seed of which was transplanted casually by some bird and grew promptly and uninhibitedly. Its mango is that of a ‘hybrid’ variety of rotund shape, its yellow flesh composed of a sweet and firm outer ring and a wet-looking sour core, and its skin delicate. Not the choiciest mango variety, but always dependable.
I have always heard these four trees being referred to like the four siblings of an expansive Bengali family: boro (eldest), mejo (second eldest), shejo (second youngest), and chhoto (youngest). Befitting his name, Boro towers over the house like the eldest son, under whose indulgent shade many a meek plant would take shelter. Cut to 2020, the first year of the pandemic, which brought the cyclonic fury called Amphan (again, that aam!). I remember that evening vividly, especially the aamer aatonko (the mango terror) that followed in its wake. After having taken some meagre precautions against the foretold destruction, we spent hours in dark, power-less rooms, with the winds howling outside and making tin roofs rattle and torrential downpour wreaking havoc all around. It was early May, the mangoes were still unripe and came crashing down like stones on our car and our windows, creating such an infernal racket that it seemed like the heavens were descending upon us. The next morning, we surveyed a much-battered garden with its floating debris and corpses of trees, and came upon a carpet of hundreds of mangoes below a dangerously tilted Boro threatening to smash into our gate any moment. We were dismayed at the thought of having to bring such a majestic tree down but as it happens, one thing led to nothing and like ideal Indian fatalists, we decided to let the tree be. Nothing happened. Boro kept standing in his altered pose, firmly secured by the roots. Only, there was no fruit the following year. We accepted this as graceful, well-deserved retirement.
Post-Amphan mango terror
But slowly, we noticed that the other, smaller plants that had hitherto remained stunted under Boro’s massive shade, now began to flourish and bloom in the face of direct sunlight. The banana tree grew wildly, multiplying its leaves, bananas, and banana flowers. The reluctant gondhoraj (gardenia) bloomed rapidly in quick succession. But last year was waiting for us with several mango surprises. For one, Boro returned to his old form and gifted us too many mangoes that have more than made up for the dry spell the previous year. Mejo and Shejo displayed late signs of fruiting. Especially delightful was Shejo’s sleek, oblong delicious Amrapali with its sweet orange flesh and thin, sharp stone. Mejo’s Himsagars were few, and hard to distinguish from Boro’s fruit, since the branches of the two grow into each other. Even laidback Chhoto was blessed with bite-sized mangoes. So, last summer’s haul was a rich buffet of all four varieties of mangoes. What a lesson in the surprising confidence shown by the meek in conditions suitable for their thriving.
Yet another mango wonder visited us from our other home, in Nabagram, Konnagar, a small town at a twenty-minute train ride away from Howrah station. It’s a vacant, forlorn house where my late paternal grandparents (Didi-Dadu) lived and we grandchildren spent many a happy summer and winter vacation; it’s also a home that is becoming more abstract with time, much like the village home in Achal Mishra’s soulful film, Gamak Ghar. Towering coconut, betelnut, and mango trees still flourish there in the midst of unkempt wilderness, carrying with them our fond memories of fruity holidays spent guzzling tender coconut and devouring mangoes, and sitting down for nemontonno-style meals on banana leaves (traditional serving style at weddings and other special occasions). But now our visits there are so infrequent and brief, that all these rich offerings have been quite lost to us. However, the most recent visit had a lovely surprise awaiting us—large, yellow mangoes hanging from another ‘spontaneous’ tree that was found thriving on its own. Picking the fruit took some doing, but the reward was so unexpectedly ripe and delicious, tasting as it did of sticky childhood summers spent peeling and gorging on mangoes whole.
My mother has a spiritual connection with the mangoes in our garden. So much so, that I am convinced that ‘মা’ (mā: mother) is an anagram for ‘আম’ (ām: mango). Nothing else explains the devotion with which she gathers each of them, the relish with which she sits down to eat them without wasting any bit, the enthusiasm with which she processes them in various forms, and the peculiar satisfaction she derives from distributing them to others.
Boro’s mangoes are the first to ripen and the most plentiful. By mid-May, they are all fully grown and drop down at the gentlest touch (of wind, bird, squirrel) to their delicate stems unable to bear their weight. In its expansive shade is parked our car, with many a mango-shaped dent on its roof. Since these mangoes have very soft skin, our driveway becomes a veritable case of exploding mangoes. Although, my mother sees them as ‘injured’ mangoes—fallen soldiers wounded in service of a higher cause and she, the gallant commander surveying and rescuing her troops. The tortured guilt she feels to leave a single fallen mango unattended overnight, strengthen my belief that for her, they are sentient creatures. Not that I can reconcile this with the carnage that lies in the fruit’s fate at her very hands.
For Ma, the mangoes are her deceased parents’ blessings, particularly those of her mother’s, who was extremely fond of mangoes but didn’t live long enough to witness the trees grow to maturity. (I don’t know what to make of blessings from which we have to shield our heads, but then again, what’s affection without some playful aggression.) Ma feels a keen sense of responsibility in distributing a fair share of the mangoes – to her sisters, our neighbours, any relatives who come visiting, everyone who in any capacity helps this house run, and also passers-by who come in search of stray mangoes that may have rolled out to the street. She is impatient till she has ‘done her duty’ by all rightful recipients and even after that, feels she could have done more. (I have found her anxious vigour in this matched only by a character from a Manto story.) Some of our neighbours are of my grandparents’ generation and always fondly recall Dadubhai’s unfailing sending over of mango-laden aambassadors. He would also call upon relatives to come by and collect drumsticks or mangoes and in turn be presented their mangoes or other garden produce. And thus, social ties were thoughtfully maintained. Ma tries her best to keep this tradition alive. To all these routine recipients, the fruit must taste like they do to us: replete with memories of Dadubhai-Dimmu. Trees make for the best memorials and fruit and flowers carry the flavours and fragrance of the long departed but never fully gone.
For two months or thereabouts, our pre-breakfast routine remains consistent: Operation Mango, or mango operation. We select the softest and squishiest mangoes from the fridge collection, peel, pulp, and blend them by the dozen, and transform the potion via the mango recipe of the day. Ma’s mango vision is enduring and geared towards preserving something of the fruit for those unable to taste them in season, especially my brother and sister-in-law living in Bangalore. (My brother, who never fails to quip, ki re, aam kheye aamaasha holo? i.e. hey, did the mangoes give you dysentery yet?) She digs out her old recipe book dating from before my birth and even her marriage, when she had joined cooking classes with one Aloka di whom she remembers very fondly. Carefully turning the pages now rebelling against their binding—and almost each of which is (rather pointlessly) bookmarked—she settles upon recipes for pickles, jams, marmalades, and squashes.
She begins the season with pickles because she loves them as much as I do. Sometimes the pickles follow the path laid down by her recipe book, sometimes their fate is decided by our cook Mita di’s family recipes, and sometimes there are experiments by both women in collaboration, drawing from YouTube recipe videos that Ma has taken to surfing a lot, of late. There are two versions of these pickles—sweet-and-sour for my chilli-intolerant taste buds, and sweet-and-sour-with-chillies for Baba; Ma helps herself to both of these. All of these are cooked pickles that turn out wonderfully well, but equally leave me craving Dimmu’s mango pickle, made from smearing chopped mango pieces with spices and dried over several days in the sun. The weather is much more unpredictable these days, with no assurance of reliable sunniness, so the sun-dried pickle has slowly faded out. More than once it has so happened that Ma put out aam shotto (layers of dried mango pulp flattened into thin sheets) in the sun, only to have the rain spoil her plans. Last season, she took to jamming with great gusto. She found an easy, quick recipe that used minimum preservatives and converted mangoes to jam within an hour. She is especially fond of the sight of the vivid gold of the jam glowing through the clear glass of the jam jar. She has also tried a few types of mango sandesh—soft, delicate sweet made of chhena (here, flavoured with mango) that few Bengalis can resist.
These mangoes have also transformed a reluctant cook and careless eater like me into a more enthusiastic culinary adventurer. My speciality are mango drinks—an easy-to-make mango shake from ripe mangoes, and aam panna from raw mangoes that is a bit more laborious but worth every sip in the sweltering Bengal summer. But last year, the cascade of mangoes from all trees at once, made me resolve to mangofy everything that could be mangofied, and in turn gave me much to learn and reflect upon. I have learnt while making mango phirni (rice pudding) that ‘some rose water’ in a recipe means a spoonful, not a bowlful; the latter can, in fact, give you rose-flavoured diarrhoea—gulaab (rose) to julaab (diarrhoea), as an uncle helpfully noted. I have realised while making mango rabdi (dessert made with condensed milk), that the process of stirring milk and watching it thicken awakens strange existential ennui in me. After many unsuccessful attempts at baking a properly edible cake over the years, I finally found the perfect, fail-proof recipe for a soft and subtle eggless mango cake whose taste reminds me of the eggless chocolate cake that we used to wolf down in school. I baked it for Father’s Day, continuing the association of mangoes and fathers.
Clockwise: Mango cake, mango jam, mango rabdi, aam panna, aam sandesh, mango phirni
By the end of the season, the mango bounty thrills, exhausts, and humbles. It is the source of my mother’s childlike excitement every summer, and keeps us happily busy through the most draining days of the year. The mango trees are part of the foundation of this house, and Boro’s branches push into our walls as if propping them up. They watch us grow with a promise to shower (or pelt) their blessings upon us each year. Their five-leafed clusters also make it to puja offerings at many a home. Last June, I embarked upon my last mango adventure of the season: mango ice cream, its recipe gleaned from a sensible vlog (no whipping cream or condensed milk, no churning, fully homemade). In the four or so hours it took to freeze properly, I began writing this essay and then made a collage of the peels of those last mangoes. It’s April now and this essay has finally set properly, just in time to greet the first fruitsome treats of a fresh summer.
Collage made from the peels, leaves, and stem of Boro and Shejo