A case of exploring mangoes

BLink_Mango.eps

Not a summer of discontent: A vendor sells hapoos at Crawford market in Mumbai. Photo: Paul Noronha.

Ruchir Joshi

Import bans be praised… for the Alphonso devotee, all is well this summer, and god is in his orange-yellow heaven

If you’re any kind of a north Indian, that is, from anywhere north of a latitude that passes just above Udaipur, then you should not even be allowed to approach a box of these. Just don’t bother. Walk on by. Keep away. Because we who truly worship do not need to hear your crass, dismissive, ignorantly blasphemous comparisons of our — I can’t bear to even put the name in the same sentence — with your langdas, safedas, dussehras and chausas. The same applies to those deluded southies who swear by the banganapallis, imam-pasands and whatnots, not to mention philistine easterners who wave the flags of gulabkhaas and himsagar. The only thing one can concede is that in the matter of names the beautifully named southern totapari and the tiny, nearly extinct Bengali madhugulguli win out over our champion, but that hardly matters when the only sound that escapes after you eat one of our miracles is an ecstatic sigh.

First of all, you have to find some genuine ones, not any of the many wannabe pretender-impostors that hustlers will try and sell you. They should be in one of these garishly coloured boxes you get nowadays (these boxes that are part of the problem, because all of us tend to believe stuff printed on boxes), but in the olden golden days even we end-point consumers got them in proper tokris, baskets about the size and shape of a big Indian bathroom bucket, and that just added to the sense of repletion, to the full five-sensory delivery of the meaning, point and reward of existence. Box or basket, you should know when you’re in the presence, you should have no doubts, your nose should slide towards and then trip over into a subtle but undeniable olfactory orgasm. Your nose should know before your eyes come into play, but, when you see them, your eyes should smear with well-contained tears of recognition and joyous reconnection. The tears should be well-contained, almost hidden if possible, because, even if the guy is selling them to you for an arm and a leg you don’t want to be paying both arms and legs.

Then. When you hold one in your hand it shouldn’t be too big, for if it’s bigger than a somewhat elongated adult-sized cricket ball it’s not from the region, the terroir of the gods, but a transplanted kagemusha, a son-of-a-fake-gun pretending to be the real shogun, from Tranquebar or Abkibar but not Malabar. Besides the right size it has to have the specific shape, as in its elongated ‘beak’ should be just a slight nod in the direction of the larger family of iconic fruit to which it belongs, nay, over which it rules. The skin should be more matte than shiny, the colour the most beautiful, soul-sifting deep cadmium yellow, with some variations and gradations allowable towards cream yellow and light green, with the occasional black mark like the beauty spot on the rounded left buttock of… did I mention the smell? The smell should be just so, not the crude perfume of the brasher varieties (which can offer their brief temptations), but the subtle, seductive, multi-layered bouquet you might find just outside the beautifully crafted doors of paradise. In the safety and privacy of your home, when you finally cut one open, gaze upon the deep orange-yellow that is revealed, and slice it and taste it — that is when you’re allowed to fully cry with joy, but only while making sure the salt of your tears doesn’t sully the taste of the proof that gods exist and have given you this golden nectar in the form of the hapoos, the empress of mangoes, Reina Alphonsa.

No, seriously, look, unlike the sneers others launch at our beloved hapoos, we alphoncionados are not dismissive of the many fine mango varieties. We give due respect to the beauties of the south, the heavy-hitters of the north and the great aams of the east. There’s no arguing that the mango is the most iconic of Indian fruits. And under that big-tent definition the fruit’s glory actually lies in its mind-boggling variety. There is a mango taste, there is a mango look, there is a mango feel that ranges from stringy to buttery, from firm to pulpy; but within the aaroha and aavroha of this mango raag lies a vast sea of compositions and improvisations. Talking about traditions and nature’s different gharanas, I’ll even concede that some of the ones named above are truly ancient varieties, so old that they would have been eaten in Vedic times, whereas the alphonso/hapoos is a much younger entrant, so named because it’s a hybrid created by some Portuguese experimenters, who grafted two or maybe more local Malabar coast varieties together to arrive at this fusion of nature’s genius and human endeavour. In the queue of concessions, let me add the business of taste-loyalty: the savour of mango you first receive through your mother’s milk will be the one that later turns your tongue-turbines. None of this matters. For me, the fact remains that there is fruit, of which mangoes are the most exalted example, and of the mango, the hapoos is, without question, the crowning glory.

Now if you think I’m being over the top, this is to be encouraged; if you think the hapoos is overrated, bless you, please stick to your guns; if you want to turn up your nose and walk past the ‘overpriced’ boxes to dive into the reverse snobbery of less dear varieties, be my guest. It’s bad enough that the whole world equates Indian mangoes with alphonsos without other Indians also getting greedy. Hopefully, between local anti-hapoos prejudice and various import bans internationally, there will be more hapoos for people like me. So do enjoy your cream-yellow safedas and your half-red gulabkhaas while I, quietly, take the sharpest knife I have and cut myself a slice of heaven.

( Ruchir Joshi is a filmmaker and writer. He is the author of 'The Last Jet-Engine Laugh', and his last book was 'Poriborton: An Election Diary')

Published on June 06, 2014

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