In the backyard of our house, two ancient mango trees are covered with tiny mango fruits. We are already tense about what is in store for us in the coming few months if the mango crop is bumper. Tiny little girls, with sweet sour dreams in their eyes, will beg for a few mangoes; the tangier, the better. The rough boys will throw stones, gather the booty and scurry before we can catch them; the parrots will screech happily all summer, like connoisseurs, pecking at the very best of the lot. Sigh! The mangoes are definitely greener and make life less complicated on the other side of the fence.
Gone are the days when I could have given my most precious possession in exchange for a few raw mangoes, sliced and sprinkled with salt and chill flakes. Oh, to savour their tangy taste while turning the pages of a novel. With sensitive teeth, a shudder goes down my jawline when I spot someone crunching blissfully on the raw fruit.
I am transported back in time when summer holidays and mango season were juxtaposed. Summer vacation meant having relatives staying for long, without the host or guest worrying about return tickets. Throughout the long summer days the gaggle of children of assorted age groups would run riot, men discussed politics while women engaged themselves in supervising meals, altering clothes and stitching, match making or planning future weddings.
While reading about the king of fruits, I found that Mango is a verb, meaning 'to pickle'. The name is derived from Manga, in Malayalam. Centuries past, mangoes had to be pickled because of sweltering heat of the tropics and short shelf life, mostly due to lack of refrigeration.
Our childhood too was devoid of the luxury of a fridge. The ripe mangoes were soaked in buckets overnight to let out their heat. If we had too many of them, we would either keep rushing to the toilet or were covered with painful blisters.
Raw mangoes were mostly pickled after the first summer shower. After preparing and feeding an entire platoon, my mother emerged with a retinue of volunteers in the corner of a huge courtyard where they would toil throughout the long muggy afternoon.
The large pile of mangoes would be graded, sorted, sliced evenly with a cutter (usually borrowed) mixed with the fragrant spices and filled into huge stone jars. The rich yellowish - green mix would then be submerged in golden mustard oil. These vats, many in number, would be kept in the sun for long, testing our patience. What resulted was not just pickle but a work of art!
The copious supply of pickle transformed our insipid breakfast, lunch and dinner into gourmet meal, all the year round. As the relatives left, they also carried with them a jar or two. The pickle thus served to cement relationships, connecting one generation of cousins to the next, without making any financial investments. It was dinned into us that whatever is cheaper need not be inferior and vice-versa.
The tiny ready-made pickle bottles that are displayed on my kitchen shelf today are a sad reminder of our shrinking investments in reciprocity, thoughtfulness and togetherness.
The mango season brings different flavours but the one that I relished in the past,with its lack of adulteration and artifice,is the one that clings on, refusing to leave.