Altalf Hussain Hali, an ardent admirer of Mirza Ghalib and himself a poet of no mean achievement once had a very hot debate with the latter's friend Nawab Mustafa Khan Shefta on the topic that Ghalib was the sole Indian poet who had tasted the maximum varieties of mangoes.
Shefta maintained that it wasn't so but with his stunning memory and deep study of Ghalib's life, Hali was the winner in proving that Ghalib had in fact tasted most of the 4,000 varieties of mangoes grown in India. This might be a funny incident but the truth is that Ghalib was the one who loved eating mangoes in sweltering summers more than composing his couplets.
The varieties of mangoes that Ghalib mentioned in 63 letters written to his friends are - Malda, Fasli, Chausa, Zard Aaloo, Jahangir, Dasehri, Rehmat-e-Khas, Sarauli, Malghoba, Aziz Pasand, Mahmood Samar, Sultan-us-Samar, Ram Kela, Bombay Green, Ratol, Safeda Mallihabadi, Dil Pasand, Husan Aara, Nazuk Pasand, Kishan Bhog, Neelam, Khudadad, Hamlet, Tota Pari, Nishati, Zafrani, Sinduri, Khatta Meetha, Barah Masi, Langra, Alfonso, Fajri Samar Bahisht, Gulabakhsh, Bishop, Xavier, Rumani and Badami. Ghalib had tasted all these.
His love for mangoes was in fact more than that of wine or even poetry when the season of the heavenly, juicy fruit came in the months of June and July.
Quoting Ghalib regarding mangoes, Hali mentions in his Yadgar-e-Ghalib that the poet was also very well versed with the history of mangoes.
Ghalib wrote to a friend, Maulvi Sadruddin Azurda about the history of mangoes: "The mango has been cultivated in India for over 4,000 years and is so much a part of the Indian heritage and culture that it is almost an object of veneration in Hindu households. Down through the centuries, emperors have pledged their devotion to the mango!
"The records of Hieun Tsang, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who visited India during Harshavardhan's reign in the 6th century B.C., contains references to the attentive cultivation of the mango in the country. The Mughal emperors also evinced keen interest in the mango's systematic cultivation and emperor Akbar is credited with having planted genetically superior mangoes in an orchard known as Lakh Bakhsh, north of Agra.
"Small wonder that our best varieties of mangoes bear names such as Jahangir and Himayun-ud-Din. Even Bahadur Shah Zafar, had a mango garden known as Hayat Bakhsh in the gardens of the Red Fort in which some of the most delicious and juicy varieties were grown."
Mango is such a fruit that the accounts of it qualities are there since Vedic times. In fact there is a very interesting incident quoted in Persian by Ghalib's friend Yusuf Mirza that traces the history of mango to the Vedic times.
It says that god once witnessed a contest between the two celestial brothers - Ganesh and Subramaniya popularly known as Kartikeya. Their parents Shiva and Parvati announced that the one to race round the world and emerge the first would receive a wonderful gift.
While Subramaniya set off on this arduous race, Ganesh, the shrewd and calculating one, did some clever thinking. He circled around his parents, suggesting that they were world to him, and won the fabulous prize - a luscious mango!
Even Sufi poet Amir Khusro had praised the mango in his Persian poetry and called it Fakhr-e-Gulshan.
According to Ghalib it is a remarkable fruit in the sense that it can be cut with a knife, sucked like ice cream or crushed for its juice. It gives more joy in comparison with other fruits if it is cut and eaten. He called such a mango as Qalmi Aam. Even great poets like Nazir Akbarabadi and Iqbal too have written gloriously about mangoes.
Ghalib wrote to his friends as far as Calcutta, Bombay and Madras for sending him the mangoes and he was really fortunate enough that they obliged him by sending the tokris (baskets) of the fruit.
To a friend living in Calcutta, Mir Sarfaraz Hussain, he wrote as many as 15 letters requesting him to send him Bengal's famous Gulbakhsh mangoes. Finally Sarfaraz Hussain sent him two baskets.
During May, 1857, when the Sepoy Mutiny was at its peak, Ghalib went to a friend of his in Meerut, who was a Subedar by family tradition and owned many mango orchards in Meerut and Saharnpur.
Once during the afternoon, Ghalib felt the urge to eat mangoes. That was not the time for the fruit to get ripened as most of the varieties in northern India ripe in the sweltering heat of June. While Ghalib was just gazing at the kachcha aam (unripe mangoes), a British soldier saw Ghalib and without ado arrested him.
In fact that area was densely populated by Muslims who revolted against the British. The poet was taken to the Meerut Kotwali after arrest. In those days Hindus and Muslims used to wear almost similar clothes.
When he reached the police station, the military governor Colonel Burn asked Ghalib: "Are you a Muslim?"
Ghalib was witty and his friend confirmed his presence of mind was par excellence. He replied: " I am only a half-Muslim."
"What exactly do you mean by that? Be clear," said Col. Burn.
"By that I mean Sir, that I take liquor but I do not touch pork!"
Hearing this, Col. Burn burst out laughing and let him off advising him not to mix up with the rioters.
Shefta narrated that in one gathering there were Maulana Fazl-e-Haq, Ghalib and other friends and they discussed about mangoes.
When everyone had had one's say, Haq asked for Ghalib's comments. And he said: "In my opinion, there are only two necessary requirements concerning mangoes. Firstly, they should be sweet and secondly, they should be plentiful!"