The Secret Lives of Mangoes

In the worst mango season in a decade, our writer finds himself in the middle of an orchard of the famous Rataul variety. In the grip of its sweetness, he begins a journey. To where? Does it matter? From the birds to the bees, from summer memories to gorging on small craft varieties, from Pathans to hijras to zamindars, from the history of its culture to the history of its tastes, he extols, he exults

I keep looking around, waiting for it to occur. There has to be one. Just one.

It happens as we are about to leave the mango orchard. A journalist from a well-known Delhi publication climbs a tree. Not to gain fruit or perspective, both of which are plentiful on terra firma. It is an atavistic urge. I know because I, too, feel it.

Primates and fruits go back a long, long way. Our arboreal ancestors would have found the most delightful sustenance in fruit. The success of flowering and fruit-bearing plants on earth is down to co-evolution, to the partnership of rooted plants that outsource pollination and seed dispersal to mobile animals.

The co-evolutionary commodities exchange thrived on sugar – in fruit and in nectar. If the plant wanted to load up its seed with long-term packaged nutrition, the seed proved too heavy for insects and birds. It needed larger conveyors; it needed mammals. But they exacted a bigger payment: larger fruits, more flesh, more sugar.

Then our ancestors descended into grasslands, straightened their backs, cultured certain nutritious grasses into food grain, and embarked on an omnivorous colonising mission. But the congenital desire of fruit and sugar never left us. That’s how the food processing industry has us addicted to refined sugars.

A former editor of mine, now dead, described how he would lose all taste in his mouth after cancer treatment. The measured poisons of chemotherapy made everything taste bitter, metallic. Slowly, as the drugs ebbed inside his body, other tastes returned. Salt. Sour. The last to return, each time, was sweet. Just describing the return of the taste of sweet would light up his face. A child smiled through the pain.

That’s what our taste sensors do on contact with those simple, sugary hydrates of carbon. Each parent knows it on the face of his child. Each diabetic is intimate with the hostility between the taste buds and insulin. Even as an adjective, sweet is special. Sweet sound. Sweet shot. Sweetieee.

The rarer the sweet, the greater the desire. Consider that it appears in the most inhospitable season in our subcontinent, and the hype about mangoes seems only logical. No fruit attracts such attention in the tropics.

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Unlike the apple, it does not need to piggyback a marketing message of preventive medicine. Just the taste of mango will do fine for us, thank you. Can you imagine that irreverent poet, Mirza Ghalib, source of the juiciest mango anecdotes, in the thrall of hypochondria, queuing up at a Reliance Fresh outlet to buy a dozen apples to keep the doctor away?

Everybody has mango stories, even if we can’t articulate them with the felicity of a Ghalib. I remember lying on my back, staring at the stars in the company of my cousins during the Dussehra holidays of my childhood, arguing which season was the best. I argued vehemently for winter. And then a cousin settled the debate with one question: Which season gives mangoes? I was silenced.

Coming from a landless family, I envied classmates whose stories featured mango orchards. Which is why my friend, owner of a myriad of mango trees and enough productive land to dent India’s food security, cannot understand my enthusiasm about standing in the middle of a mango orchard, or climbing a tree. I’ve dragged her on this trip to Baghpat’s Rataul village, famous for its mangoes. For people who have tasted mangoes of Uttar Pradesh (UP), two varieties get mentioned repeatedly: the Rataul for its fragrance and the Chausa for the texture of its flesh.

“Leave a basket of Rataul on the table. It will scent the house for a week,” says Nisar Ahmed Abbasi, the minder of a mango orchard in Rataul that retired professor Zahoor Siddiqui has inherited. In Delhi, Qazi Najam Islam does not wait a minute to name Rataul as his favourite. He should know his fruit, being the mango point man for the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee of Azadpur Mandi, India’s largest wholesale market for fruits.

Apart from trading in mangoes, he has his own orchards in UP’s Bulandshahr. So when he says the current mango season is perhaps the worst in more than a decade, he is speaking for both growers and traders. “I am yet to hear of anybody making a profit in the mango trade this season, not even in Andhra Pradesh (AP).” AP is India’s largest mango producer, which along with UP accounts for more than half of India’s total mango production.

Back in Rataul, walking in the orchard, Abbasi reiterates that this is a particularly bad year. It was never expected to be a good one because mango has a biennial cycle. Last year was a bumper harvest, so this was always going to be a lean year. But the weather made it worse.

“I bet this irregular weather is due to climate change,” says Sheikh Insram Ali, president of the All India Mango Growers’ Association. “The winter lingered beyond the time of flowering. Then, when the fruit needed heat to mature, we had storms. Before you knew it, the monsoon had arrived.” He estimates the growers will be lucky to make 40 percent of what they did last year.

But a bad year ought to reflect in prices, in the well-known ways of demand and supply. Should not the growers get higher returns for smaller yields?

“Untimely rains mean we cannot hold on to the produce. We cannot leave the fruit on the tree and we cannot store it for very long after taking it off. So everybody is offloading the produce at the same time, creating a glut, depressing the price,” says Ali, who has his ancestral orchards in Malihabad, a village near Lucknow famous for its mangoes.

The mango trade is changing. Najam Islam says the traditional mango belts of UP are losing profits to competition from newer regions, such as Gujarat: “The mango consumer is not that discerning any more. People have many options for sweets.” Then there is competition from imported fruits like the kiwi from New Zealand and apples from America and China, which attract young people. Increasingly, therefore, it makes sense to leave his land fallow or grow sugarcane on it.

Why not explore export markets? Both Islam and Ali point out that most mango varieties do not last long enough to travel distances. “It’s only a few varieties like the Hapus (Alphonso) which have a long shelf life. Besides, Hapus is grown on the west coast, where it is quickly exported to the Gulf countries, from where it travels the world,” says Ali.

Which partly explains the hype about Hapus, of which I have sampled a few over the years. It does not cut my Top 10. It looks presentable, tastes good, and is at home in the supermarket shelves of the industrialised West. One summer in America, during a moment of weakness and longing for the homeland, I picked up some Florida mangoes that looked appealing. I was to later learn that it was a variety called Tommy Atkins. The taste? I’ve never had mangoes outside India thereafter.

My mango sensors were trained on small-sized local varieties in mofussil India; they did not look as appealing as Hapus or Tommy Atkins, but the taste was far superior to Mango Frooti. At the right place and at the right time, minor mango varieties promise a taste that results from hundreds of years of breeding and selection. India has an estimated 1,000 varieties, most of which do not have a market.

UP is the capital of special varieties produced in small quantities and consumed locally. They are the craft mangoes of a bygone era (like the craft breweries coming up in Gurgaon and Bangalore among the neo-rich who want their patch of Europeana in the vicinity of their gated communities). My childhood favourite is a small, slightly sour variety of Malwa that my favourite uncle used to bring by the bagful from the Itwaria mandi in Indore. It was great to suck, and the aam ras was only better. He still laughs at my convulsions of joy on encountering those small, desi mangoes.

I ask an Old-Timer who had an ancestral mango orchard in Baghpat, UP; a widely travelled gastronome and cook, he’s an authority on Indian cuisines and has strong opinions. I’m ready for a homily on the virtues of UP’s mangoes. He snaps back to say the belt between Itarasi (MP) and Nagpur (Maharashtra) produces some unusually tasty mangoes. Check the railway platforms of small stations in that area, he says; they’re worth getting off the train (and not getting back on). He also recalls sampling very good mangoes in several belts of peninsular India.

The only southern varieties one finds in Delhi are Banganpalli (mistakenly called Safeda, which is actually a much smaller variety from Malihabad near Lucknow), Totapuri and Sinduri -- all of which taste like they were grown in the Indian Standards Institute office near ITO in Delhi. The more delicate varieties from the south must be getting consumed locally, I guess (an idea for a road trip!).

So what’s the story behind these varieties? Who created them? The Old-Timer jogs his memory. “In UP, orchards often employed Pathans who came from an area known for quality fruits. They were skilled at grafting, which is a better way to guarantee a variety’s purity. One place that often cropped up in fruity conversations during my childhood was Chaman. It was an adjective signifying plenitude.”

Community histories are tricky; they can indicate some broader truths, but are seldom reliable for fact. So I look up Chaman on the Internet. It is a small town in Baluchistan, bordering Afghanistan. Its name shows up in stories about the fruit trade. The Old-Timer adds that several Bania communities were also a critical part of the transformation of UP’s mango belts. Now, there are 13 belts in the state.

Down south, grafting was introduced by the Portuguese, it appears. Then there are accounts of communities that avoided grafting, preferring trees grown from seeds. Of people tending to young mango trees like they tend to children, plucking out the fruit when it had set so that the young tree grows without investing any energy into fruiting. There are accounts of orchards that were open to everybody but the seed kernels could not be taken out — an indication of germplasm protection.

Ali says several communities put their little bit into creating this cornucopia, but most of the germplasm came from Murshidabad in West Bengal. Which joins with some claims that the mango’s centre of origin is in north-eastern India. In central India, one hears about Hijdon-ki-Amrai; devoid of successors, certain hijras left behind their wealth as orchards for the common good. So eunuchs weren’t just the builders of public works (one built the old Barapullah bridge in Delhi in 1621) but the creators of sweet legacies. This also explains the narrative that mango was food for the poorest of the poor; during the lean season (pre-monsoon, unproductive, mango-bearing), they ate their chapattis with mango because other items were unaffordable.

There are tales of zamindars who lined roadsides with mango trees for shade. That those trees bore plentiful fruit did not hurt. There are accounts of orchards with a stadium in the middle for sports, and shade and fruits for the spectators along a gradient, like modern stands.

The origin of a variety like Rataul is a fertile, many-ended story. Some will tell you it is derived from the Safeda of Malihabad. One account says the mango connoisseur behind it was Lala Rehtu Mal of Rataul, and people used to take his name while enjoying the fruit. What we know for certain is the variety and the place. Like breeds of livestock, mango varieties are often named after the place of their creation — Dasheri is a village near Lucknow, for instance. There was a certain pride in the place, but no hint of aspiration in the nomenclature. Aspiration is hubris.

General Zia-ul-Haq, goes a narrative, brought with him a tokri of Pakistan’s premium mango, Anwar Rataul, when he met the then-prime minister Indira Gandhi (again, we are in the realm of stories, so a willing suspension of disbelief is requested). Subsequently, a delegation from Rataul in Baghpat also sent their choicest produce, reminding Ms Gandhi that the Anwar Rataul was merely a variant of their marquee fruit.

The last I heard of mango diplomacy was when India lowered its emission norms to allow entry for the American motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson. In return, the US withdrew curbs on mango exports from India. An unequal trade, obviously; the US negotiators were more skilled than their Indian counterparts.

Far from the world of trade trends, trees, orchards, and semi-nonfiction, I arrive at Dilli Haat to negotiate the reality of the Delhi government’s annual mango fest. There are five hundred varieties on display; scores of traders from all over the country ply their wares. I flit from stall to stall, settling on one that’s offering the produce of Sitapur, UP. Several representatives of the variety called Husnara (after the heroine of an early Urdu novel) are followed with a few rounds of Zard Aloo (yellow potato).

If this is the output of the worst year in a decade, I can’t wait for the bumper crop of 2014.

A reporter, writer and editor for 17 years, Sopan Joshi is a freelance journalist in Delhi and writes in Hindi and English. He is writing a book on the many sides of sanitation, and is currently a Research Fellow at the Gandhi Peace Foundation. His recent work is available at http://mansampark.in/author/sopanjoshi/

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