A Mango Republic

Temptation, brutality, romance, inspiration. Songs, books and even ads. A rural-urban divide. All thanks to the king of fruits.

If news reports are to be believed, there is one thing that even our President designate (for all practical purposes) and Congress’ famed trouble-shooter finds troublesome to resist. Pranab-da has a weakness for mangoes, and it’s a pity that he would have to spend his Presidential years in Delhi which, like all Indian metros, is a city of mango philistines. Being the head of the state, he would be spoilt for choice but not for “aam tehzeeb”. The reason is simple – Delhites don’t know their mangoes (please don’t be fooled by those tamashas called “mango festivals” attended by “it looks so good” mango aficionados who can’t tell a biju from sukul and malda from dussehari). Coming from Bihar where everyone can claim to be a mango connoisseur, my own esoteric foray into mango discourse has been quite modest by comparison and hasn’t gone beyond savouring a bite (better to say soh/chobh) commentary.

However, what is even more unsettling than the mango illiteracy in metro India is how unimaginatively mango has figured as a metaphor in the titles of two important novels published in the subcontinent in recent years. When former Penguin India chief, David Davidar decided to make his literary debut, his first novel was published with a quite un-mangolike title The House of Blue Mangoes (2002).

In neighbouring Pakistan, Mohammad Hanif had his first shot at exploding on the literary scene with a rather violent imagery of A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008).

And of course, you have the sensuality of Katrina Kaif’s “aam sutra” lascivious lips as she promotes a mango-flavoured soft drink brand.

Interestingly, the association of mangoes with romantic love and sensuality is nothing new for India. Some ancient Indian texts mention the belief among people that a mango tree represented Prajapati and its leaves and flowers were believed to be darts of Kamdev, who held the portfolio of love and sex in Brahma’s council of universal ministers. Apart from the amorous appeal of mangoes, the Bradaranyaka Upanishad in 1000 BC also praises the qualities of the mango and some scholars are of the opinion that the fruit referred to as saha in Rig Veda alludes to the mango.

More than the fruit, it was the tree and soothing (and sometimes amorous too) ambience of mango orchards or groves (whatever you call it) which captivated the poetic aesthetics in a wide variety of Indian literary texts. Just sample this verse from a Sanskrit text:

aṅkurite pallavite korakite vikasite ca sahakāre |
aṅkuritaḥ pallavitaḥ korakito vikasitaś ca madano ‘sau ||

(As the mango flowers begin to grow, to put forth sprouts, to bud and finally to blossom, Love too swelled, sprouted, budded and blossomed.)

But if you are talking of mango orchards, can you really “black out” the cuckoo? In his Ritusambharam, Kalidas vividly describes the joyful presence of a cuckoo in a mango orchard which could be translated to mean:

“Intoxicated by the nectar of mango blossoms,

The cuckoo kisses his mate happily in love..

The lovely mango shoot is his choicest arrow,

The swarm of bees is his bow string’’.

And closer to modern times, Amir Khusrau noted how mango buds contribute to the infectious aesthetics of the ambience and spurs a damsel to try on her make up:

akal ban phool rahi /ambva phootey, tesu phule/koel boley dar dar/gori karat shingar

(The mustard blooms in every field/Mango buds snap open, the flower blooms/The cuckoo sings from every branch/The damsel does her make-up.)

In the realm of popular culture, as seen through the prism of Hindi film music, there have been very few references to the captivating ambience of a mango tree or orchard. The few that are there carry that romantic tinge and sometimes also the glow of memories – sometimes tormenting, sometimes nostalgic and sometimes aesthetically evocative. One of the most melancholic evocations of memories of a mango tree in Hindi films was as early as in 1960. Sometimes tune into that Mukesh classic Saaranga Teri Yaad Me from the film, Saranga. The languishing lover, enacted by Sudesh Kumar, recalls the swaying or swinging of a mango tree in the lines penned by Bharat Vyas and put to music by Sardar Malik

Wo amwaa ka jhoolnaa/Wo peepal ki chhaanv/Ghoonghat mein jab chaand tha/ Mehandi lagi thi paanv/Aaj ujadke rah gayaa/wo sapnon kaa gaao/O Saranga teri yaad mein nain huye bechain ho madhur tumhaare milan bina/Din katate nahin rain

(That swing of the mango tree/That shade of the peepal tree/When  the moon was behind the face veil/And mehendi was on the feet/Today that village of dreams lies deserted/Saranga, eyes go restless in your memory/Without those meetings, neither the days nor the nights pass)

In 1976, a song in Basu Chatterjee’s Chitchor expresses the yearning of a young lover to have more meetings with his beloved at their first rendezvous – under a mango tree. Written and composed by Ravindra Jain, this Yesudas and Hemlata duet had Amol Palekar and Zareena Wahab emoting on the screen:

Jahan pahli baar mile the ham/jis jagah se sang chale the hum/nadiya ke kinaare aaj usi /amwa ke tale aana/Jab deep dale aana/jab shaam dhale aana

(Where we met first/From where we walked together/Do come to that river bank/ Come under that mango tree only/Come when lamps are lit/Come when the evening fades away)

It is interesting to note that of late, it was the year 2001 which had two films with songs which referred to mango groves (Zubeidaa Pyara Sa Gaon song) and the charm of the ripening of mangoes in a rural milieu (Gadar – Udja Kale Kawan song).

But mango orchards in the Indian hinterland aren’t only about nostalgia, idyllic pace, love, natural aesthetics and the savouring of nature’s delights. They are also brutal arenas in which horrific feudal relations play out. Just sample how simply Nagarjun depicts the dehumanised face of a mango grove in the first few lines of his 1952 path-breaking novel, Balchanwa. A child recalls how his father’s trespassing into a mango grove to savour two kishenbhogs (a variety of mango found in North Bihar) turned into a crime that was punished by him being lynched to death by the feudal owner of the orchard. The boy traces the incident to 1936 and the district is Darbhanga, and he recalls:

Barah baras ki umra me mera baap mar gaya…Suna hai, mera baap dophar se samay bag se do kishenbhog tor laya tha. Kishenbhog kacha bhi khane me khoob swadist hota hai.thik waisa hi jaisa bhigoya hua chawal.todte to kisi ne dekha nahi par baithe-baithe wah aam soh raha tha to kissi ne dekha aur…chugli kar di, phir kyat ha…

(Paraphasing it: When I was 12, my father passed away. I have been told that my father had taken two kishenbhogs from the orchard. Kishenbhog, even if not ripe, is very tasty, just like soaked rice. Nobody had seen him doing so but when he was savouring the mangoes, somebody saw and told (the feudal owner), and then what was left?)

Although mangoes packed in fancy baskets are still prized “exotic” exchanges in Indian summers, the popular imagination of mangoes in urban spaces is now running out of its cultural, social and historical moorings. It may be a sign of the decline of the “mango sense” which is entrenched in the agrarian sensibilities and aesthetics of rural milieu. But this is not simply a rural-urban divide, it could well be a divide between a philistine consumerist and agrarian culturist. A fruit may be just a fruit, but it can be something beyond that…Some know it, most don’t.




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  • good stuff as usual.

  • Rightly said “Delhites don’t know their mangoes”…their choice is always made by the price and they r so much obsessed with this price tag syndrome that they can’t differentiate between 50 rs kg Dussehri and 200 rs Alphonso on taste.