Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mango Season

My Ammoomma was born in the late thirties, in a village in what is now Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. She was the seventh of eleven brothers and sisters. Her father worked as a doctor in the local hospital, and they all lived in a big house near the temple. Acres and acres of their land surrounded the house, and the family was considered quite wealthy.
The house was sold off long ago, converted into a resort for the rich and the rootless. But Ammomma often reminisces about those times. The amount of rice the house used to consume in one day, the number of servants they used to have, how the children all used to sit on the dining room floor in one long row for lunch, how the girls used to go to school every day with so many roses in their hair that the other girls made fun of them. I like imagining her running around that big house, a little girl in a white petticoat, secure in her little village, while outside, in the big world that she knows nothing of, her country survives the final throes of a freedom movement, becomes independent, and takes its first tentative steps as a nation.
She says she likes talking about those times because they are gone forever. That way of living, it has quite disappeared. And the way we are today, it can never come again. Then again, that's also probably why I like listening to her stories. They're about a time that I can experience only through her words, by letting her stories play out in my mind against the backdrop of a house I can remember only sketchily.
One of the stories she told me recently was about the mangoes.
Their big house was surrounded by mango trees of all shapes and sizes. There was the one that produced long and thin mangoes; these mangoes were called 'kolan manga'. There was the mango tree that stood next to the broken well. Its mangoes were called 'pottakinaru manga', and were the sweetest of the lot. At the western end of the compound, two mango trees stood so close to each other that it seemed they must grow from the same base. But they produced two different types of mangoes! And then there was the poor tree whose mangoes nobody liked, because it stood right next to the refuse pit.
"In the mango season," she says, "Whenever there was a wind, PADA-PADA the managoes would fall. And all of us, the children, we would run out, and grab the mangoes. The ones we couldn't eat, we would give to Ammoomma. And she would decide what to do with them. Some she would keep for lunch. Some she would decide to pickle. And others, the ones that were slightly broken from the fall, would go into the big jar for the winter.  And at lunch, Appooppan would squeeze the essence of the mangoes and give each of us a big yellow ball of rice and curd and mango and salt. By the end of the squeezing, his hand used to become completely yellow!
"Even the servants used to pick up a few mangoes for their lunch. They used to eat enormous amounts of rice though, much more than us. There used to be a Muslim who used to come to chop wood - Thambi Metthan, he was called. That's what he used to do all day - just chop wood. And when we poured rice for him to eat, it used to be like a little white hill, so tall that his face was almost covered. And he would actually eat it all too!
The ground below each mango tree used to be littered with fallen mangoes, she says. And with flies feasting stickily on the mangoes. When you went near, they would rise into the air, a buzzing black cloud, but some would remain on the mangoes, too full to fly perhaps.
"What happened to all these mango trees?" I ask.
"Cut down, all of them, " she answers. "One by one."
"I don't know. Maybe they went bad. Trees do." Pause. "You know, it was the tree next to the refuse pit that survived longest. Nobody wanted its mangoes in the beginning, but it ended up being the most sought after. How times change!"
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Anonymous said...

Only the greatest piece of Indian fiction since the Indian Railways time table. Heh.

The Master Bater.