When I was young my parents often sent me to grandparents’ house during vacations. The day the school closed, my brother and I packed our bags to our holiday home. Dad dropped my brother to his grandma’s home and then we caught a bus to Kollam, where my grandparents lived. Of all the breaks, summer vacation was the best one. Mangoes come only in summer.
Papa and Ammachy were both retired school teachers. They owned a rubber plantation and some rice fields. The house was amidst the plantations, facing the main road. On the front yard were two huge mango trees. One of them was very popular for the gargantuan number of mangoes it gave every summer. The other one was as good as dead: it always disappointed us. Besides, there were other small mango trees in the backyard.
Every noon after lunch, Papa and Ammachy retired to their usual afternoon siesta. This was my favorite time of the day, for I could stealthily escape to the plantations. The plantation in the afternoon was a heaven; the heat was bearable and the wind was cool. On the peak of the plantation was another mango tree. They call it the Kilichundan maav. It gave yummy mangoes. Kilichundan means ‘of the beak of a bird’. But the tree leaned over the cliff and hence all the mangoes fell down into the the property of our neighbor. Armed with a bag of stones and accompanied by Rehna, my mom’s youngest cousin who lived nearby, I used to climb up the plantation. If lucky, twenty aims of stone would send a mango down. The most important thing, however, is not to bring a mango down but to get it from the neighbor’s compound before the kids there grab them. So I had to run downhill, climb up a wall and seize my prize. In the plantation, the rows of rubber trees were interspersed with rows of pineapple plants. Pineapples rarely interested us because it was sour and too difficult to peel with bare hands.
It was mandatory to return home by 4:30 because that was the time Papa would wake up for his evening tea. Papa never had tea from home, he had it from the teashop near the junction. Ammachy’s tea was less brown; it always tasted like milk.
Waking up every morning comes with a natural tendency to go to the front yard and see if any mango fell. A couple of them usually fell at night with the grace of owls and bats. But Papa forbade me from eating the mangoes which were already half eaten by birds: they can bring terrible diseases. It was impossible to reach up for a mango even from the terrace. It was a very tall tree. When the mangoes of the front yard were almost ripe, Papa would hire some climbers to pluck them. Once the ritual of plucking is done, mangoes are arranged in huge wicker baskets, covered in hay and stored in the warehouse. Hay was believed to fasten the ripening process. After a couple of days, when we open the warehouse, a very tempting aroma hits our senses. The mangoes grew yellower and softer.
Still, the mangoes of the front yard were never too sweet. We ate it after adding a pinch of chilly powder and coconut oil to the fruit slices. During one of my vacations there, Ammachy made jam with mangoes because they were too sour to eat. It was amazing to see the mango pulp and sugar thickening to form a jelly-like-structure as the heat increased. Once the jam was made, we realized that it was too much for three people. Also, Papa and Ammachy were diabetic. That summer I was forced to eat chappatis, dosas and bread with mango jam all the time! I grew tired and even hated jam for some time.
The mangoes of the smaller trees were treated differently. They were either pickled or substituted for tamarind in fish curry. Ammachy had these big jars where she would throw mangoes as a whole to the salted water. These mangoes would stay for years! I used to have them even during my Christmas break, six months after the summer. Being too salty, they can be eaten only with rice and curry.
As childhood grew into teenage, I spent less vacations with Papa and Ammachy. Many years passed and during one monsoon, the huge front tree that gave mangoes fell down in a storm. It was a very sad moment when Ammachy called me while I was doing my homework in our Trivandrum home and said ‘Aa maavu veenu mole’ (‘that mango tree fell’). Six years before, when I came visiting, Papa showed me one of the best surprises: the other mango tree of the front yard was flowering. It hadn’t flowered in his lifetime before, he said. For the years that came, I relished on the sweet mangoes of the not-dead-anymore-tree. However, we humans being humans do stupid stuff. They cut that tree two years before as the huge mangoes that fell down were cracking the glasses of the car parked below. I simply couldn’t express my feelings on hearing this argument. They shatter the glasses.
When my parents brought a new home in Trivandrum, it came with its own fortunes. There was a small mango tree than gave small mangoes in our yard. It is called thali manga. The first year after moving into the new home, the tree gave us too many mangoes. We couldn’t eat them because the week the mangoes ripened was the week we planned a trip to Ooty. As a result the entire mangoes went wasted. After that the tree gave less fruit every year and that too were worm infested.
Two days back I took a bus ride to Pondicherry from Chennai. Both sides of the ECR were dominated by mango orchards. Mangoes of different sizes and shapes hung from these trees. At one moment, I felt like crying: pictures of perfection makes me wicked and sick. The memories of the lost childhood hit like a rogue wave. Papa died last December. I have refused to visit Ammachy after his demise. It all feels incomplete. Maybe this summer is the opportunity to make amends for the immaturity I profess.
Today I cannot explain my love for mangoes: is it because of the fruit in itself or is it a reminiscence of beautiful memories? Either way, mangoes and summer are two things that would always invoke happiness. As I pack my luggage to return home when the college closes for summer, I have planned the best gift for my people: Mangoes of diverse flavors, fragrance, color, size and shapes…