Mitu Varma in New Delhi:
AAM IS WHAT the meaty, luscious fruit is called in Hindi. The word also means ´common´. But the king among the Subcontinental fruits had his revenge this season by turning most elusive, so much so that the price never dipped below 30 rupees a kilogram. Almost the entire crop of juicy “Malda” mangoes from the East fell victim to excessive rain. Mango connoisseurs all over shed copious tears at the sorry sight of drowned mango trees when shots of floods in West Bengal were flashed on national television.
To be sure, there were other varieties. But the flame-coloured, exquisitely flavoured Alphonso grown in the west, particularly Maharashtra, stealthily removed itself via the export market. Named possibly after a sprightly Mr Alphonso of Goa where it was originally grown, this particular species must think India pretty downmarket for its charms.
The sweet and humble Dashehari from the North, of modest size, made a tantalising foray into the market, only to rapidly diminish in numbers and disappear altogether. What did the little fellow in, my friendly neighbourhood fruitwallah is unable to say. An early monsoon, the lure of the selfsame export market, or the lack of hot-enough blasts of “Looh”? The secret seems to have gone with the unseasonal passing of diminutive Dashehari.
Guess who has managed to survive in this lean season? The Langra, meaning ´the lame´. Legend has it that the green fruit was so named for a locomotionally handicapped person who happened to be resting under a mango tree in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Now, Uttar Pradesh is a large state. And what happened then is not known, but the name stuck, which is what is important. The appetising aroma and the tangy sweet-sour taste of the Langra make this a personal favourite, but it is now priced out of the reach of the “common” man and woman.
Mango hopefuls still await the late-season Chausa from Lucknow, which fits into the palm of the hand and is best sucked rather than chewed. But people in the know say we all wait in vain. Even the yellow Mulgoa and the saffron-hued Neelam from the South have not been able to make up for the flagging mango supply in Delhi. The Neelam, incidentally, harbours a dark secret within its bowels which makes it activate the salivary glands in some and chum the stomach in others. The blame is laid on large blue flies which make their home in the fruit, possibly lay eggs, and fly out as soon as the mangoes are cut. There are those who swear by fly-infested Neelams as the sweetest fruit the Subcontinent has produced.
There was a mango jamboree at the Hotel Oberoi. A single, fresh mango, peeled and fancy-sliced (minus the seed and the two lesser slices) cost all of INR 95 plus (considerable) taxes. Well, that is one way to show respect to a mango.
And so to each their own selection of the fruit. As long as there is enough to go around. Very khaas (exclusive), this season, this aam!
Zayd Aimer Khan in Dhaka:
TWO WORDS ARE enough to describe a Bangladeshi summer— hot and humid. But heat is not normally a problem for Bangladeshis, for they have mangoes to cool them down. But this year, the gods seem to have turned their heads on the leisure-loving people of the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta. For starters, they (the gods) seem to have gone too far in their quest to make the weatherman´s job easy by delivering the hottest summer in some time. And, as if that was not enough, the mangoes have deserted the Bangalees.
The fruit bazaars of Dhaka, once resplendent with the green-and-yellow colours they wear this time of the year, are drab and dejected. The reason—Indian mangoes, represented in massive numbers every season, are barely making their presence felt. And the prices have risen, as they so nastily do, to almost double of what they were last year. But the price is not the main reason of complaint. It is the taste buds that are unhappy. They complain that the mangoes are not as delicious. Supposedly the Indian ones, cheeky as they are in sneaking through the border unnoticed, are sweeter as well!
So what do the sweaty Bangalees do when they have to pay more for not-so-sweet mangoes? They pray for rain—the second best heat buster. This time the gods oblige, but only for the people to regret the prayers. With large-scale flooding inundating much of their country, the Bangalees, for once, hope for the sunny days again. By which time, the mangoes are gone!
Faiz Raza Hamdani in Multan:
SAID GHALIB: “Aam bohot houn aur mithay houn” (mangoes should be plentiful, and sweet).
Inter-related problems of urbanisation, pesticides, contaminated water and changing climate are taking their toll on Pakistan´s mango orchards. Many growers, particularly small landowners, are felling their trees and selling off the land for more lucrative ventures, such as housing schemes.
Multan, in southern Punjab, is famous for us heat, dust, beggars—and mangoes. Allah Yar Mahe, a mango orchard owner in Multan, says that while the mangogrower´s expenses have risen, incomes are down. He is also convinced that the climate has turned inhospitable to the mango: “Mango needs hot and dry weather, but we are not getting that now. So I´m turning to leechis, which give better returns.” Ahmed Khan Durrani, another farmer, says that use of pesticides has given rise to new plant diseases like fungus, mango hopper, mango mealy bug, which farmers do not know how to combat.
Mango production started in Pakistan with varieties brought from India, and many indigenous varieties were developed. However, the production of varieties like Anwar Ratol, Cha-unsa and Maldar are down, and are also losing their taste and flavour, says Allah Yar Mahe. Because the market is down, he says, growers in his area have been cutting mango trees since 1989, and 100 trucks carry mango timber to the market daily; over 800 trees are uprooted daily. “I had a 150 acre orchard, and used to employ 60-70 workers, now I employ 10-15,” says the farmer.
Mango export is not doing too well either, says mango expert Zahid Hussain Gardezi, of the Mango Growers Association. “Export quality mango passes through many hands before it reaches the market, with huge wastage in transit. Mango does not store well, so at peak season domestic markets are glutted, bringing prices down. Summer Bahist Chaunsa still sells at the 1970 price of 300 rupees per 40 kg, while prices of fertilisers, tractors and other inputs have risen by 500 percent since then.”
All in all, not a very good prognosis.
Manik de Silva in Colombo:
SRI LANKA HAD a fairly good mango season this year but the coveted Karuthakolomban, considered the Rolls Royce of the mangoes on offer in the island, do not come cheap. As the season was tailing off in early July, a single fruit of this variety cost between SLR 15-18 each (about 35 cents in USD terms) in Colombo. While that would be peanuts in the West, given Sri Lankan incomes, it is rather pricey.
In Jaffna, in the island´s war-torn north, a Karuthakolomban sells at a rupee or two. Other varieties have no market and are left to rot on the trees, according to a front page story in the Daily News. That report quoted a Jaffna man as saying that he had not seen as good a crop in all his 65 years. Jaffna, incidentally, is famous for its mangoes and one way of referring to a good mango in Sri Lanka is to call it a “Jaffna mango”.
Walking on the Hong Kong pavements en route to Colombo after a recent visit to Japan, a Sri Lankan journalist spotted some delectable mangoes on offer. But some Indian friends with The Far Eastern Economic Review whom he consulted dismissed them contemptuously as “rubbish”.
“They come from Thailand,” he was told. “Don´t touch them.”
Understandably, people from the Subcontinent regard mangoes nurtured on Sub continental soil as the best, and anything else is an also-ran. But those Thai mangoes in Hong Kong did look good, and the Sri Lankan bought a couple behind the backs of his Indian friends. Using a penknife in his hotel room, he tried them out. They were certainly not bad. Not the best, certainly, but not bad.
Gunturs Good for Canning
HSA CONTRIBUTING Editor Manik de Silva and his brother own a small coconut plantation, rather grandly named the Northwestern Fruit Gardens, in the arid Puttalam district in northwest Sri Lanka. His father originally cleared a jungle allotment granted by the government under a “middle class land alienation scheme”, and tried hard to plant a mango orchard on the property. Once upon a time there was citrus, sapodillas (chikus to Indians) and, of course, mangoes, but the mainstay had long been coconuts.
Says de Silva: “On a recent visit there I found the trees laden with mangoes. The variety was Guntur, planted from seeds my grandmother had brought from India. In those spacious days, we used to eat what we could and can what we could not. As a child, I remember the whole family, extended family and numerous retainers gathering in our kitchen where we canned the excess. The hard work was the peeling. Thaththa (Dad), thermometer in hand, used to general the proceedings. It was good fun and the resulting canned mangoes absolutely super.
“I remember my aunt sending some cans to a friend whose husband was Colombo´s ambassador in Bonn. She came home with a letter from the recipient saying ´can I be greedy and ask for some more?´
“But I digress. Looking at those laden trees, I did not want the fruit to go waste. Although not very big, they were sweet and firm-fleshed (so ideal for canning). I still have the home canner, but canning is no longer possible with my parents dead, the family scattered, and retainers something of the past.
“I came back to Colombo and arranged with the country´s biggest cannery to take my fruit. They liked the sample but said they would use the mangoes for pulp as the fruit size was not large enough for them. That did cause me a pang, remembering how good those mangoes tasted whenever Amma (Mum) chilled and opened one in the off season.
“So it was back to NWF Gardens next weekend. My station wagon could not bring back that crop, so I borrowed a friend´s diesel-powered van. I had some 550 kg of Guntur left after distributing to family and friends and got Rs 6.50 a kg. The pickings were small but the satisfaction great. But I do wish Lanka Canneries had canned those fruits. I would have loved sending some to my sister in England and brother in Germany. A third generation could have tasted the fruit of seeds that grandma brought from India and Dad planted nearly fifty years ago.”
Time might fly and people pass on, but a good mango always tastes delectable; especially so when the trees have a little bit of family history intertwined.