Josna Rege

66. The Mango Room

In 1950s, 1990s, Food, India, Stories on August 6, 2010 at 3:32 pm

photo by Josna Rege

Our family home in Ratnagiri has a mango room, an attached shedlike chamber accessible not through the house, but only from the outside. There, in my father’s childhood and youth in the 1930s and ’40s, the crop of mangoes from the trees in the compound, many of them the prized hapus, or Alphonso, would be heaped, spilling out to the entrance and reaching up to the rafters. For Ratnagiri is the home of the Alphonso, the richest, deepest-orange, longest-keeping, most delicious variety of mango there is. Just ask anyone.

In those golden days, when, in a good season, there was such a glut of mangoes that even our large family couldn’t absorb them, people would slip into the Mango Room and eat to their heart’s content. The story goes that sometime in the 1950s, at the age of three or four, my cousin Jayant went missing for several hours, and was eventually discovered, curled up in a sticky stupor in the Mango Room. He had gorged himself on that king of fruits until his little belly was as round as a ripe Alphonso, his skin had taken on an orange hue, and he was in serious danger of turning into a mango himself.

That era of plenty was before my own, and though I may once have seen the room filled with its ripe and ripening bounty, I cannot remember it. In my childhood in the 1960s we lived on the other side of the country, more than a thousand miles away, and couldn’t necessarily plan our trips to coincide with the mango season, though most people do if they possibly can. In my memory the room lies empty, and  the mango crop is stored in baskets in the ante-room off the kitchen where we also shell the roasted cashews. Later still, when I had a child of my own, most of the mango trees in the compound were leased out and the family share of the crop had dwindled, and Mai-atya, my Aunt Kumud, stored the best of the ripening Alphonsos under her bed, saving special ones for the infrequent visits from her grand-nieces and nephews.

In advance of one visit in 1993, when Nikhil was eight and we were planning to spend a full month in Ratnagiri, Mai-atya kept pressing us on the phone about when exactly we were planning to arrive. We thought that she was simply being over-anxious, as is our family’s wont, but when we arrived we found out why; she had picked a few special Alphonsos early with Nikhil in mind, and was ripening them to perfection in a basket under her bed. Thankfully, we arrived in good time, and when Mai-Atya produced them with a flourish, Nikhil amply fulfilled her expectations and his own. In fact, he ate amost nothing but mangoes during our entire stay, partly on account of dear Mai-atya’s culinary idiosyncracies, but that’s another story.

By the early 1990s, with the anticipated Konkan railway bringing more and more development to Ratnagiri, hordes of displaced monkeys were sweeping through the compound daily, pausing to wreak havoc in the mango trees. All that month, it was Nikhil and Andrew’s daily task to drive the monkeys off the trees, where they would be frolicking en masse, baiting the humans by taking one bite out of each green mango before tossing it carelessly to the ground. Mai-atya would send Nikhil and Andrew out to the shops in the bazaar for firecrackers, which they would set off in hopes of scaring off the simian marauders. But after the first couple of times they got wise to the trick, and simply laughed maniacally while hurling the precious fruit at their frustrated foes.

We recently received word that the old family home in Ratnagiri is to be sold at last. Then, like everybody else, we will just have to buy Alphonsos, now available in the United States as a strange by-product of President Bush’s nuclear deal with India, and the Mango Room will soon be just a memory. But oh, what a memory!

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  1. My mango memories are quite similar, though as Bengalis living in Bihar, I was brought up to believe in the supremacy of Langras and Himsagars over all other mango cultivars. Alphonsos, when available, were rarely immediately eaten – Bengalis consider Alphonso flesh too uniform and bland, and prefer more fibrous varieties, I suppose. Instead, they were dunked whole into water coolers to flavor the water with a pleasant mangoey aftertaste.

    My most pleasant associations with mangoes, however, are with the trees. There was a huge one outside my bedroom window, full of koels and squirrels, and I’ve spent many long lazy afternoons high in its branches with a good book and a bottle of water. (I also snacked on mango leaves, but that’s another story.)

    ps: Do you have a better shot of the huge tree (a frangipani?) in the photo above? It looks amazing!

    • Thanks for reminding me, Shounak, that we are each “brought up to believe” that our own whatever-it-is is the best. I must say I balk at Alphonso flesh being described as bland, but I do get the texture thing, that ripping your teeth through a more fibrous mango might be pleasurable too–not to mention all the fibers you have to pick out of your teeth afterwards! (Okay, okay, I grew up in Bengal, so I’ll stop arguing.) Love the thought of that water with a delicate hint of Alphonso flavor. Lovely, too, to think of you installed in the mango tree outside your bedroom, chewing on its leaves absently, absorbed in a book.

      And yes, that tree you noticed is amazing. It’s a chaffa–will have to look up its English name. It graced my father’s childhood, our own, and our children’s, strewing its blossoms on the ground in the cool pre-dawns, growing more and more knobbly by the year.

  2. Wonderful memories of mangoes from our childhood! I remember eating them as we stood over the
    trash can (or dustbin) in our dorm because we were much too “ladylike” to eat such juicy and messy fruit in front of “the boys” in the school dining room!
    I love your description of your cousin in the Mango Room!
    I don’t know the names of different mangoes, I only know that there are hundreds of cultivars and the very best ones come “from India,only”! The Mexican and Chilean mangoes we have here in California are a pale and disappointing substitute.

  3. mango memories: mine are from Casamance, a visit with cheikh and youssou in the mango season, everything being hot, hotter, the hottest and way too much for your average north German, then going to freeze in an ice air conditioned hotel room, and not knowing where you ended up, exactly, because of the confusing temperature messages, and then, the next day, going for a walk and being stopped in our tracks by a mango van, i mean, the entire huge super sized van filled to overspilling with ripe and fruit smelling and oh such an abundant amount of MANGO. (you gotta know that even 10 years ago, before the last wave of globalization, mangoes were NOT a staple in german supermarkets, not to even speak of plump and ripe mangoes…) and people kept loading more into the van. arrived in the subtropics.

    • Marianne and Bine, clearly, mango memories are rich, juicy ones! Marianne, your description of us standing over a bin to eat our mangoes reminds me of the line in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Bine, I love your description of the abundance of mango overspilling the mango van. It’s clear that India doesn’t have the monopoly on this fruit, and from what I’ve read, the Senegalese are passionate about their mangoes as well. A little search confirmed that they’re native to South Asia and originated in the Burma and the East of India, but soon spread to East Asia and East Africa and then beyond. The search also revealed that there are two major subspecies of mangoes, one from India and the other from the Philippines. It is the subspecies from the Philippines that has made its way to Mexico and thence to the U.S.. I agree that most of the mangoes I’ve eaten in the U.S. have tasted like pale imitations of the real thing, but when we were in Tobago last December we tasted some absolutely delicious mangoes, including one called Julie which tasted almost exactly like an Alphonso. With all the Indo-Trinidadians, I would guess that at least some of their mangoes originated in South Asia.

  4. the best food i have eaten were fresh roasted cashews in East Africa. Followed, of course, by mangoes off the tree. thank you for this beautiful journey………

  5. Thanks so much for commenting, Connie. Eastern Africa (where were you–Kenya or Uganda?) is just a short sail across the Arabian Sea from Ratnagiri, so it is no wonder that they have mangoes and cashews in common and that there have been multifarious comings and goings between India and Africa over the centuries. (Andrew and Nikhil peeled roasted cashews in Ratnagiri, and Andrew came out in a rash all the way up to his elbows from the corrosive principle in the cashew skins,common also to mango skins. But it didn’t stop him; he loved the whole process–as well as the product, of course.)

  6. I thoroughly enjoy your stories keep them coming. Here’s my mango memory.

    In the 70’s I was in the Pease Corp living in a Dominican Republic mountain village outside of Jarabacoa . The house I lived in was part of an old coffee plantation next to a river with a wonderful swimming hole. When mango season was in full swing mangos sold for 2 for a penny in the market so for 25 cents you could fill a sack. We would carry the sack down to the river and sit on the rocks eating the sweet ripe mangos with the juice running down our chins onto our chests until we were covered then jump into the cool swift river to wash off. The mangos were muy sabrosa but the overall experience was muy sensual.

    • Thank you for your encouragement, Bill, and for your terrific mango memory. Your story captures and conjures up the full experience of eating a mango–as you say, sabrosa, yes, but so much more. One of my favorite ways of eating a very ripe mango is to roll it between the palms until it the flesh inside is nearly liquefied, breaking off the scab at the top where it was connected to the stem, then squeezing and sucking out the pulp, and finishing off by thoroughly cleaning the last of the pulp from the seed. Messy, no doubt, but inexpressibly delicious.
      By the way, just yesterday we ran into the father of an old friend of our son’s who is currently in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, and loving the experience. So the younger generation is carrying on the good work and forging new ties with our neighbors to the South.

  7. Jo — so glad you posted your list of favorites. I had missed this one, and now have had a chance to enjoy it. Having read the comments, I feel I can safely weigh in (without causing an International Incident) on the merits of *my* favorite mango, the so-called carabao, from the Philippines. In the early 1960s, my dad was the political secretary at the American Embassy in Manila, which meant that his job involved getting to know media folk (mostly newspaper writers in those days) and key politicians, in an attempt to understand what was really going on in that country. Through his work, he became friends with the governor of a province famous for its mangoes (Cebu, if memory serves, but these days, memory often doesn’t…). Just before Christmas, a huge bushel basket of fresh mangoes arrived at our house, a gift from the governor. We gorged ourselves for weeks on the creamy orange fruit of this most amazing fruit. Our dog at the time, a dedicated carnivore, discovered its delights, and would leave a steak bone for a chance to gnaw the fruit off the pulpy mango seed. While we were later posted to what was then East Pakistan, no mangoes, whether from India or Bengal, however delicious, could compete with my memories of all those carabaos.

    • Dear McNance, emotions can run pretty high when the subject of favorite mangoes comes up, and it has taken less to set off an International Incident! Yours sounds mouth-wateringly luscious–the very thought of that bushel basket arriving at the door. I laughed out loud at the thought that your dog would pass up a steak bone, just for its seed. I will suspend my mango ethnocentrism and take your word for the creamy perfection of the carabao. (Wonder if we could find it somewhere in NYC?) x J

  8. […] (For another story of our family home, see The Mango Room.) […]

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