London, April 28: In Balham in south London, where Indian and Pakistani shops co-exist side by side and even display Indian and Pakistani mangoes next to each other in a harmonious show of sub-continental solidarity, the last Alphonsos and Badamis from India were on sale last night.
Mindful of the official ban on the import of Indian mangoes from May 1, I listened to friendly advice offered by Habibi, an Afghan hand minding the Alphonsos at one store.
“After Thursday, there won’t be any more Indian mangoes,” he warned.
So what to do? I gave him a £10 note and he handed over two boxes of Alphonsos and £3 in change.
“There will be mangoes from Pakistan — Sindhri and Chausa — but we will have to wait a month before we get them,” added Habibi.
Habibi’s colleague cut in: “We have been selling Indian mangoes for 20 years and there hasn’t been a problem.”
Next door, Badamis from India, much bigger in size, were on sale for £14 a box.
As Chowdhury Mukhtar Ahmed, a Pakistani, handed me a box of Badamis for £11, his boss said: “There is no fruit that doesn’t come with some insects. There must be another reason.”
In Balham, there was no Pakistani gloating that mangoes from India had been banned by the European Union, allegedly because a consignment had been detected with the tobacco whitefly which apparently has the potential to devastate Britain’s £320 million tomato and salad industry.
That is significantly bigger than the £6 million Britain spends on buying 16 million mangoes from India but this is crucial for Asian shopkeepers in Balham, Southall, Wembley, Harrow and other Asian areas of the country, and, of course, Leicester, where the MP is Keith Vaz.
“This is Euro-nonsense and bureaucracy gone mad,” raged Vaz, who is the chairperson of the powerful home affairs select committee. “Indian mangoes have been imported to Britain for centuries. I am furious with the lack of consultation with those who will be affected by the ban.”
Another Labour MP from Leicester, Jon Ashworth, said his constituents stood to suffer: “Given that the crop of Alphonso mangoes will peak this month and next, the import ban is worrying for many businesses in the City of Leicester.”
There could, of course, be a more sinister reason behind the EU ban.
For years, the EU has been trying to persuade India to sign a trade agreement that would allow European farmers to dump their food mountain on India — a development that would make life even harder for India’s subsistence-level farmers.
The mango ban could be interpreted as an attempt by the EU to bully India into submission. Britain has mixed feelings about the ban but so far Defra (the department for the environment, food and rural affairs) has gone along with Brussels.
But things are getting serious: the ban could affect the availability of the best quality mango lassi in Indian restaurants.
Habibi, the Afghan, patted a box and told me: “You can always buy Brazilian mangoes.”
He saw my face, grinned and promised he would sell Brazilian mangoes only to white customers in what was shamefully a racist exchange.
Indians in Britain are aware of the cultural importance of mangoes. In the film Bend It Like Beckham, the dressmaker Polly (Shobu Kapoor) assures football-mad Jasminder Bhamra (Parminder Nagra): “Don’t worry, Miss Bhamra. Our designs will make even these little mosquito bites look like juicy, juicy mangoes!”
All Indian eyes in Britain are on Narendra Modi, who has so far not announced his mango policy.