The Telegraph
Sunday , June 10 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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Our greatest passion & pastime

For all I care, the rest of the world can think what they like and look upon us as a “Banana” republic ruled by corpulent lumps of corruption both in Parliament and Industry, but the delicious mango will prevail upon any other fruit that dares to define our national character. If anything, we are a happy and united “Mango” republic, divided only in our parochial preferences of type and region that set us apart as unique secularists with a catholic taste for all types of cuisine, vegetable and fruit, and the nationally ubiquitous Mango in particular.

You can slice us, dice us, puree us, suck us dry and even make mango-fools of us, yet the innate sweetness and goodness of an Indian is something our self-serving and money-grabbing scamsters in political and commercial governance will never be able to destroy even when we are socially and economically beaten to a pulp.

Our mango even verged on the indecent quite recently or at least that is how several sick minds like mine interpreted it. There were hoardings spread across the country with that mid-wit (you can make what you like of that inspirational word) Katrina Kaif slurping on mango pulp that trickled sensuously out of her mouth and down her fair chin, reminiscent of Hugh Grant being blown out of his senses on Melrose — an incident that soured his relationship with Liz Hurley forever. Since then Hugh has had his share of weddings and funerals, and Liz hasn’t done too badly either, while Ms Kaif plunders on into the hearts and minds of India’s tinsel-town obsessed illiterati (sic). As I write, Liz sits smug on Shane Warne’s lap, the former having cocked a snoot at the betters-can’t be-losers IPL after having passionately embraced the mango juices of India and snorted with its inglorious IPL fraternity, in years gone by. And if you can unravel the insights and ingenuities of the sauces that that I’ve tossed with the spaghetti of words in those last sentences, you will have deciphered that mangoes really represent a lot more than sex and sport to the everyday cricket-loving Indian — it is our people’s greatest passion and pastime.

In the good old days, all the serfs in our Malda Estate were Muslims and all we ever grew in abundance were mangoes. The mango united Hindus and Muslims in north Bengal just like the incredible Ambari Apple united communities in Kashmir.

But the fragrance of true harmony hung suspended over these wonderful fruit-growing regions only. During Partition, the rest of India, parts of Bengal and the North, massacred innocents for differences that the cool shadows of orchards had never nurtured or revealed.

I was born during those ugly times but my life and our family’s spirit received a boost when my father became a tea planter in Assam. I spent all my childhood in Meghalaya. No mangoes there.

At Boarding School, any parcel of tuck that arrived from someone’s home was decimated by voracious homo-piranhas within seconds of being opened. Except for an unusual parcel of raw eggs that two Bangladeshi brothers would receive twice a year, from Sylhet. To this day I haven’t been able to solve the intrigue of why those eggs were any different from those we ate every day. But that was when us famished piranhas gasped and held back and watched siblings pierce holes atop each egg to suck its stinking contents gleefully till all that was left was an empty shell.

That’s not what happened to my annual parcel of two crates of mangoes from Malda. My friends, and enemies who converted for the moment, would gather on the playing field for a hooliganous free-for-all that saw a hundred mangoes disappear quicker than a Langra Bannister would have made it to us from a mile. Every last seed was sucked dry and then planted surreptitiously in the pine forests, in the hope that there would sprout a shoot in spring. By the time the frost arrived and winter set in, my Malda mangoes became folklore from a distant season.

And it wasn’t until I was in college that my grandfather, a Rai Bahadur and Imperial Police Officer and Barrister from the Inns of London, introduced me to a Bengali ritual that I shall never forget and will cherish till I croak and evaporate into the happy-hunting mango groves of eternity. I am told it is a ritual some families still practice, to this day. Quite simply, at the peak of the Heemshagor season while Bengal steamed and cooked under a Jaishta sun, my grandfather would, on a given day, soak about 50 mangoes in a tub of cold water from a well, and all of us grandchildren would gather around and wait for the signal to dive into what was lunch for us all. We would grab one after another and fight like hyenas over a kill, with juice pouring out of the sides of our mouths and trickling down to our elbows only to be slurped up by tongues that rolled all the way back up to our fingertips and then we went for another! To all the upstart sophisticates of today who might never have partaken of such savagery, I would highly recommend the ritual to bind families together again.

Today, the Americans after their exploits in the southern continent may have “split” the Banana but all they have been able to achieve with mango-lovers is to convert us into pigs who stylishly hog homogenous burgers, pizzas and will soon become victims of doughnuts too; each one an obtuse weapon of mass destruction, for the perpetuation of American obesity; while we stupidly remain in denial and simply ignore the fact that our dreadfully tasty indigenous junk food, that has left us and all our children grossly overweight for decades, already, can give the Americans a run for their perilous dollar in their sinking economy. Can anyone fight off slivers of raw mango, kayree, in their paapri chaat by the Arabian Sea? Or ignore its subtle flavour in our kashondi that perks up pheesh phraiees and bhejitabul chops and kobiraji cutlets?

And as for the shaved, plucked, siliconed or botoxed, long and loose limbed primatological specimens with chests and rears as flat as ironing boards, who stomp like inanimate zombies on fashionable catwalks today, they make a mockery of [EM] Forster’s wonderful line in “A Passage to India” that I [as Dr Aziz] delivered mischievously to my friend James Fox whose blush at our first rehearsal I shall never forget: “For you (Dear Mr. Fielding), I shall arrange a lady with breasts like Mangoes!” Juicy, that: what?

Finally, one of the joys of being an Indian is being able to claim to be of a distinctly different culture, with traits and tastes that vary with every five degrees of longitude and latitude. And we Bengalis claim to be superior to all the rest, in every respect, but most particularly when it comes to culinary tastes and, of course, poetry.

To prove a point, I have introduced Simpson’s Egg Shampoo into the lives of several Indian billionaires who have scoffed at anything Indian washing their pates or locks, let alone something manufactured in Teresa’s slums.

It is with this same lot that I conducted a mango tasting experiment, a couple of years ago, to defend my unabashed proclamation that the Heemshagor mango was the tastiest of them all, way beyond the cultivated taste for Alphonso the King. Before blindfolding my tasters, I gave them a lecture about primitive tastes within our genes and the unknown truths about “original sin” and the forbidden fruit. Each one was then served with pieces of Alphonso and pieces of Heemshagor with two scoops of vanila ice-cream. The decisions were instantaneous and unilateral. Everyone knew they had picked the Alphonso and then choked to discover they had unilaterally eulogised an unknown fruit from the petty orchards of Bengal. Q.E.D., actually.

I’ve written this from many miles away, in cooler climes where one can look upon life as an eternal cartoon of errors that go to make our existence more colourful and meaningful to the point where we take ourselves less seriously. I will be back in a few days, in the sweltering heat of Jaishto, to tuck into a tub of well-water-chilled Heemshagors with my grandchildren. I hope they never forget the day.