The mango mystique

The mango mystique
Will you call me loopy if I tell you that every time I see a mango-laden bough I think of Mirza Ghalib? I know no one puts Ghalib and mangoes in one basket.

I could throw in Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and Kalidasa into the summer fruit basket because they too sang lofty paeans to the king of fruits. But for now, I will stick to Ghalib because I swear by every word that he utters. So, when Ghalib gets into a mango rhetoric, I swoon at his couplet: Mujhse pooch, tumhe khabar kya hai, aam ke aage naishakar kya hai... (Ask me, what do you know. What is sugarcane in front of mangoes?) Ghalib is right. There is nothing quite like a mango. Nothing. If you have read Ghalib’s Dar sift-e-amba, you, like Ghalib and I, could live off mangoes.

Mango existed much before Mirza Ghalib wrote his first couplet. History tells us man has been cultivating mangoes for more than 4,000 years. Mango was born somewhere in what is now the Indo-Burma region, and most of the cultivated mango varieties are offsprings of the four primary species — Mangifera indica, Mangifera sylvatica, Mangifera odorata, and Mangifera zeylanica. Mango is a member of the Anachardiaceae family with cashew, pistachio, Jamaica plum, poison ivy and poison oak as distant relatives.

Royal touch

Early Sanskrit texts mention mango as amra. Chinese traveller Hsuan-tsang (632-645) is credited with being the first person to bring mango to the notice of people outside India. Ain-e-Akbari (1590) talks in detail about mango quality and Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) is said to have planted an orchard of 1,00,000 mango trees. In the 16th century, Persian traders took mango to East and West Africa and the fruit subsequently reached Brazil. In the 19th century, Mexico saw the arrival of mango; it entered Florida in 1830s and California in 1880s.

Mango was born in India, but is now commercially grown in more than 80 countries with Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam being the main mango producing countries. Mango accounts for approximately 50 per cent of all tropical fruits produced worldwide. India is the world’s largest producer of mangoes, contributing nearly 49.62 per cent of world’s area and 42.06 per cent of world’s mango production. The Portuguese introduced the art of grafting to create better/different varieties of mango. Within India, Andhra Pradesh has the largest area under mango crop.

There are mangoes. And more mangoes. Some say there are about a thousand mango varieties. There is no veracity to the headcount, but no mango narrative is complete without a Ghalib story. Ghalib was once peering hard at mangoes in the orchard of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Amused, the Mughal king asked the poet the reason for the relentless stare. Ghalib promptly turned to the Emperor and explained that he was looking for his name on the mangoes because every grain/fruit has the name of the one who’ll eat it. I am no Ghalib, but I wanted to find my name on mangoes. On thousands of them. And I knew where to go — Malihabad, a dusty village nearly 35 km from Lucknow’s Amausi airport. There is something very supercilious about Malihabad, the mango capital of the country. Within its 20 sq km radius grows about 700 varieties of mangoes that fetch roughly Rs 150 crore each season. Here you don’t need to be beatified as an orchardist, everyone is born with a definite occupation — Thou shalt own an orchard! Ask anyone what makes it so special and the inevitable answer is: Mitti ka masla hai (it is all about the soil). All of Malihabad shares the same aroma. On its street waft the whiff of mangoes — lush, luscious and blessed.

If you are a stranger to Malihabad, stop anywhere and just ask for Hazi Kaleemullah Khan or Abdullah Nursery. That’s where the mango storyline can begin and end, and there would be no missing links. A nondescript muddy street leads straight into the Abdullah Nursery. There are no mustachioed, baton-wielding security guards; forget a gate, there is not even a barbed fence. You drive straight into the nursery where red plastic chairs and an old table await you. The family’s prized possession is the 90-year-old tree on which grow 300 different varieties of mango. The tree is huge and the canopy awfully dense; it also finds mention in the Limca Book of Records. When you bend, set the branches aside and wriggle near the main trunk, it feels like the world of Willy Wonka; just that instead of chocolates there are mangoes. Everywhere you look, there’s an unusual variety of mango staring back at you — Asroor Mukarar is almost heart-shaped, Glass is petite, Prince is stout and handsome, Karela looks like the eponymous bitter gourd, Aamin Lamba is so long it kisses the ground...

There’s more to the mango tree than spraying insecticides and plucking the fruits. Much before the fruits ripen, the orchards are auctioned. Men gather in orchards for the auction. Not for them the gavels on a mahogany lectern, the bids are screamed by a man whose decibel level can demolish a weak roof. He perhaps ends up with a sore throat every night because every day he screams for nearly 10 orchards and gets paid anywhere between Rs 200-500 per deal. Then there are the peti (box) makers, who buy mango timber for nearly Rs 100 a quintal, out of which they carve 10-15 petis, selling each for Rs 8-10. A family of mango-box makers makes about 15,000 boxes each season. Once the mangoes are packed, transporters rev their trucks and take the famous Malihabadi mangoes to various wholesale markets, including Azadpur in Delhi. There are about 20 transporters in Malihabad, each ferrying 100 trucks into Delhi alone. It is after so much fuss that the mango finally lands on your dinner plate. Imagine that!

Sinking in mango trance

Ask any mango purist from the North to choose one variety, and he would invariably pick the Dusseheri. It has dark flesh and takes its name from Dusseheri, a small village about 25 km from Lucknow. The village’s claim to fame is the original 300-year old Dusseheri tree which some would have us believe was not planted by humans; it rose from the earth as a blessing. For centuries, the tree has been the property of the Nawab of Lucknow. No ordinary mortal can enjoy the fruits of this tree — it is never up for sale in the market. The fruits are hand-picked, arranged in a basket, and sent to the Nawab’s family who, interestingly, also have a mansion called Dusseheri House. 

In Malihabad, I was tipping dangerously on the weighing scale and the calorie chart looked frighteningly loaded. Thankfully, science — and facts — shrunk my guilt. Mango contains nearly 81 per cent moisture, 0.4 per cent fat, 0.6 per cent proteins, 0.8 per cent fibre and nearly 17 per cent carbohydrate. The fruit is rich with important minerals like potassium, magnesium, sodium, phosphorus, and sulphur.

Research proves its goodness. Using the national food-consumption data of more than 29,000 US residents, researchers at Louisiana State University and Baylor College of Medicine found that adults who enjoyed the tropical fruit had higher amounts of key nutrients like fibre and potassium and that their overall diets scored higher on the Healthy Eating Index. Also, adults eating mangoes ate less sugar and sodium, were less likely to be overweight, and had lower levels of C-reactive protein, a maker of inflammation in the bloodstream that may precipitate other chronic diseases.

In an animal study conducted at Oklahoma State University, researchers found that small doses of mango seemed to help strengthen bones in mice that were fed a high-fat diet. Not just that, it is also good for the peepers — a serving of mango provides 35 per cent of the daily requirement of vitamin A.

Yes, I can live on mangoes. Only mangoes. One summer afternoon, I sat with a bowl of mangoes and listened to Joshua Kadison’s Beautiful in my Eyes. The singer who once said: The more we see the magic in one thing, a tiny flower, a mango, someone we love, the more we are able to see the magic in everything and in everyone. Where does the mango stop and the sky begin? I do not know about Kadison, for me, the mango stops on my dinner plate and the sky begins in my heart!

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