As summer approaches in the Subcontinent, eagerness mounts amongst people in anticipation of a royal arrival, a King amongst fruits - the Mango. Belonging to the cashew family Anacardiaceae (surprised?), Mangoes are native to South Asia, from where, the generically common variety Mangifera Indica was proliferated worldwide. Cultivated in South Asia for thousands of years, the fruit reached Southeast Asia around 5th Century BC and by the 10th Century AD, its cultivation was begun in East Africa from where it spread to South America, Bermuda, the West Indies and Mexico. Such is the ‘charisma’ of the Mango, that it has been raised to an iconic status as the designated national fruit of India, Pakistan and the Philippines, while the tree that bears this wonderful gift of nature, is officially the national tree of Bangladesh.

The English word ‘Mango’ originated from the Malayalam ‘Mangga’ via Dravidian ‘Mankay’ and Portuguese ‘Manga’. The word was carried to the west from South India by spice traders during the 15th and 16th Centuries. It made its first appearance in the American Colonies during the 17th Century in pickled form, as there was no refrigeration to preserve it on the long sea voyage.

There is a saying amongst chefs that the art of creating food would have remained bland if there were no Mangos to be found. The truth of this statement can be found in recipe books for Chutneys, Pickle, Jams, Summer Drinks and Ice Creams, ‘daals’ and curries and the wonderful feeling generated by eating sour unripe mangoes eaten raw with salt, chili or soy sauce.

While generally referred to as the King of Fruits, the Mango has been without doubt, the ‘Fruit of Kings’ since historic times. Narratives speak of Emperor Akbar’s passion for it to the extent that the great monarch planted an orchard of 100,000 trees in Darbhanga, Eastern India. The fruit also figures in many stories of the constant battle of wits between two of Akbar’s famour ‘Naw Ratan’ (the Nine Gems) Mullah Do Piazza and Birbal.

The Jain deity ‘Ambika’ is traditionally represented sitting under a Mango tree, while the Hindus often show ‘Ganesh’ holding a ripe Mango as a symbol of its devotees’ perfection. Mango blossoms are also used in rituals related to ‘Saraswati’ and no Telugu / Kannada New Year’s Day is complete without eating ‘Ugadi Pachadi’ made with Mango slices as one of the ingredients. Dried Mango skin is used in Ayurvedic medicines, while Mango motifs and paisleys are widely used in different Subcontinental embroidery styles. Mirza Ghalib and the Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa were avid Mango fans, praising it in their poetry. In our times, the fruit was immortalized by Harry Belafonte in his celebrated calypso “Underneath the Mango Tree me honey and me come watch for the moon...” popularized by the James Bond movie ‘Dr. No’.

The versatility of the Mango is evident in its wide usage as an instrument of intrigue (remember the mysterious crate that was put aboard General Zia’s ill-fated aircraft); in diplomatic overtures (crates that accompany our visiting PMs and Presidents as gifts to their counterparts); political maneuverings (more crates exchanged by political rivals to mend relationships and broker election alliances) and in a naïve bid to compete with international competition, a computer named ‘Mango’.

Many of my friends from Southern Punjab (which happens to be the source of delicious Mango varieties) attribute their robustness and jovial disposition to ample ingestion of this fruit. According to them, a high fructose content coupled with vitamins (not to mention the very high caloric value – hence the robustness of figure) is therapeutic from financial, physical and emotional point of view. I cannot challenge this notion since I can see the manifestation of their dietary habits as clear as day. The bottom line is that our pride and joy – the Mango has and will always remain at the top of exotic fruit list in succulence and flavor. I can say this without an iota of hesitation as I have tasted many South American and Caribbean varieties and found them wanting.

 

The writer is a historian.