Mangoes and me
My childhood memories are so deeply intertwined with mango eating that it is difficult to separate the two. One reason for this is probably because the season of mangoes and the summer breaks in school coincided. We took our last exam and the schools closed their doors, to reopen after two and a half months. Educationists had not yet discovered Holiday Homework, the Summer Break torture, For parents and children and the summer vacations were an unmitigated joy. Those days we stayed at Aligarh, and every year we travelled to Delhi to spend time with our aunts and uncles, all cousins of our father.
April was the time for a whole range of fruits; the Kharbooz and the Tarbooz were there from April onwards but there were many other fruits that seem to have disappeared from the vocabulary of those who live outside Shahjahanabad. Shahtoot, Falsa (Grewia Asiatica), Loquat, Khirni (Manilkara Hexandra) and Gondni, to name a few of early summer. Shahtoot or Mulberry was the first to arrive followed by Falsa and Loquat, Khirni and Gondni arrived by the end of April and before these two disappeared, came the Aaroo and Leechi, closely followed by the king of fruits, the Mango. First it was the Dussehri, then the Langda and finally the Chausa or Samar-e-Behesht, (the fruit from Heaven) bringing in the end of the Monsoons and the Mango season.
There were many other varieties of mangoes that were available in small quantities or for short durations but the favorites were the Dussehri, the Langda and the Chausa. The Tota Pari had nothing to recommend it in the department of taste, the Saroli used to go off very fast and the season barely lasted a week. The Safeda, the real one, a small Mango, was not cultivated in Delhi and was brought from Lucknow, Kakori or Malihabad and was rather expensive. There was a variety of mango that was really large and was called Khajri, known only for their size and lacking in all other redeeming qualities, these big fruits were generally looked down upon and I do not remember even one instance of ever eating one.
Incidentally the two current hot favorites namely the Beganpalli, wrongly called the Safeda, probably because of its almost colorless flesh and the Ratnagiri or Alphonso were not sold in Delhi in our childhood. The Beganpalli sold these days by the quintal was created by nature to be turned into mango shakes and bottled mango juices and since these things did not exist in our childhood – those were pre food processor and pre preservative laden food days- there was no market for the Beganpalli. As for the Ratnagiri or Hapoos or the Alphonso, it was always very expensive and for those used to the taste of the Dussehri, the Langda and the Chusa -The ratnagiri did not somehow measure up,( it has a smell that has an unmistakable association with Aam Papad).
Mangoes were eaten in all kinds of concoctions. A chutney of ripe mangoes with additions of a little bit of sugar, red chili powder, salt and a sprinkling of dry mint leaves all mixed together and eaten with Parathas was breakfast. Raw Mangoes, peeled and ground fine with fresh mint leaves, green chilies and salt were eaten with rice and dal, or with green lentil pulao. Raw Mangoes peeled, cut into thin slivers and cooked with sugar made into a delectable preserve. For dessert you could go for mangoes with Vanilla Ice cream, with plain cream, with Gulab Jamun, Rasgulla or Kheer. Mango juice extracted by squeezing a fully ripe Dussehri or a Langda or a chusa and mixed with curd made a Lassi that was a full meal, as was the pulped flesh of a couple of mangoes eaten with a plateful of piping hot steamed rice.
Aside from mangoes being a part of every meal throughout the season there were, two or three mango parties that either the entire extended family joined in together, or smaller batches of 10 or 15 adults and an army or kids went to for a whole day of gorging on mangoes.
There were three or four places where these day long mango demolition sessions took place – Okhla, Hauz Khas and Amraiyaan. To go to any of these places one had to hire horse-drawn tongas for the whole day, though the four seater Phatphatiyas designed from Second World War Harley Davidson Motorcycles provided a quicker service, there was no guarantee that they would be around to bring back a large party. So those who did not have their cars preferred the Tongas.
There was, in those days a beautiful garden at the Okhla Barrage, beyond Jamia University and Hauz Khas was a sleepy little village, the exorbitantly expensive ethnic fashion outlets and strangely authentic food joints had not overrun the village, instead of the millions of cars that crowd the area there used to be a few Tongas just arriving from or waiting to return to the city.
We set out early morning after a quick bite, loading the Tonga with a whole brick or two of ice, huge quantities of mangoes, bought from the Darya Ganj Mandi at crack of dawn and every one would pile up. We would carry large tubs to cool the mangoes in and reach Okhla by 9 or 9.30 am and return only towards sun set. Once we reached the garden, sheets would be brought out and spread under the shade of trees (See photo above). If we were at Hauz Khas the grownups would station themselves in the various verandas and the kids would run around the open grounds.Ice would be crushed, bucketfuls of water brought or someone would send for a water carrier, who would come with his bag of goatskin and fill the tubs with water. Mangoes would soak in this chilled water for hours; everyone would keep drawing from this seemingly inexhaustible source of mangoes and eat, occasionally breaking the monotony of eating mangoes by eating spicy mince meat cooked the night before with huge quantities of Green Chilies and Curd, a monsoon specialty to be eaten only with Besan (flour of chickpea or Bengal Gram) Parathas stuffed with finely chopped onions. Followed blissfully by more mangoes.
The trip to Amraiyaan was more of an adventure; we did not carry our mangoes, all that we carried was the Besani Parathay and Qeema, a couple of huge tubs and Ice, we reached, at times in tongas at times in a car or two. The Amraiyaan, was located at what is today known as the Andheria More. The entire area was just endless Mango orchards, planted during Mughal times and maintained by their owners and regularly replanted. The growth of the trees was so thick that it was said that the rays of the sun never reached the ground and therefore the name Andheria Bagh.
The great joy of going to the Amraiyaan was the freedom to choose the mangoes you wanted to eat, you could point to the fruit you wanted and the gardener would neatly detach the fruit with the help of a long bamboo pole with a sharp edged tool called a Laggi tied at the other end. So you chose your mangoes, every 13 mangoes being counted a dozen, you paid by the dozen, size did not matter and the gardener did not make an issue of kids climbing up his trees and stealing a few ripe or unripe mangoes.
We also carried huge ropes with us and threw them around the sturdy limbs of the mango trees and had a whale of a time on the swings the whole day. While the elders sprawled on the sheets and durries the kids climbed trees, played on the swings and constantly ate mangoes, pelting each other with the seeds or splattering them with mango juice. Come evening you gathered all the uneaten mangoes, paid the gardener for the mangoes bought and eaten and a generous tip and you left tired and happy and filled to your gills with mangoes, mince and Besan Parathas.
The Andheria Bagh is now gone, the general area is now known as Andheria More, the orchards were replaced in the 1970s by farm houses and paramilitary police camps and now the Chhatarpur metro station is doing it bit to erase the last fleeting memory of the orchards. The station commemorates not the thick orchards known as Andheria Bagh, not even the later day Andheria More, it is instead a marker for a village two and a half kilometer away, a village of late 20 th century temples built by modern day godmen. All that remain are a few old trees that get flowers but no longer bear fruit, stragglers from a time gone by, they too will soon vanish to be replaced by one more ugly concrete structure, another assertion of a growing growling megapolis.
If you still want to experience the joy of eating mangoes the way they were eaten in this city not too long ago, you will have to travel about 50 Kilometers to Rataul, A mofussil town and village rolled into one. Rataul is part of Baghpat(Ajit Singh’s LS constituency) and can be reached by crossing the Jamna river at Wazirabad.
The story of Baghpat is fascinating. Retired deputy commissioner and post retirement Honorary Magistrate, Hakim-ud-Din Ahmad Siddiqui belonged to Rataul. After retirement he returned to his village to live among his people and look after his orchards. During the days that he worked on his transferrable job he had the opportunity to taste a wide variety of mangoes cultivated across UP. He would acquire a few plants of every variety that he liked and ensure that they were delivered to Rataul, planted on his orchards and looked after. These he was to develop into the first full-fledged orchard of grafted varieties in 1905 and he named it Noor Bagh, after his grandson Noor-ud-Din Ahmad. Today Rataul cultivates more than 300 varieties of mangoes.
Historian Zahoor Siddiqui, the son of Noor-Ud-Din Ahmad Siddiqui, after studying and then teaching at Delhi University for decades has, like his great grandfather, retired to Rataul. Not to expand on the orchard but to open and run a school for girls, that he and his wife run with help from friends and volunteers.
The orchard is there, the gardeners are there and once a year, at the peak of mango Season, he invites his friends and a few of his old students, like the writer of this piece to come and spend a day at the mango orchard called Noor Bagh. And do we go! You bet we do. My wife, daughters, a couple of friends and me, we go and spend an entire day eating mangoes and eating, not qeema and besni parathas but a searingly spicy pumpkin dish eaten with pooris, some delectable chicken and paratha and yet more mangoes.
And what Mangoes! Mangoes to die for, just the names are enough, the usual suspects are there of course: Dussehri, Langda, and Chausa – Samar-e-Behisht, but with the last, a twist in the tail. For there is a slightly different variety known as Samar-e-Behist Rampur that you get to taste at Noor Bagh but once you have eaten these or seen these you realise there is also Makhsoos (the chosen one) and Khas-ul-Khas (the choicest among the chosen), Him Sagar, the incredible Rataul, Nigar Pasand, Doodhiya Hakim-ud-Din, Zardalu, Bambai, Pakeeza, Sharbati Bigrail, Gulab Khaas, the excessively rare Bride of Russia, and among the last of the mango season The Fajri.
I have listed only 17, including 3 that almost everyone knows, there are another 283 varieties that Rataul produces. I am trying to work out an extended mango tasting session, spread over three sessions, in May, in June and in July.
(First published in Terrascape.)