Mangoes and Poetry in India

An Indian event celebrates the fruit in words and slurps

| May-June 2009

It was early July, the height of the mango season in Lucknow, India, a city known for its mangoes. I was on my way with friends to an evening in tribute to the famous 19th-century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. The gathering would also be an opportunity to savor dozens of varieties of mangoes, as Ghalib reputedly had a passion for the fruit and is said to have tried most of India’s 4,000 types. Thus the celebration is known as Aam aur Ghalib—Mangoes and Ghalib. It has taken place annually for 25 years.

First cultivated thousands of years before Christ, mangoes have played a part in Indian religion and folklore ever since, figuring in both Hindu and Buddhist stories and rituals. By the 16th century, Hindu and Muslim rulers had taken control of most mango groves and were experimenting to produce new varieties and develop sophisticated growing techniques. In time, the countryside around Lucknow became one of the largest mango-producing regions within the largest mango-producing country in the world.

Varieties nearly three centuries old are still grown locally. The dussehri mangoes arrive in markets by mid-June. They are plentiful and cheap—50 cents or less for two pounds. Other varieties, large and small, green and yellow, round and oblong, arrive along with them or a little later. Some have fantastic names meaning “sun among fruits,” “beauty of beauties,” and “fruit of paradise.”

Today, miles of massive mango trees, heavily loaded with the lime-green fruit and well loved for their dense shade, line the roads outside Lucknow and beyond. Mango season coincides with a brutally hot time of year, and perhaps that is partly why their cool sweetness is so beloved. Stories are told of locals passing entire days eating mangoes “until the mounds of peels reach their chins.”

It was about six in the evening as we entered a crowded courtyard and were greeted by banners proclaiming Aam aur Ghalib.

We had arrived just in time. Within minutes, as the sun dipped behind the whitewashed walls of the neighboring houses, the readings began. To much hearty laughter, one poet’s verses compared the state’s former chief minister and the newly elected chief minister to different varieties of mangoes, while other poets elaborated on the fruit’s virtuous qualities.