Mangoes and Poetry in India

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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.

I had a hard time understanding most of what was said, and I wasn’t really familiar with the work of Ghalib. But none of these limitations seemed to matter–I was excited by the idea of eating mangoes. And soon enough, the readings were over. We proceeded to an inner courtyard.

Large, brightly colored plastic tubs of water filled with mangoes were lined up on long tables. After picking up plates and knives, most people seemed to know exactly which varieties they wanted, making a beeline for certain ones. A friend and I picked three varieties at random–a large green oblong type, and two smaller egg-shaped ones, green and yellow. The larger variety was the sweet and juicy, yet common, dussehri. The smaller green mango had a lighter, less sweet taste–it was even a bit flowery. The small yellow one, called safeda, is locally known as a juice-box mango. Without removing its skin, we rolled it in our hands, mashing the flesh inside to a pulp. After a minute of vigorous rolling it felt like a partially deflated water balloon. We broke off the fruit’s stem to reveal a small hole, to which we attached our lips, sucking out the thick juice until only the pit remained.

As we ate, I was struck by the near silence. People who had been so noisy during the readings were standing with plates heaped with mangoes, discarded skins, and pits, assiduously eating one piece of fruit after another.

Within an hour, abandoned plates were piled high, and the mango eaters were washing their hands at a sink near the courtyard’s edge. It was dark and just beginning to rain when we finally left. We walked through the festively lit streets, got into a cycle rickshaw, and set off for home.

Excerpted from Gastronomica(Summer 2008), a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for best writing and social/cultural coverage; Copyright © 2008 by the Regents of the University of California.

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