Who doesn’t love mangoes? But apart from its palate pleasing qualities, the
mango has also become something of a cultural and literary symbol.
Few sights are more uplifting than that of the season’s first mangoes in stores and fruit stalls. This king of fruits figures heavily in our enjoyment of summer and comes in many varieties, each with its set of ardent supporters. Alphonso loyalists tend to dominate the discourse but the claims of Bainganapalli, Malgova or Neelam lovers are not to be treated lightly.
Our national obsession with the fruit stems from the fact that it is delicious and has a finite season. If it had been a perennial like the coconut, it may still have been popular but would have lacked the aura imparted by a more fleeting appearance.
Apart from the original form, there are many other ways to consume it, spanning avakkai and aam ras and everything in between.
But while we pickle, juice and slice this fruit in an effort to make the most of its limited availability, we are often oblivious to or forgetful of its significance as a cultural symbol. No other fruit can claim so many references – across a vast body of written work that includes mythology, various scriptures and contemporary literature. These works portray the mango in forms that go beyond its epicurean value.
In mythology, the mango is a symbol of love and fertility with its blossoms viewed as being particularly potent in igniting passion. Mythologist Devdutt Patnaik notes in a blog that “trees are an integral part of a deity’s symbolism” and the mango tree has come to be associated with the love god Kama.
But its theological cache is not restricted to a single religion. Buddhism gives it a special pedestal also based on the belief that the Buddha rested and meditated in several mango groves during the course of his travels to spread his message.
But it is the mango’s place in India’s rich literary tradition that most people are likely to be familiar with. The likes of Mirza Ghalib and Rabindranath Tagore are believed to have loved and possibly been inspired by it. And many contemporary writers have woven it into titles and descriptions to quickly capture the essence of sub-continental climate. Effectively deployed, it can induce the required dose of tropical lethargy into the setting for a story.
Arundhati Roy’s award-winning novel, ‘The God of Small Things’, begins with these lines:
“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees.”
In other stories, the fruit itself becomes the focal point of the narrative to a large extent.
David Davidar’s family saga, ‘The House of Blue Mangoes’, – also set in the south like’s Roy’s story – includes these lines in the opening chapter:
“Down to the river from the Big House tumble groves of Chevathar Neelam, a rare hybrid of a mango native to the south. The trees are astonishingly beautiful, the fruit glinting blue against the dark green leaves.”
Mango-centric passages in other novels evoke similar images of fruit hanging in the oppressive summer heat. The trend has created a backlash of sorts among writers, with many of them deriding the mango as a cliché to be avoided at all costs.
A May 2015 article in Forbes Life India quotes several writers who talk about the need for vigilance against mango references. Jeet Thayil, whose 2012 novel ‘Narcopolis’ was shortlisted for a Booker Prize, said in an interview that he steers clear of ‘sentimentality’ and ‘easy cliché’ in his work. “I try to avoid any mention of mangoes, of spices and monsoons’, he said.
Author Salman Rushdie echoed this sentiment in some advice he offered to young writers: “There must be no tropical fruits in the title. No mangoes. No guavas. Tropical animals are also problematic. Peacock etc.”
Although such remarks are made partly in jest, there is clearly a strong anti-mango movement gaining strength in the writing world. Despite this, it may too early to write it off completely. After all, there is no other image that represents the Indian summer as eloquently as the mango.
In a 2012 article for the New York Times India Ink blog (since discontinued), Heather Timmons explains why the mango may continue to reign supreme in this area.
“Bananas may be widely grown and distributed in India, but their appeal as a literary metaphor is limited. Ditto the small, prickly lychee. For literary inspiration, it seems, the mango may be the true king of fruits.”
1) Patnaik, Devdutt. Under the Banyan Tree.
2) Gupta, Amit. Mango and its Spiritual Significance.
3) Martyris, Nina. The Maligned Mango and Other Cliches Writers Fear.
4) Timmons, Heather. In Myth and Literature, the Mango Remains King.