Collecting storm-felled fruit beneath the giant and sprawling mango tree which stood beside the monsoon river in my father’s ancestral village Debipur, in West Bengal’s Howrah district – which we visited during our summer vacation – is a trailer of my ‘mango memory’.
The pre-monsoon storm, known as kal boisakhi, generally struck late in the evenings. More so when it was dark, with the moon cruising gently behind the clouds and stray lightning illuminating the horizons with krrakk, krrakk and krrakk. The wind sang shaeen, shaeen as we jumped out of our palm-thatched hut to run towards the lone mango tree, which I was told had been around since Pulin Bihari, my grandfather, was just knee high. It meant that the tree had witnessed some 60-plus summers.
We heard the repeated ‘thud, thud’ as the mangoes came down, loosened by the wind. Armed with battery torches, we rushed to the source of the sound and picked up the prized catch. At times, the fruits fell like a shower. With our cloth bags and gamchas heavy with fruit, we would rush back home as the wind quieted.
The next morning, squatting on the mud floor, we would feast on our ‘catch’. The unbridled pleasure of sinking one’s teeth into the succulent flesh, with juice dribbling down our chins, hands and arms, and licking fingers in delight is still etched in my memory. We would end up eating so many mangoes that we would lose count.
Years later, I was told, that the senile tree was sold off to a buyer who made a good sum selling its timber. That was the day I felt as though the throat of my ‘mango memory’ had been slit. The stump still stands and tells the river when it arrives during the monsoons that “here came the kids to pick mangoes”.
In my early forties and having saved enough – rather than investing in an additional flat, which many do in Mumbai – I bought a piece of land alongside a perennial running river in Badlapur, 65 km from the city to begin my life as a weekend farmer. Thus, began my journey into the world of Mangifera Indica as I sought out varieties of mango saplings for my stone-littered and yet-to-be-developed farm. Friends indulged me by bringing mango saplings from their native villages, which I collected from railway stations.
With each year, I matured as a farmer and planted both heirloom and hybrid varieties. As of now, my farm hosts Kesar, Banganapalli, Hapus, Amrapalli, Mallika, Malgova, Totapuri and several others. With each newcomer making my farm its home, I gathered specifics, like the agronomic practices to be followed, the whimsy of a variety, which one was a regular and which wasn’t etc. Veteran growers introduced me to the cardinal principles of raising a mango orchard: first, have an equal share of seedling plants and grafted plants and secondly, never be partial to one variety.
Also read: Amphan: The Fallen Trees in My Neighbourhood
Much later, I realised these were to maintain the orchard’s ecosystem, assuring that if one variety failed there were others to make up for it.
I also picked up nuggets, namely the existence of Parbhani Hapus, a hybrid which fruits during Diwali; the Sadabahar developed by a Kota farmer which gave mangoes thrice a year and has led him to become India’s first mango grower who has an IPR for the same; that Suvarnarekha cultivated in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh has a great following in South Korea; and that Lakshman Bhog of Maldah in West Bengal has immense export potential.
We, mango lovers, sadly, are aware of just a handful of varieties, especially those that have acquired market acceptability and those that are written about. In fact, many would be surprised to know that the diversity of mango rivals that of rice grown in the country.
Mangoes have been around for a long, long time. Scientists of the Lucknow-based Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, have traced the origin of genus Mangifera from 60 million years old fossil compressions of carbonised mango leaves, found near Damalgiri in West Garo Hills of Meghalaya.
If you’re a mango aficionado (and who isn’t?) do ask your vendor if the Dashehari is from Malihabad, near Lucknow or the Totapuri you’re fond of, whether it comes from the border zone of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Why?
Because each village and region in the country has its own popular variety as mango trees are “GxE sensitive”, meaning that the soil and climate have a great influence on performance and quality.
Being a ‘mango tourist’, I’m a regular at mango festivals held in cities like Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Delhi and Kolkata. But this year, I and many others like me will miss those excursions due to the pandemic.
It was during one such trip to Kolkata in June 2018 that I came across the world’s priciest mango: Kohitoor. Grown in Murshidabad, the golden yellow Kohitoor has to be kept wrapped in cotton wool to keep it fresh. After every 12 hours, the mango has to be turned on its side so that it ripens uniformly.
I tasted a slice of it after we, friends, had each pooled Rs 175 each among the four of us. Yes, it was for Rs 700 a piece.
Hiren Kumar Bose is an independent journalist and a weekend farmer. He blogs at http://sundayfarmer.wordpress.com.
Featured image credit: Charles Deluvio/Unsplash