My husband and I decided to move out of our rented accommodation in Goa and go house hunting at the height of the Goan summer. We were rewarded for our bravado with a charming rental property tucked away in a small hamlet near Mapusa. The house came with a massive unmanicured garden – unruly and wild, going about its business all around the property in a summer frenzy.
There is something indescribably magical about chaos in wilderness; after all, nature is a wild thing.
The highlight of the garden is the enormous mango tree that seems to have popped straight out of Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series. Standing tall with her slender fruit-laden branches, she caught my attention the minute we walked through the gate. This gorgeous 100-year-old tree guards the main gate and secures a part of the property from the harsh sun.
I am sitting on my balcony on a sweltering evening, resisting the air-conditioned indoors to indulge in an act of tree voyeurism. The heady aroma of mangoes ripening on the tree and the Asian Koel’s mellow song fill the air. The bitter heat is forgotten. The young sun-kissed mangoes are turning red near their stems. Some are glowing like the sun, indicating that they have been around much longer and are ready to be plucked.
Luscious fruits hanging from the branches are visibly a major attraction for squirrels, birds, bats, butterflies and other critters. The old tree is a generous host. An acrobatic Plum-headed Parakeet neatly pecks on the fleshy pulp, leaving only the seed behind. An Indian Palm Squirrel takes a big leisurely bite of a ripe fruit and scurries away, seeking out another mango to bite on instead. A shy and skittish female Asian Koel hops in for a quick bite before disappearing into the depths, towards the sonorous call of Greater Coucal. A pair of Black-rumped Flameback Woodpeckers take turns to vigorously probe into a mango almost as red as their crests. And there are the boisterous Common Mynas who screech more and eat less – a pair appears to be nesting in the knobbly hole of the old tree.
These are some of the season’s chosen ones who have the privilege of gorging on the king of fruits much before it lands on our plates.
A powerful craving sets in as I notice an enticing glowing mango, hanging low from the crooked boughs of the tree.
Plop! One falls to the ground.
Unlike most Indian childhood memories, mine did not feature a mango tree. They say nothing beats eating a mango under a tree. I am about to find out.
This one is a squirrel-nibbled fruit. As tempted as I am to slurp the perfectly intact pulp, I’m not comfortable biting into a squirrel’s leftover. I stand under the tree daydreaming, almost intoxicated by the strong smell of summer. The evening sky is dark through the canopy of dusty green leaves that seem to encompass the entire scene. The old tree dances gracefully to the sound of the wind as strong gusts sweep across the garden.
Looks like it’s my lucky day. I start searching the ground for perfect whole mangoes, hoping to get to them before the jittery squirrel. With the excitement of a child, I grab two from the ground and rush inside to show the winnings to my husband. One is a brilliant flaming orange with a reddish hue and the other is a green one with a redhead. Both exude that distinct sweet aroma – “that smell of the leaves and the forest”, as my husband puts it. We both agree the aroma is unlike that of any other mangoes we have rubbed our noses on. Perhaps it’s just the thrill of eating one straight out of the tree. We are no mango connoisseurs.
The mango, bursting into golden flames, is clearly ripe enough to be sliced open. The ritual begins. First, I wash the mango gently, then cut it delicately into three pieces. No. We need the bites to last longer. I further slice up the two pulpy ‘cheeks’ into two smaller strips. Our curious kitten jumps up onto the table to investigate what the fuss is about. We have five slices of pulpy mango and one seed to savour.
Bringing the slice close to our noses, we breathe in the fragrance before sinking our teeth into the fibre-less succulent ambrosia. The sweet-sour depths of flavour coating my mouth is overwhelming. I immediately crave another bite. This is what mango season in Goa looks like.
My husband and I packed up our lives in Mumbai and moved to Goa in 2020, but we hadn’t experienced the Goan mango season until now. It’s a season of exquisite local produce. Goa is home to over 100 mango varieties that most of us haven’t even heard of, let alone tasted. While the rest of India is fussing over the admittedly attractive Alphonso or Hapoos that comes from the coastline of Maharashtra, Goans are going dizzy with euphoria over the local king of Mangoes – Mankurad (Malcurada was the original Portuguese name). One can hear that name being called out with pride by the fruit sellers of Mapusa bazaar. They don’t just sell Mankurad, they show them off to you while a crate of Alphonso lies neglected in their trove.
Here, Alphonso mangoes are for tourists. The magnificent Mankurad, followed by other delicious local varieties, is the object of Goan desire.
The fruit from our landlord’s garden dazzled me enough for me to jump to the conclusion that it was a Mankurad. Well, it is not. Turns out that glorious variety is called Mussarat or Monserrate de Bardez, named after the Bardez taluka where it originated.
This variety is mostly reserved for the preparation of dense aromatic mango jams called mangada, but you can relish them as a dessert fruit too. Like most local varieties in Goa, Mussarat is not easily available outside the state. Most of these beauties are grown from chance seedlings and are restricted to a few prized trees growing in the gardens and backyards of old Goan homes. Exchanging hands between family members and friendly neighbours these mangoes and their bearers are like family legacies, rife with stories and memories.
I am yet to dig out the story of this 100-year-old tree standing tall in front of me. But I can tell her boughs are bent not just with the weight of fleshy Mussarat mangoes, but also with age-old secrets and stories.
As I watch the sun set behind the Mango tree, I sense a warm, comforting feeling in the pit of my stomach. To have an old tree in your garden and that too a fruit-bearing one is truly a blessing.
Aditi Pradhan is a birder and film production consultant based in Goa.
Featured image: The giant Mango tree guarding the entrance and embracing the old garden.
All images have been provided by the author.