Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Mangoes For Django

Non-Asians usually have a hard time deciding how to consume delicious mangoes the desi (local) way. In polite western society it will be most inappropriate to suck mangoes meant to be cut; in informal eastern company it will be unwise to use a knife for mangoes that need to be squeezed and sucked.

So what if the commoners adore sucking mangoes and the lords prefer cutting them up for consumption? Let this be a lesson for the uninitiated, a sucker needs to be pressed from all angles to soften the thick pulp inside. Once its little black head is chewed off, the sweet mash is ready to be sucked out of a hole in the skin. The rest is easy: press, suck, press, suck, till you cannot take it anymore.

Suckers and cutters

Non-Asians usually have a hard time deciding how to consume delicious mangoes the desi (local) way. In polite western society it would be considered inappropriate to suck mangoes that must be cut; in informal eastern company it would be unwise to use a knife for mangoes that need to be squeezed and sucked. Commoners adore sucking mangoes; the lords prefer cutting them up for consumption. A sucker needs to be pressed from all sides to soften the thick pulp inside. Once its little black head is chewed off, the sweet mash is ready to be sucked out of a hole in the skin. The rest is easy: press, suck, press, suck, till you cannot take it anymore.

Mad science be damned, an agro-scientist here once told me that plans were afoot to introduce sugar-free mangoes to the global market. God loaded mangoes with sugar to boost lost energy during the intense summer and monsoon seasons of the Indian sub-continent but now the devil is eager to make this fruit sugar-free. Since the road to Hell is paved with Canderel, sugar-free mangoes might appear on the market sooner rather than later.

Babur in the Baburnama, 1589-90
Kings and poets

Hieun Tsang, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who visited India during Harshavardhan's reign in the 6th century B.C., mentioned how mangoes were meticulously cultivated in India. Zaheeruddin Muhammad Babur was a Mughul (Mongol) invader whose luck did not favour him in native Central Asia. He simply followed the ancient tradition of conquering India to establish a dynasty that ruled for centuries. His autobiography, Tuzk-e-Babri, clearly shows how fondly he remembered the grapes and melons of his native land and thought India was a “country of few charms”:

“There are no good-looking people, there is no social intercourse, no receiving or paying of visits, no genius or manners. In its handicrafts there is no form or symmetry, method or quality. There are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, musk-melons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or food cooked in the bazaars, no hot baths, no colleges, no candles, torches or candlesticks.”

Babur’s twenty-four pet hates might be the reason why to this day every self-deprecating desi (local) still takes foreign opinions most seriously. Our raider from the north must be forgiven for airing first impressions that did not prevent his progeny from multiplying through intermarriage with charming and noble Hindu women. During this Indian picnic, Babur exposed himself completely by admitting he adored three things: “Abundance of gold and silver, and the weather after the monsoon”.

Our mind-numbing history books strongly drive home the point that the ‘liberator came to spread his religion in India’, but conveniently omit his penchant for wine, opium and pretty boys.

Alexander (floor mosaic from Pompeii, circa 100 B.C)
A few Mughul emperors, most notably Akbar, showed genuine interest in mango cultivation. Just as Babur is a popular name in our region, so is Sikander which is derived from Alexander. Ours is a land where people name their sons after Alexander of Macedon but never honour a true defender, Porus, who confronted the Greek raider in 326 BC in the Battle of Hydaspes (river Jehlum). Regardless, from Alexander to the British colonists, every regime has been and will remain in love with mangoes. Even our own Pakistani MIL-DIC (military dictator), that dull pioneer of the Afghan ‘powder and AK-47 culture’, lost his tailor-made life when a crate of mangoes dutifully placed by the sponsors aboard his C-130 airplane exploded.

Poets such as Amir Khusro, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Rabindranath Tagore, Allama Iqbal and Nazir Akbarabadi have narrated anecdotes and written poems about mangoes. Ghalib, a great mango connoisseur, literally begged friends to send him loads of mangoes during the mango season. While modern city-dwellers tend to give up after consuming perhaps two mangoes, Ghalib complained about his inability to have more than ten or twelve in a single sitting despite the old age.
It was Altaf Hussein Hali, a noted poet, who proved that Ghalib had tasted 4,000 varieties of Indian mangoes. And Yusuf Mirza traced the history of mango back to the Vedic times. Then we have the oft-quoted dialogue between Hakim Riazuudin and Ghalib, with the Hakim pointing out that ‘even donkeys did not eat mangoes’. Witty Ghalib replied, “Of course, donkeys surely do not eat mangoes”.

With kings and poets out of my way, I need to tell my own mango-tale.

For Django

A few summers ago when I headed for England, it was already decided that I would spend less time with relatives and more with friends such as K.D. So I first called him long-distance. We exchanged pleasantries in chaste Punjabi and analyzed sad tales of down-sized businesses, austerity cuts, inflation and whatever else England could offer. Out of courtesy I asked K.D. what he wanted from Punjab. Overcome with temporary formality he initially declined with, “Oye, nothing at all”, but then dictated, “Bring me a crate of mangoes!”

Mango facts
I already knew that British Customs officials laughed at Pakistanis who brought crates of mangoes into England. “They do sell mangoes here in England, you know”, he occasionally commented. Thanks to Khan I was to become one such laughable carrier because I was in no mood to spend many Pounds on buying in London highly over-priced mangoes. I was also not inclined to pay our national flag carrier Rs 1,000 per kilogram as accompanied-baggage charges when a kilogram of the fruit cost a paltry Rs 50 in Pakistan.

At the airlines’ check-in counter I was not the only fruitful passenger, for when I looked around most travellers carried nothing but mangoes for their British relatives. Even young children carried rucksacks stuffed with the fruit. The entire departure hall, the aero-bridge and the passengers smelled of mangoes. If the Indians could quietly conquer England with spicy curries, why could the Pakistanis not orchestrate a takeover using sweet mangoes?

The Jumbo jet had a somewhat turbulent take-off; for a moment I thought it flapped its giant wings. Right afterwards, a strange mix of lavatory stench and something odd entered my nostrils; that something odd happened to be the smell of mangos. At lunch time, wisely many passengers boycotted the terrible airlines’ food and settled on consuming the ration of mangoes they carried. As a direct consequence of hasty consumption, they required repeated visits to the lavatories and which produced stench that no French perfume ever made could possibly overpower.

The in-flight entertainment system did not work but then who in his right mind needed that aboard PIA airplanes? Children ran around playing loud hide-and-seek, older folks took their morning walks in the aisles, and the young demanded Coka da bantin (an unopened can of Coca Cola). With such excitement around only a fool would wish to watch a Hollywood thriller. The senseless comedy soon wore me out and I fell asleep appreciating my mind’s very own in-flight entertainment system.

After eight hours the airplane smoothly touched down at Heathrow airport where a tragedy awaited me. In the baggage claim area I saw fellow passengers merrily pushing away their trolleys loaded with fat suitcases and large wooden mango-crates but my cherished cargo was nowhere in sight.

After biting a few fingernails for lunch I contacted the airlines’ representative. Through the extra sensory misconception of having ‘seen it happen a million times each summer’ the lady knew what was wrong before I uttered a word. She seemed genuinely uninterested in my graphic description of how I handpicked ten kilograms of Chaunsa Awwal (prime Chaunsa variety) mangoes and then had them decorated with edible warq (edible beaten-silver foil).

The pretty young thing looked at the conveyer-belt that had by then ceased to go round and round. There remained two lonely crates on it, both unclaimed and with tags whose numbers did not match the one in my possession. With the ballpoint’s top in her mouth the young lady thought hard; she too had not had lunch. We were both hungry but I was the desperate one, and for a moment I saw not my future children in her eyes but lost mangoes. There comes a time in a man’s life when he must say I love mangoes instead of I love you, and I did just that. Finally she spoke and her plan was simple: I would get one crate as unofficial compensation.

A close shave

Despite having a British blonde bombshell alongside my side my baggage-trolley failed to glide smoothly past the Customs’ counter established by Her Majesty the Queen of England. An officer showed remarkable interest in my baggage, stopped me and commented on the ‘lovely weather’ which I had not yet experienced.

Looking me straight in the eyes, he asked three well-rehearsed questions: “Are you aware of the contents of your luggage? Are you carrying any gifts for friends or relatives in England, and did you pack everything in your luggage personally?”

Ensign of HM Customs
Thinking of the mango-crate which was not in reality my own, beads of sweat appeared over my forehead in that cold arrival hall at London Heathrow.

“Anything the matter, sir?” the officer probed further.

“No, I’m simply happy to see you; I perspire when I’m happy”, I replied feigning a smile.

In order to garland me for attempting to be funnier than the best British comedian, he asked me to ‘step aside’. For a customary search he produced a small saw from under the counter and began to slice up the unfortunate wooden mango-crate.

“What are you doing, kind sir?” I asked, holding on to firm support in order to avoid a fall greater than that of Humpty Dumpty’s.

There was no answer. He sawed and I just saw. Then it dawned upon me that because I was not carrying my own crate, there was no way of knowing what was inside the unclaimed piece. The officer was bent upon finding out whether the wooden crate contained white powder of the intoxicating kind. A most vivid black and white picture of Her Majesty’s Prison appeared on my mind’s screen with yours truly wearing a goal-bird’s striped suit and a cap.

Then suddenly a light appeared at the end of this tunnel. The blonde representative who had earlier helped me secure the mango-crate intervened to narrate to the officer my story. It was nothing short of a royal miracle that I was let off with a polite wish: “Enjoy your mangoes, and have a pleasant stay in London!”

The welcome

K.D. Khan stood anxiously waiting in the arrival hall. I shook his hand rather vigorously to indicate to the hidden surveillance cameras that I was very well-connected and more than welcome in England. K.D. in turn lovingly looked at the solitary mango-crate and steered the limping baggage trolley towards the parking area that seemed so distant I thought we were headed home on foot.

“Only ten kilos?” questioned Khan while surveying the crate.

Living in London had done wonders to his power of observation for he was as correct as a Scotland Yard detective in gauging the weight of the crate. I smiled sheepishly and changed the subject. As we walked, he kept picking up the mangos that occasionally attempted to escape from the devastated crate.

1993 model Porsche 911 Carrera
“So, how was your journey?” he enquired.

In chaste Punjabi and with a sprinkling of un-parliamentary language I narrated the whole story. All smiles, he pointed with his raised eyebrows at a young blonde, “Forget the gory details; look at that gori (a fair woman) over there!”

K.D. came from a less privileged family but through sheer hard work had risen to become comfortably rich in London. He proudly opened for me the door of a white Porsche 911 Carrera. Everything about the German ‘humble means of transportation’ was nice, and I especially liked the model number which reminded me of that infamous political stunt performed on September 11. Respectfully K.D. laid to rest the mango crate under the 911’s hood. Quietly I marvelled at how he was able to drive the great German sports car when someone had stolen its engine from under the hood and left instead a spare tyre as a souvenir.

Dinner was served sooner than anticipated; the main dish being chicken curry with Lebanese bread and Pathak’s pickled mangoes. After a round of ras-malai and mixed-chai, we indulged in a marathon chat session which ended when one of us fell asleep.

Mango days and nights

From the next morning on it was mango-time thrice a day. I woke up to find my friend in the balcony having a go at the mangoes and simultaneously conversing intimately over the telephonic with a woman of unadulterated British ancestry. What made the scene objectionable to my eastern sensibilities was that K.D., with eyes half-closed, sucked out mango-pulp with loud ecstatic slurps and which triggered roaring laughter at the other end of the telephone.

K.D.’s pre-breakfast routine for the next few days was to consume mangoes in purely rural fashion until the crate refused to oblige. Although he, like a model citizen, neatly buried the leftovers in the garbage bin located at the end of the lane, such was the aroma of Pakistani mangoes that the entire neighbourhood came to know about this ‘mango guest’ from K.D.’s native land. As an eastern saying goes, one can hide neither love nor a scent.

Mango happiness
While I remained content with a cup of Earl’s Grey tea and biscuits every evening, K.D. prepared a large glass of mango-shake and spoke with great eloquence about the sizzling summers we spent together as naughty little boys knocking mangoes off Pakistani trees. Every now and then he would punctuate his thoughts with loud slurping sounds by sucking the mango shake through a plastic straw.

So completely obsessed with mangoes had my friend become while living in England that I soon began to wonder if the grey matter inside that old friend’s head had metamorphosed into yellowish mango pulp. For purely old time’s sake, I sometimes sat and did nothing but watch him consume mangoes. Once when I ventured into the pantry to assess the quantity of mangos left over, I found a few small ones rotting away ready to spread disease and discomfort in the neighbourhood. Even the common horseflies found them unattractive and when I shouted at K.D., “Dump them!” he out-rightly vetoed my ‘mad proposal’.

“The only place the mangos will go is in here”, he remarked slapping his bulging stomach to pay a glowing tribute to what resembled a full-term pregnancy. That was weight gained through reckless consumption of mangoes but, in true expat spirit, K.D. laughingly blamed Pakistan for all his ills.

Royal Observatory, Greewich - 1902 post card
When the week-long stay with K.D. finally came to an end, I realized at least half of it was spent at home watching him devour mangoes at the oddest hours. Only during the last two nights did we step out to enjoy ourselves. A camera dangling from my neck, we visited the Greenwich Observatory where I saw how they manufactured Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) for the entire world to synchronise their watches to. Nobody knew why Greenwich Time was called Mean by the public or Zulu by aviators, none could explain why a Great Kingdom ruled over by a queen was not called Small Queendom, and why she had no time at all to have the constitution written down for the benefit of all the converts to English language.

The Big Ben being cleaned
As for the rest of the tourist attractions, the Big Ben had not grown any bigger since my last visit, and the London Bridge had not yet fallen into River Thames. Everything was the same, quite the same, and the very same—which was quite an elementary change if one learnt to notice things with Sherlock Holmes’ magnifying glass.

I did not shop much in London because the financially impotent Rupee had shrivelled in value to a disappointing size against the mighty Pound Sterling. Besides, most items, from undergarments to baseball-caps, had the ubiquitous Union Jack emblazoned across them. It felt quite unsafe having my family jewels wrapped in the British flag instead of the one belonging to my own country, and 17.5% was too much tax to pay in London considering that very few Pakistanis happily paid taxes back home. The silver lining of the British cloud was that with higher taxes ‘tube’ trains and double-decker buses ran on-time, no gas and electricity load-shedding ever took place and not a single policeman—leave alone an army man—was ever visible in public.

London bridge falling down?
Oddly, other ex-pats whom I met referred to the British ‘Poned’ as Rupee. A few rich Pakistanis became my acquaintances but a great many Abdul bhais who almost exclusively owned London’s news-stands became good friends too. As a result, I got all the news verbally and free of charge every morning. The British penchant for tabloids was truly amazing as one could spend an entire vacation marvelling at the editorial imagination and the pen-pushers’ skills of creating something unreadable out of something truly unbearable. The magazine racks were full of hobby and adult magazines that I wondered at the smartness of Communist China for taking away manufacturing from England and leaving her instead to pursue the skin trade.

Time to leave

“But what a shame you must go”, K.D. lamented.

“Yes I know but I hope to see you soon in Pakistan. And if you need anything at all from back home——”

Suddenly someone’s luggage trolley hit K.D.’s foot. He might have sworn at the one who inadvertently hit his foot but all I heard was “Ten kilograms”.

New London Bridge in the late 19th century
The public address attempted to convince me for the ‘last time’ that it was time to ‘head for the departure lounge’. After K.D. Khan hugged me for the tenth time in full public view, I thought it was time to return to my ancient civilization.

©Tahir Gul Hasan, 2015


K.D. Khan was also featured in my article The Wild Side Of The Mall
The first draft of Mangoes For Django was written on 30 July, 2002.