Monsoon and Memories: Mangoes with a Pinch of Salt and Chillie

This piece was first published in Borderless Journal on 16th February 2021. All rights reserved with Borderless Journal.

My grandparent’s house had a giant mango tree. It stood right next to the entrance gate, on the edge of the dirt road that led up to the house, breaking off from the bigger dirt road that ran through the heart of the village. The gate was made of bamboo, faded yellow with time and sun. Two bamboos were planted perpendicular at the two ends of the path, with three hollowed out holes in each, and three long bamboos slid horizontally through these holes, across the path. They could be slid away to make way for people to enter. Or if you are dexterous enough, you could just bend and slide your body in through the spaces between the perpendicular bamboos. The bamboos came from the backyard of my grandparent’s house, from the thick foliage of bamboos that ran on the edge and signaled where the compound of their home ended.

My sister and I were convinced that spirits lived there. Our grandma believed that too.

The mango tree was very tall. If you asked me now how tall, I couldn’t tell you. It was enormous. All I remember is that when I would try to embrace its giant trunk, I felt its width as insurmountable: my childish arms could not contend with it even when stretched fully to its extreme limits. And when I would crane my neck to look up at its branches laden with yellow mangoes, I could never stretch long enough to be able to fully take it all in. How old was I then? 6 or 7? Or could be 8 years old?

My sister and I loved summers. The school vacation meant we would visit the village and have the kind of unbridled freedom that only a village could provide for children. We had so many friends in the village, who we met every summer vacation. With them, we would be free to run from one end of the village to another. At the end of summer, we would depart with no way of knowing if we would see each other again. It was the kind of friendships only children can have: to be present so completely in those moments and enjoy them without feeling the need for the assurance of some form of continuance. In fact, they were special precisely because of their fleeting nature. I don’t remember their names anymore. In fact, I don’t even know if I knew their names then.

When we talked of those times, it was always “we”, our identities melded into each other and so did our memories. That was my unchallenged version of our history for a long time. But lately we have been having more conversations about the rifts within these shared histories too: that sometimes we live the same events, but within, they live and occupy space in such different ways.

We would sit flat on the grass underneath the mango tree on summer afternoons and wait for the periodic “thuds” on the ground, of falling mangoes from the giant mango tree. There were afternoons of incessant thud-thud-thuds, and then there were long afternoons when we would sit and wait for something, anything to fall. You see, the mango tree was so tall that it was easier for us to wait for falling mangoes than to try and pluck them ourselves. We would gather below the tree, and splay under its shade, to talk and play or just doze. There were mangoes in all stages of development. The ripe ones could be eaten as they were. The ones which were unripe or at the initial stages of ripening, would need a little more help.

“I want it with some salt and a pinch of chillie.” Someone would exclaim. “It’s good only with salt and chillies.”

And then as if by magic, salt and chillies plied on wild leaves would be conjured out of thin air. Short stout country knives would be used. Once sliced we would eat the mangoes. The fastest food in the shortest time. Between mouthfuls of salt and spice and sourness, we would listen to our friends’ gossip: who was the dumbest at school, and who gave the slickest answers to the teachers; how the headmaster, who was also my grandparent’s neighbour, would sometimes doze off in the middle of teaching during harvest season; which theatre company would be performing in the neighbouring village or when we could go eat sugarcanes in the fields. Since my sister and I were from town, our friends always took it upon themselves to show us the best of whatever exciting was happening in the village at that time. Sometimes these conversations could go on till the depths of dusk when the conversations would naturally transition to the realm of country ghosts and demons. It had been firmly attested by many present that there was a lazy ghost in the thicket of bamboo behind my grandma’s house. Lazy, because it didn’t make an appearance often enough to be deemed active. Apparently, one only needed to piss out of fear for the ghost to be so disgusted that it would leave the living alone.

After summer storms, the ground below the tree would be dotted with mangoes. The whole village would pay a visit to take their share of the mangoes. It was not just a tree, but it also formed a nucleus where the villagers gathered.

One year, my sister and I spent our last glorious summer in the village and left — not to return for a long time. The next year, we didn’t come back. And then we didn’t come the year after and the one after that. There was no precise reason I can think of for not returning, except for the usual ones that most people would have: we grew out of it perhaps, got busy with school or perhaps my parents decided to not visit. And when I went back many years later, the tree was gone and so were my grandparents, the thicket of bamboos behind the house was gone too.

I wish I could recall the last summer in the village. I can’t. I did not even know it would be my last summer and what “last summers” entail till more than two decades later. We can never know when we would be doing something for the very last time. If we knew, would we be doing it any different?

For lunch, my mother left me a whole assortment of food outside the door: mutton with potatoes the way I like, a small piece of fish with mustard, a side of sticky rice that smelled like heaven, a crispy brinjal, lentils and lemon. And then a bit disjointed from the overall theme of the meal, was a bowl of raw mangoes grated fine and tempered with salt and chillies. Was it in lieu of dessert? It smelled of childhood memories.

My family and I moved around a bit from one rented house to another, till my parents built a house of our own in a small quiet town with a river running through it. In time, I left it too for the big city. I would return home every summer and sometimes in the winters, if it was a good year.

Coming back home this summer was different: it was the year of the pandemic. There was the time to reflect in the months I spent alone: like the world paused and all I had was this ringing in my ear like blank noise. It was borne of silence perhaps. Once I could fly back home, my usual three-hour journey from the airport to my home was intercepted by a variety of events which arose due to the new normal of the pandemic. I had to spend time in a quarantine facility, then get admitted to a hospital isolation ward. After a week at the hospital, I was sent home to self-isolate. Sequestered on the first floor of my home, the first afternoon after my hospital visit, I had the unfamiliar experience of being a stranger in my own house, the one I grew up in. I was home and yet I met no one.

For lunch, my mother left me a whole assortment of food outside the door: mutton with potatoes the way I like, a small piece of fish with mustard, a side of sticky rice that smelled like heaven, a crispy brinjal, lentils and lemon. And then a bit disjointed from the overall theme of the meal, was a bowl of raw mangoes grated fine and tempered with salt and chillies. Was it in lieu of dessert? It smelled of childhood memories.

“Did you like the mangoes?”, she asked me on the phone. She, on the ground floor and me, alone on the first floor of my house. “This year, there are a lot of monkeys coming. They eat everything. Your dad has to stand outside every morning when they come to drive them away. There are also insects this year. God knows how. And all the morning walkers steal the mangoes towards the road. There is nothing left on that side.” The tiny mango tree in my parent’s house was planted a couple of year ago. It was hugely popular with the neighbouring children, their tiny frames tried to extend themselves to reach out to the mangoes: so near, yet so far. Even the adults would place their yearly request to be sent mangoes — even the ones who would pick off mangoes during their morning walks: two birds with one stone. But there was always too much, much more than we could eat.

Once my quarantine was over, I re-emerged from my exile, into society. Sitting on the floor of my mother’s bedroom, my sister and I reminisced over our childhood over a plate of steaming lucchi (Bengali fried bread) and mango chutney. Sour and sweet, with ten different spices tempering the sucrose from the molasses; sticky with the aftertaste of the cinnamon and bay leaves. Both of us were in our thirties. We talked a lot about our childhoods now. Often these conversations were tinged with the self-realisation that retrospection sometimes brings. We could see ourselves completely as a person with detachment. I feared I would forget it all soon. Already I found gaping holes in stories, entire years missing from my childhood. I tried to string the missing details from photographs. My sister would fill in the gaps in my memory sometimes, but then, we never knew what we might be leaving out.

I wanted to talk about the mango tree.

“Do you remember the benches? And the rice mill in grandma’s house?” My sister asked.

Indeed, I forgot about the benches laid below the mango tree. I did not want to admit it. So, I said, “Yes. But they took apart the mill and put in somewhere else.”

When we talked of those times, it was always “we”, our identities melded into each other and so did our memories. That was my unchallenged version of our history for a long time. But lately we have been having more conversations about the rifts within these shared histories too: that sometimes we live the same events, but within, they live and occupy space in such different ways.

I call over my mother and ask her, “The giant mango tree in grandma’s house — the one next to the gate. It was so huge right!”

“It wasn’t that big,” my mother says, “It was still young. Hardly planted a couple of years before your sister was born.”

“But wasn’t it so tall? So tall that none of us could reach for its mangoes ourselves?”

The next year, we didn’t come back. And then we didn’t come the year after and the one after that. There was no precise reason I can think of for not returning, except for the usual ones that most people would have: we grew out of it perhaps, got busy with school or perhaps my parents decided to not visit. And when I went back many years later, the tree was gone and so were my grandparents, the thicket of bamboos behind the house was gone too.

“It was not so big. It wasn’t even that old. It was quite young. When I was pregnant with your sister, I couldn’t eat anything so I would just eat the mangoes, salted with a pinch of chillies. That’s all I could eat with rice”.

“But we couldn’t reach them by ourselves. It was so tall”.

“No, you don’t just eat mangoes falling on the ground. They are too ripe to eat by then and they get bruised.”

“I remember it being so big!”. I have this flashback of a giant mango falling from high up on the tree with an enormous thud on the ground. The yellow ripe mango splits open, right next to my feet. “But the mangoes were huge right? I remember them being so big.”

“Yes, they were like your usual mangoes. Not too sweet, not too sour. But it wasn’t so big. The one in your other grandma’s house though. We had one on the back of the house, next to the well. It was many decades old, with a stump so big.” She stretches her arms and shoulders to visibly demonstrate the girth of the tree as being larger than her outstretched arms. “Both of you were very young. You must not remember but when….”

“But when was the mango tree from grandma’s house cut then? Why?” Impatient with my mother’s digression to her own childhood’s mango tree, I swiftly interject to make her stay on course with the history of mine.

“I don’t remember why. Perhaps it was too much of a nuisance for them to have people gather for mangoes all the time.” She leaves mumbling something about milk boiling on the stove.

“But I used to think it’s the largest tree ever!” I turn to my sister and exclaim.

“It was huge. I remember it. It was so big. But we were so young. Who knows anyway?”

The rain lashed on. It was monsoon in all its glory. That was what I missed the most: the sound of rain. With my bowl of raw mangoes, I sat on the balcony chair and looked out at the tiny mango tree in my parent’s house. I took a bite out of my bowl of salty and spicy mangoes. As I watched the mango tree in my house, it dawned on me for the first time in many years: like searching for a piece of important paper for hours only to find it on the coffee table. There it stood: short and strong, with its strong branches laden with mangoes, right next to the entrance gate of my parent’s home. I see it clearly for the first time in years. I take a mouthful: the sweet and salty and sour mangoes tasted like childhood.

Things stay the same and we change. Sometimes if we are lucky, we can find the things we thought we lost within the things we didn’t realise we had. Or maybe it’s merely a consolation, a getting older thing, something about forgetting and misremembering maybe. Maybe it’s the mind teaching us to contend with loss and regret, to lay memories and losses and gains on top of each other until these become a pastiche of a million loves and losses. Lately, every time I try to unpeel a layer, I seem to affect the whole arrangement of the composite and how it lay in my mind. But this has to do I guess, there is no other way to memorise memories.

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