There are few trees that catch as many a greedy glance as the Mango tree. Casually by the roadside, quickly from a passing car, longingly in your own backyard or slyly in the neighbour's, the laden branches of mango trees in summers are constant head turners.
And justifiably so. From its lyrical green and brown stance, its generous open arms, its leaves dusted with golden pollen, the summer bend of its annual cycle is the loveliest for this tree. But that was all the charm it held for me, as a graceful, lush sight in the blinding summer light. Unlike everyone around me, I didn't care as much about the yield. My summer fruit was never the mango. But to appreciate the contrast you must first know everyone around me..
The important twelve years of my school life were spent in Navrachana, in Baroda, a wonderful school built amid many, many mango trees. And the mango has a very exclusive place in Gujarat. In homes during the summers it makes its way gloriously down every course of the meal, even the sides, leaving a happy,sticky trace around gluttonous smiles from the face of the newest member to the wise ones of the Baas who meticulously prepare the mangifera goodies. But for school-going children, the chase for the mango begins not in the kitchen but before the fruit ripens.
It was the unripe mango, or the kachchi keri that was more coveted in our school. The injustice lay in the fact that we were all sent off for the summer vacations and we'd never once seen the mangoes ripening! Remember what I said about the sly glance towards the mango tree? Now multiply it by 2000 (I'm not even counting the carefully calculated anticipation and gaze of the teachers, no different from ours) and that's the pressure the poor mango trees in the nooks of our school had to bear! And not once did they flinch, in all their glory and limelight while swift as rodents, sneaky as monkeys, and sharp as birds of prey, the students would claim the prize of a bud much before it blossomed, common view points being classroom windows, the basketball court and over each others' shoulder as we queued up to make our way to the dining hall.
Soon, the itchy showers of pollen gave way to little green fruit. And thus the strategies would begin to form. What time of the school day would be ideal to beg for a free period ? How many times can one be excused to visit the restroom? Which classroom had the ideal window and who among the many gifted cooks at the dining hall should we begin to butter up for the acquisition of a pinchful of salt and chilli powder that go best with the kachchi keri.
And on and on it went until the fruit gathered nourishment,grew in mass and in its tailored green jacket peered down at hundreds of hungry faces.From then on, tension rose like fumes in the flasks of the Chemistry lab. Friends turned foes, people changed groups within the span of a recess and classes were stopped as students trooped to stand outside with salt-streaked faces concealing a sheepish grin, all for the want of a green slice of the keri. Not that they couldn't have gone home to baskets of mangoes, not that keris couldn't be found on a vendor's cart at a price well within their allowances, not that scabby knees and dusty uniforms were the only concerns of their mothers, the fact was that the kachhi keri from the school trees tasted better than anywhere else. You can imagine the awkward lull when a keri fell right in the middle of the senior school assembly at the feet of the strictest teacher and the buzz of mental activity that followed, about how to inch towards it during an intense announcement or talk. In the process of calculating the trajectory of a thrown tennis ball, the best time of the week to stand under a tree, and a route to meander through classes to dodge a greedy bully, my schoolmates turned into the great Physicists, Botanists and Cartographers that our teachers could have taken great pride in. Meanwhile, did I miss out on all the fun?
I have to admit I did, most of it. I would occasionally eat ripe mangoes after lunch or with vanilla ice cream, but that joy was always overshadowed by my love for water melon while my mum would delve in the nostalgia of buckets of yellow-red mangoes at her Grandparents'. The unripe mango (or the amiya) in our kitchen only contributed to tangy green chutneys and panna that my mum is best known for.
But that was that. For the many years I was in school, my interactions with the Mango trees were limited to climbing the branches. I never really understood the obsession with the unripe mango, wouldn't the sourness give one a tummy ache? In any case there were way too many contenders. I decided to lay off.
And it remained so until my last summer in school, just before the 12th boards, when I knew it was time to say goodbye to the shade and fragrance of the mango trees and all the little nooks I'd come to know as my own in the past twelve years. I have been at war with the very phenomenon of growing up for a while now. I wanted to make the most of school and during the last few months there were only a handful of us who'd attend everyday while the others studied from home. I spent these days at my backbench brooding and thinking of what was to come and what I was leaving behind. When out of nowhere a classmate of mine declared that a kachchi keri was found miraculously abandoned. We decided to make the most of a dull, free period in a class of four and made our way to the dining hall. I wondered what we would be greeted with and if we could walk into the kitchens as we pleased, certainly not? I smiled at the kitchen staff, the hard-working crew that day after day served us the food that we all still crave for and I wanted to tell them how amazingly well they do this task. Instead I gingerly stood by my classmates as they asked for a knife and were promptly handed one along with salt and chilli, for the staff knew our needs well.
The memory remains with me to this day, the first time I enjoyed the kachchi keri, peel and all, with a bunch of classmates whom I'd soon be parting ways with. I rediscovered the joy of sharing found treasure over a small walk to the dining hall and back. Needless to say, it tasted great, and I don't remember if a tummy ache followed or not.
It did take me a while to get to the bottom of this fruit, but I'm glad I did, I couldn't have left the premises of my school without having accomplished this feat, and I'd put it on the school prospectus if I could.It meant more than having passed the twelfth boards.That summer, we were all hit with the finality of finishing school and the oblivion that was to follow.We were safer and surer here, of belonging and knowing that if we fell several times before we matured, there would be someone who'd still value us. Like the keri, we wouldn't be seen ripening under those trees that summer. But we'd all have something common as a keepsake, long after the summer was over. Our own kachchi keri experience, even if a tad too late.
(For more Mango stories, check out http://tulikapublishers.blogspot.in/2012/05/i-heart-mangoes-tulika-summer-blogathon.html soon.)