The taste of ripe mangoes
4 July 2020
It used to be one of her favourite moments in childhood. They would sneak out of the house and run across the fields to the point where the mango groves began. They would hide at the extremity of the fields waiting to see if the guardian was there and if he wasn’t they would step into the grove and steal some ripe mangoes. It was usually a boy they called Thengai who used to climb the trees as he was used to climbing coconut trees and had a good foothold. His name Thengai which meant coconut came from not only because he climbed coconut trees but also because his hair combed down in a shell shape manner made the top of his head resemble a broken coconut shell.
Thengai would climb like a daredevil any tree in the mangrove and if the guardian was spotted he would be able to clamber down in no time often surpassing them as he ran towards the fields. Little did they know that the guardian always made a show of chasing them but slowed down if he got too close because he never actually meant to catch them. There would be no use indeed of catching them as the mangrove belonged to their family although they did not know it. In fact, almost all the lands around the houses up to the neighbouring city belonged to her family. Unaware of this, the children including her used to run like their life depended upon it, holding on tightly to the mangoes packed in their shirts or dresses, when the guardian chased them.
Later on, they would stop in the fields and put the mangoes together. They would then divide the ripest mangoes amongst them for eating on the spot and leave the greener ones for later. It was usually she who got the greener ones as her grandmother was very skilled at making mango chutney with the green mangoes. Once the bottles of chutney were ready, her grandmother would give her a basket of these to distribute around the neighbourhood. The neighbours respected and loved her grandmother not only because of this type of small kindness but also because she gave the lands to plough to the neighbours and only asked for a small share of the crops as compensation. People considered the grandmother as the main village benefactor.
She used to love going to the village and spending a part of the summer there during the summer break when her father did not yet have his holidays. It was all wonderful until that fated summer when everything had changed. She had not witnessed it herself but she often had nightmares about it and would wake up in the night trembling. For a long time after the incident, nobody had gone to steal mangoes from the mangrove. The villagers would talk about it in hushed tones when they thought the children were not around. Thengai had been riding the tractor of his father next to his older brother when he had slipped, and the tractor had mauled him before his brother could stop the giant wheels.
Some children had started going back to steal mangoes the next summer and one of the children had volunteered to take Thengai’s place as the picker. When they passed by her grandmother’s house she kept the door tightly shut and did not respond to their stage whispers calling her out. She could not bring herself to accompany them like she could not bring herself to eat ripe mangoes anymore. It was as if the mangoes’ ripe insides were like Thengai’s and for a long time the idea of eating them seemed repulsing. She also could not bring herself to distribute the mango chutney among the neighbours anymore and had grown sullener by the day. At the end of that following summer, her father decided to make her spend less time at her grandmother’s house.
Long after she had grown older and found out that the mangrove was theirs, she still would not accompany the children to the mangrove during the short breaks she was at her grandmother’s. She had started eating her grandmother’s chutney again, but nobody had offered her anymore ripe mangoes given her clear revulsion to these. One day, as she was walking through the fields, she found herself in front of the mangrove. The guardian was there and he seemed now a wizened old man. He looked at her and made as if he were going to chase her, but she laughed so he laughed too. He went towards a mango tree and reaching out pulled a ripe mango off the tree which he then offered her, slicing it in the middle. His face was wise and kind and she wondered how they could have ever felt afraid of him. She took the mango almost in a second state and bit into it. The taste of the ripe mango was heavenly as it mingled with her salty tears. She smiled up at the old guardian.
Kahlil Gibran – On death