Summer started suddenly here in Delhi. One day I stepped outside and felt that the earth had shifted slightly on its axis, exposing a bit more of the city and, by extension, me, to the sun that suddenly shone more fiercely than just the day before. Within a few weeks, the sunshine had completely burnt away the spring’s pleasantness, forcing all the cool breezes out of the city like an iron pressing down everything under its uniform, stifling heat.
Thank heaven for mangoes. The world may be a furnace for the next few months, but it’s no hell, because there are few things better than mango season. I would imagine there are other places than India that could lay claim to the world’s best mangos, and as a native New Yorker I’m in a keen position to understand both outlandish defensiveness about certain foods, and to recognize that growing up in the tri-state area I have no native claim to recognizing the best tasting mangoes. But I will push past that relative ignorance, grab the mantle of provincial defensiveness, and state for the record there’s no place in the world for mangos like India.
In New York, I thought I knew mangoes, thought they were messy, time consuming, and not worth the effort. A second tier fruit: fine once in a while, a good ice cream flavor, but not something to search for. I revised my thinking shortly after arriving in Delhi. One day, post-lunch, I unenthusiastically helped myself to a piece of mango and promptly felt my head explode. The piece was impossibly sweet, but that wasn’t it—the flavor was deep, it had layers, it felt like you could dive into it. It was, as far as I was concerned, a completely different fruit than the one I’d tried back home.
The first few weeks of living in a new city are never easy, and I don’t think Delhi is known for a gentle learning curve. It was brutally hot, I hadn’t learned to recognize the order in its chaos, and the sum furnishings of my house included my suitcase, guitar, and a single mattress that ended at just about where my feet began. The language gap felt daunting, and even when I was speaking English I felt like I was missing the correct phrases to make myself understood. This problem felt acute in bureaucratic situations, like trying to get a phone. It felt like an exercise in insanity when speaking on said phone, across perpetually bad connections that seemed to warp and distort speech so that conversations would inevitably revert back to square one, the back and forth “Hello?” of mutual incomprehension. I felt lonely, uncomfortable, and overwhelmed.
These feelings began to ease right around the moment when I wandered down my street and found a fruit juice vendor, sitting high up behind a mound of fruits, and ordered a mango shake. That I had the wherewithal to order a tall glass of milk, ice, and mango, was a triumph worth celebrating more than once a day. In the end of summer heat, a trip down the street for a mango shake, or finding my way back there after a less than fruitful trip for some essential living items, was a treat. A few weeks later, just like that, the mangoes, and mango shakes, were gone. Mango season was over for another year.
The fact that there is a mango season, above all else, I think, is what makes them so special, and what made my previous experiences so decidedly bland. Mangos might be an Indian mainstay, but mango season is an event–when it’s over, so are they. They appear just as the earth tilts toward the suns scorching rays, grow through the dry and dusty summer and muggy monsoon rains, and disappear as the air cools and people begin to look toward the holiday of Diwali. As quickly as they’d disappeared last fall, they were back this summer, and shop vendors and juice sellers packed them high atop one another while seemingly every fridge I knew filled with them. They are a relief, and a luxury, but not one that people strive for constantly–they are of a time and place, and that’s part of what makes them so special. The most famous variety, the Alphonso, is luxurious, but is always sold in packages, by the dozen or more, these crates often given away as gifts. It’s as if something so good should not be hoarded, that certain luxuries demand to be shared.
Admittedly there are ways to eat mangos beyond their growing season. In the industrial yard of my office, I learned what a mango tree looked like—dark waxy spear tip leaves, minute flowers in great cluttered clusters—and watched it give forth bright green fledgling fruits. These unripe green mangoes are mixed with salt, spices and citrus and turned into mango pickle, a staple condiment. They can also be dried and crushed into amchur, a powder, and used to flavor all sorts of staple Indian foods. But the tastes of dried or preserved green mangoes, though delicious in their own right, are such a far cry from the impossible sweetness of a fresh slice of mango that it’s like eating another dish entirely.
Apart from the fruits and vegetables we grew ourselves, I can’t remember any foods back home that were really and truly seasonal. Maybe certain things were limited by custom, like cherries and raspberries in summer, or by their sheer threat to long-term well being, like pecan pie at Thanksgiving, but really anything could be had at most any time of year if you were willing to sacrifice a little money and a lot of quality. Including mangoes.
The widespread adoption of globalized, industrial, hyper-efficient agriculture means more foods are available more of the time; availability, in turn, encourages the idea that satisfying our desires when we want is necessary to live a better quality of life. The luxurious feeling of enjoying a food in season loses out to the luxury of enjoying it whenever you want. Without getting too deep into it, you can look at the modern food system from different perspectives—economical, environmental, ethical–and find good and bad in it. But from the perspective of sheer joy in eating, I think the loss is incalculable. Growing food out of season to meet demand, or to survive long journeys to the supermarket, leads to less delicious food, of course. But even if it didn’t, would mangoes taste as delicious if they weren’t so associated with the relief from an Indian summer, if they were as ubiquitous in winter’s fog, if they accompanied spring’s gentle breezes or the cooling nights of fall? If mangoes didn’t vanish at the end of mango season, if there was nothing to lose and nothing to look forward to, just constant gratification, would they still taste as sweet? The anemic fruits of New York grocery stores suggest otherwise.
The sun will only shine down on Delhi more ferociously, and by the time the monsoon rains arrive to deluge the city I’ll be gone. Until then, there is heat, but there are also mangoes, and the former is just that much more bearable knowing it brings the latter.