Some ten years ago, we planted a mango tree in our backyard. We have a big Gulmohar tree in front of the house. A pomegranate and guava trees are on one side and Madhumalti and Mogra on the other side. This Mango tree was on the back side. I remember we had planted a Coconut tree also there. I don’t know what happened to it, but it died. Then came this Mango tree. It survived and now after ten years, it’s bearing fruits for the first time.
I went to visit home this year in March. Feels strange to write this, but nowadays I ‘visit’ the home once in two years where I spent good 18 years of my childhood. But that’s the situation. So, when I went home this March, I could see hundreds of “kairya” (raw mangoes) on the tree. They were everywhere. Behind every leaf, on every branch. It’s still a small tree, but it was full of raw mangoes. Some were as big as my fist, some very small. There were few, who were shy and introvert and were standing alone in distant corners. And there were some bullies huddled together with their four-five siblings planning new pranks on lonely guys. Some were still waiting to be born and were disguised as white flowers. The tree looked happy though. Like a first time mother watching over her kids. She was shielding the lonely guys under the leaves and punishing the misbehaving ones by making them stand in the sun. It was a beautiful sight!
My dad’s uncle had a Mango farm and when my dad was young, he used to visit them every summer. I have heard many stories from him about that time. They used to have thousands of mangoes during summer time. All of those were ripened in the attic of his uncle’s house. There was “Aamras” every day along with “mango chutney” or “mango pickle” or “Sakharamba” (raw mango jelly). Sometimes “Aamrakhand” would be served for the lunch and “Panhe” (raw mango juice) and “Khichadi” at dinner. Left over “Aamras” would be spread onto plates and dried in sun. If people were still interested, they could go upstairs and eat as many mangoes as they can stomach. When I was young, we also used to have the whole shebang, but we had to buy the mangoes. The mango farm was long gone.So, this was exciting. We were there for couple of weeks, but there was still some time to have full ripe mangoes. The ‘paad’ was still away. I knew this word, but didn’t know what exactly it meant. I asked my dad. He said, when it’s time one mango ripens on the tree and falls from it on its own. This means it is time to get the mangoes down. During our stay, we ate some raw mangoes, ate some “chutney”, “panhe”. But sadly no mangoes. So on the last day of my visit, I went to Market and bought a dozen “Alphonso” mangoes and made “aamras”. Alphonso mango generally starts arriving in the markets in March. Going to India in summer and not eating Mangoes would be bad for myself and my reputation among my friends in US. So I clicked a picture of the “aamras” and quickly posted it on Facebook. Done and done. Peace.
But the actual battle hasn’t even started.
I happily returned back to the states to see some 45 likes on Facebook. I was homesick and mangoes were part of every discussion during first few days. But work had piled on at the office and I got busy in my routine. Slowly mangoes slipped from being the center of every discussion and the Mango tree back home was somehow lost from thoughts. I called my parents over the weekend. That’s when a news came from back home – The “Amra-kaand” had begun. What’s an “Amra-kaand”? You may ask. It’s an age-old battle between the Mango owner and his innumerable foes. It’s the battle to protect “kairya’s” till the “paad”. Don’t belittle this by comparing it to protecting any other fruits in the garden. Because we are talking about the King of All Fruits here. These are princes and princesses. They will one day grow to take their rightful place at throne and reign over the kingdom. We may lose some pawns (pomegranates) or even rooks or bishops (guavas or jackfruits), but this is royalty. Thou shall protect thy kings. So back to the Amra-kaand.
It had begun couple of days before my call. The enemy has sent over its first troops. The expendables. It was a group of small children in my colony. As it turned out, they had also got the news about first “hangaam” (first fruit-season). My mom and dad are alone back home. They are not very old, but they are old enough to qualify for senior citizen discounts. Kids knew that and came over one afternoon. It was not difficult for them to jump over the fence and go to the tree. But climbing the tree was still a difficult task, since this was a tv/video-game/smartphone generation and wasn’t taught the once essential tree-climbing skill. They had however played Angry-birds long enough to become experts in projectile motion. They picked some stones and started hurling them at green pigs. I mean green mangoes. They didn’t care if it they got a small, bitter “kairi” or a big, sour, mouthwatering “kairi”. My mom was working in the kitchen. She heard the noise and came out. She yelled and ran at them, but the gang quickly jumped over the fence. She got back only to hear them again at the tree. They had simply backtracked and regrouped. She went back again. This happened two-three times. She soon realized that although the gang could do this the whole day, she couldn’t. But she had a better weapon against them. She knew almost everyone in the gang and also their respective mothers. All she had to do was to threaten them that she will tell their moms about their escapades. She did that and it worked. The gang dispersed and went back to playing angry-birds. She hadn’t actually told their moms. But she knew that those kids will eventually realize her scheme, since none of them got yelled or spanked at home. She was relieved for the moment. And she was ready to make real calls if required. After all we are talking about the King of All Fruits here. My mother was sad looking at the small “kairyas” on the ground.
My mother is one-of-a-kind (like every other mother). She doesn’t have any personal needs. I don’t remember her buying a new Sari for herself in long time or jewels. On the other hand she helps out everyone around her. At home she has a secret fund (in a well-known jar in the kitchen). Although she doesn’t need to ask my dad about taking money from central (again secret) place, this fund is for special purposes. To help out whoever needs it. Our “maushi” (domestic helper), our grocery store guy, our vegetable vendor, our night watchman. And many more. In turn she gets their respect. If “kaku” (aunty) needs help, they will be there. Every month, we used to make one-thousand-and-one “modaks” (sweets) for puja at the Ganesh Mandir and then distribute all of them afterwards. When we were young, during one season, we had planted okra (lady-finger) in our garden. Once we harvested it, she sent us to everyone in the colony with a bag full of okra. I know she will give away mangoes too, once they are taken down. Each gang-member will get mangoes at their respective homes after the “paad” without any effort. But the kids didn’t know that. … and then there were others who were simply too cruel.
It was quiet on that front for some days. The mangoes were growing and the gang was on a break somehow. The days were getting warmer and warmer. It was difficult to set foot outside after noon till the evening. So people either languished at work or at home during afternoons. Mandatory siesta was in session. You could hear air-coolers, fans and air-conditioners blazing in each house in the neighborhood. It was a usual April month and mango tree didn’t have anything to complain about. But that’s when the enemy decided to bring in big guns. Time was 4pm. Mom had just finished her work, finished her lunch and was planning to take her usual evening nap. Dad was writing something. It came quickly. Suddenly it darkened outside. Something was blocking the sun. That’s unusual, my mom thought. She came outside to check and realized the dire situation in an instant. Those were clouds and “Avakali paus” (non-seasonal rain) was preparing for attack. This, I think, is the worst nightmare for all mango farmers across India. Once every few years, we would have these rains in March or April. Because of the extreme heat or something else. And the next day’s newspapers would solemnly announce the damages. Always in Millions of Rupees. This thing would single-handedly decide how much mango we would be getting that summer. Farmers would lose out more than half of their crop. It had power to crush many dreams and many lives. And it was here.
My mom was still shocked when she described it to me next day. The attack was multi-staged. First came the blackout. Dark black clouds engulfed the skies. It was dark at 5pm. Then there was an aerial attack. Winds started blowing out. They cleared out anything loose and insignificant. Dust, branches and garbage was up in the air. People rushed to terraces to fetch the clothes from the ropes. Some terraces had grains spread out in heat to dry them and some had “papads”. The household went for these first. Then came anything loose and valuable. Like the lids on the water tanks, which were secured by putting some heavy stones on them. Chairs were brought inside. Many people sleep outside during summer time, so they dashed out to get the beds and linens in. But the warning wasn’t long enough. The winds were soon joined by the infantry in the form of thousands of water droplets rushing towards the earth. The rain made weird hissing sounds when it touched the hot earth. Not everyone was sad to see them though. The sweet smell of ground gave away Earth’s happiness. She was happy to see water after eight-nine months. The gang was happy and was in the open to bathe in the rain. But my mom was unhappy. This was a mighty foe, one against whom she had no weapons. She could only pray that the rain would not turn into a hailstorm. The rain continued late into the night. Mom could sleep only after the sound of the rain on our windows stopped sometime after the midnight.
Sun shined bright the next morning. Only signs of the rain were the few ponds in streets and leaves on the ground. There were some news of lightening on nearby hills. But the scene in our backyard was gruesome. It was a massacre. Hundreds of raw mangoes were strewn under the tree. Most of them were very small. Much of the foliage was on ground. Two things had somehow helped us. First there was no hailstorm. And second, the location of our mango tree. It was in the corner in our backyard and was surrounded by houses on three sides. But still the damage was too much to handle. My mom gathered the big ones from the pile. They numbered around fifty. There was nothing to be done about small ones. They would return back to the soil and may nourish the tree for next season. The day was then spent in distributing good mangoes from among those, making pickles, making jelly. It seemed like the worst was over. But it wasn’t.
Next few days were peaceful. May arrived. Although half of the mangoes were already gone, remaining ones were flourishing on the tree. My mom’s expert eyes could see that the “paad” was not too far. Few mangoes were turning yellow. She definitely needed some help as we didn’t have any tools. Generally mango farmers have these long sticks with a sickle and a bag on the top. If you do it properly then the sickle would cut the mango and it will fall in the bag. May be 2-3 more days, she thought. So she called upon few of her helpers to be ready on the coming weekend, 9th of May. I called her on 7th morning. It had been some days since I had called home. The landline rang for 20 times and went to the automated message. “The number you dialed is currently not answering, please try again later.” I tried again later, but the same. I hate that automated message. Then I called on my dad’s cellphone. No answer there too. I thought, it was morning time. Dad must have gone to take a bath and mom to the Ganesh Temple. They would call me after seeing the missed calls. As expected, mom called after some time. “They are here!”, this was her first sentence. She sounded out of breath. I didn’t understand. Who? She explained. It was a gang, but she didn’t know them or their mothers. It had come from the skies, but it wasn’t the rain.
“Monkeys”, she almost yelled.
Monkeys? what?? It took me couple of seconds to grasp that. Monkeys at home, that was unusual. When I was young, I remember, one-two monkeys would occasionally come in our neighborhood. Then we would run behind them, make faces at them, throw stones at them. But that was long time back. After that I don’t think I have seen a Monkey other than at a zoo. I was curious, so I called them on the skype on my dad’s iPad and he took it with him upstairs. They were there. I could see them. A troop of 8-9 monkeys. Couple of males, three-four females and some kids. They had come sometime back. Mangoes lured them. By the time mom-dad had come upstairs after hearing the noise, they were on the tree having their breakfast. Seeing my parents, they scattered for a moment, but came back realizing they were beyond my parents’ reach. When my dad yelled at them, they screeched back. Mom brought couple of steel plates from the kitchen and started banging them together. This scared all of them and they retracted to safe distance. But they were not gone. They had a strategy in place. My house has two terraces, one in the front and one in the back. There is a passage connecting both of them. The Mango tree is accessible from both. These smart monkeys divided themselves into three groups. One group stayed on the back side and one on the front side. The third group was a backup and was used to replace any tired members from the first two groups. Whenever mom-dad would come to shoo one of the groups, the other would attack the tree. Finally my mom pulled out a chair and sat in front terrace and my dad on the back, periodically making noise with the plates. I felt bad for them. If I were there, I could have been of some help. We could have taken turns and watched out for those moron monkeys. This monkey chasing went on for three-four hours and ate away all the morning. By noon, both the belligerent camps were tired. Dad was hungry and tired. Monkeys also gave up and went away. Mom-dad called the operation off and went down. The damage again was overwhelming. Half eaten mangoes were everywhere on the ground. These were useless. Most of the branches were broken and only couple of dozen mangoes were left on the tree.
This ‘amra-kaand’ reminded me of a book I had read. ‘Old man and the Sea’ by Earnest Hemingway. There the protagonist is a fisherman who has gone without any find for some 84 days. On this 85th day, he wanders far into the sea and hooks a big marlin fish. The book is all about his battle, first with the fish and after catching him with predators of the sea, the sharks. By the time he comes ashore, only a skeleton of arguably the largest fish anyone has ever caught is dangling from his boat. These mangoes were turning into the Marlin for my parents.
I didn’t even understand why were they trying so hard to protect those mangoes. Was it the mangoes, or something else? Was the “king-fruit” was just too regal to be given away? Then I realized, it was more than the mangoes. My mother has raised that tree since it was a sapling. It was more like a child to her. She had watered it regularly, even during the summer time, when we ourselves didn’t have enough drinking water. And my dad also loved it, he loved all the trees in our small garden. It was because of him that we had planted so many trees. I still remember how sad he was when we had to cut the Gulmohar tree in the front because it was touching the electric lines above. The guys from electricity board had come one day and cut the whole tree, only a stump was visible above ground. It was like someone had cut out a small part of his heart. But like a miracle, Gulmohar grew again and is now adorning our front yard. That mango tree was their child and those mangoes were like their grandchildren. All of sudden they had grown protective of the mangoes. It also provided my mother with something to be busy with. The house used to be filled with us four kids once, now we have all gone our different ways. These things keep her busy and happy.
I know the “paad” will come soon and these mangoes will be sweeter than all the mangoes in the world. Just like their grandparents.