Green mangoes. I almost want to capitalise the words. GREEN MANGOES. There, that feels more indicative of my feelings. There are very few other things that are so strongly evocative of my childhood (of course there is MacGyver but I’m still smarting from my unrequited love so we’ll exclude him for the moment). Green mangoes are an assault on my senses. The sight, a happy, glistening, gleaming green, is a symbol of promise and excitement. It is a signal to the warmer weather approaching. The smell is fresh and young and to touch the sometimes sticky, unwashed skin takes me right back to climbing a tree in search of the illicit bounty. The crunchy sourness of the young, firm flesh moistens my mouth and lifts my spirits. I have a relationship I cannot explain with unripe mangoes.
Of course, had you grown up in the hot, sticky east coast of our country and had your family been of Indian descent, you would probably recognise my brand of madness as your own. People who look and sound like me and who were born and bred in the same area as I was, have a propensity to pickle and curry things that many other people may find odd. Green mangoes are no exception for pickling and ripe mangoes are no exception for curry making. Mango pickle, homemade mango pickle with just the right amount of crunch and heat is undoubtedly the unsung hero of my childhood. It seems to me that the grandparents of my generation had many a pickling secret and I am fearful that we may have lost something through the progression of time. My paternal grandfather had a special talent for preserving the green beauties so as to retain their youthful crunch (who likes a soggy mango in their pickle?) and he would often sneak me pieces of the pickled treasure when my mother was not watching. On my maternal side, I would find all sorts of other treasures, like the grated mango, green chilli and salt concoction (we call it Kutchla, although no one outside my family is aware of the strange sounding word). When the grandchild count was an unfulfilled four, my cousins and I would spend the majority of our summer holidays trying to outwit my grandmother to enable the unfolding of ill formed plans of mango theft. Upon sending the older of the grandchildren up into the biggest tree in the yard (it was at that stage, an unparalleled honour to be asked by a grown up to climb a tree), my grandmother would wash and cut the young mangoes before salting them. So, and the process of pickling and grandmother deception were set in motion. Once salted, the mangoes would be arranged neatly in rows on newspaper on the veranda, like polite uniformed students waiting to be addressed at assembly. The heady vision of these polite mangoes would prove an enticement too great for us and the oldest of the grandchildren, as if age bestowed him some superiority, would sketch out our action plan using a thin stick in the sand under the shade of the generous mango tree. Part of his cunning plan, which I only realised later in life, was to use me as a distraction so that the three older children could steal the mangoes, mix up some chilli powder and salt and enjoy their spoils behind the large sofa in the lounge.
When we were children, it was a simpler time, it was a time when children spent their school holidays climbing trees, making swings and stealing mangoes with their cousins. There were no cell phones and TV was limited to a certain part of the day. Times have changed, sometimes unbelievably so, but one thing that has not is the treasure that is green mangoes, chilli powder and salt. We may be adults, too big to fit behind the lounge sofa but we’ll always be children trying to find our way to a treasure we cannot not forget.