Maanga-Oorga {Mango-Pickle}

I started a novel called Rangu – This is an independent short story starring Rangu that will hopefully be a chapter in the novel somewhere in the many chapters in my mind and hopefully will get typed or written in a a notebook.

The summer would start in its intensity in early March itself. If we were lucky, the rain-gods would shower a bit of their bounty in the end of February, a gentle calm before the intense summer-wave that would envelop us for the next four months. Once those showers in February would cool the earth; we would set out to the ‘maan-thoppu’ – the mango orchard. The zamindar’s property stretched across the length and breadth of the seven villages to the east of the River Bhadra. The mango orchard was strategically placed right at the end of the boundaries of our little village. Meena and I would go to the orchard. Shambu thatha was the caretaker at the orchard, he would break into a smile on seeing us and say “Rangu Swami, Meena yaejamani vaango’ {Come Rangu Sir and Princess Meena}.

The rains on the gentle earth, the fragrance that linguists now call ‘petrichor’ would permeate the air. There were flowering shrubs of hibiscus, jasmine and some wild forest-flowers as well. We had the permission to pick all the fruits that had fallen down in the overnight rains. I had a sack that I would stuff with the green mangoes, some would have ripened and the sweetness of the fruits as we bit into them and talked and walked back home.

Once Meena would be left at her house, I would walk down to our humble hovel.  Amma would wash all the green mangoes in luke warm water. Then I would wipe them clean in an old white veshti that belonged to Appa; a memory of which I had no proper recollection. The mangoes would be wiped dry and then Amma would hand me the ‘aruvamanai’ a slicer set in a wooden frame. You need to slice the mangoes in a specific way and ensure that the seed did not get into the way of the sliced mangoes. It takes practice and having observed Amma slicing them for so many years, I naturally set about assisting Amma in the kitchen. Studies did not work out, the fees, the situation, the need to cross the river to reach the town; were all too many troubles for a young widow and her son. By Mama’s grace we were allowed to set up a tiffin stall outside the temple and I would help Amma there and also assist in cleaning the temple premises, ringing the bell, washing the temple vessels and other such stuff that kept the fire running in our kitchen. Every day and night Amma would tell me – “Rangu, you are destined for bigger things; keep working hard, Eashwaran will show us the way!”

The mangoes would be sliced and then be placed in a huge jar of salt and chilli powder. The jar would be sealed tight with a white cloth and for five days the sun in all its intensity would bestow goodness to the jar of sliced mangoes. On the sixth morning, Amma would get a huge cast-iron cheenchatti (heavy-bottomed cauldron). The sesame oil would take its time to heat on the wood-fired oven. Amma would then add mustard, as it would crackle, then she would add freshly ground red chillies, fenugreek seeds, turmeric and asafotedia and stir the potent mixture and then would come the moment of glory when the sliced mangoes would be added. Then my next task of gently stirring the mixture with a wooden stirrer would start. The smoke would be cumbersome but the fragrance of the spices and the green mangoes would be enough to bear all the smoke and water that would seep out of my eyes. Amma would know the exact time when the mangoes would have been cooked sufficiently and she would supervise the stirring at intervals and tell me when to stop and ask me to extinguish the fire. After a while the cauldron would be removed from the oven and kept to cool, covered with the banana leaves. The steam kissing the banana leaves and then again returning to the mangoes in the cauldron would impart a distinct flavor to the pickles. They would then be packed in glass jars. As per custom, the first three bottles would go to Zamindar Ayya’s house and Amma would give the first bottle to Meena. Then the remaining bottles would be sent to the houses from which the orders would have come for Annaporani’s pickles. Amma was fondly known as Annapoorani. It was a matter of pride and common knowledge that no one had ever left hungry from our house, in even the most desperate of times.

FAST FORWARD TWENTY YEARS

Zamindar Ayya had sent us an invitation and I was happy to know that I would be able to meet Meena after all these years. The little pony-tailed girl has grown into a beautiful princess, college-educated and a doctor. A matter of great pride for all of us! The first person from our village to have become a doctor. The wedding is in Madrasapattanam, people say the city is called Chennai; but for old-timers like me it will always remain Madrasapattanam. The blue coloured-nool-pattu saree with the mango pattern was ready to be gifted with the sacred kumkumam from the Devi-Sannidhi. What else? What else could I gift her??

I looked at Amma’s portrait in the swami-room. I kept the invitation next to the portrait and spoke –“Amma, Meena’s getting married! I could almost sense her presence and all of a sudden I could smell mangoes cooking in spices! Yes, that’s it, I would give her a bottle of pickles as well. Let me see, if she remembers me!!

The wedding was conducted at a massive mandapam, there were over 4,000 guests and it was a busy affair with all the big city-people talking on their mobile phones and clicking selfies. When I reached the mandapam, the rituals were already underway and at the appointed auspicious moment the thaali was tied. Meena looked resplendent the bride all attired in the ceremonial yellow silk saree and gold jewellery. The groom was a doctor as well and the couple looked lovely together. The big city folks and the family-members handed over their gifts to the newly wedded couple. Zamindar Ayya spotted me in the crowd and beckoned me to come up on stage. I felt a bit embarrassed; the country-bumpkin with his yellow cloth bag and khadi shirt and kaavi veshti. Ayya asked Meena – “Do you remember him?” Meena stared at me befuddled. I took out the mango-pickle bottle and a rush of memories flooded through Meena’s eyes and her eyes turned moist as she said – “Rangu!!!  Maanga Oorga”

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