In May, a calm sweeps across south India. Heat slows us down and the wind is our mother, gently nursing us back to life. Flies are lethargic, lying on their backs on dining tables. Beads of sweat circle locals’ necks, forming glassy necklaces. And a season filled with childlike glee arrives in the form of a fruit.
Between the ages of 3-5, my family spent summers in a tiny village known as Narasapur. My grandmother had a wonderland in her yard, filled with lush mango and papaya trees. My brother, cousins, and I spent hours in this mini farm – climbing trees, plucking fruit, and playing hide and seek. The mangoes from my grandmother’s yard were so juicy that as I ate them, giant yellow teardrops ran down my arms all the way to my elbow. There is nothing more satisfying than a fresh mango plucked off my grandmother’s tree.
Then, at the age of ten, I was transplanted to a country with winters. Real winters. Ones that required down coats, snow shoes, and gloves. I was a blended smoothie of loneliness and wonder. I tried to navigate the new rules of the classroom with raising hands and group work, while jumping into large piles of dusty orange leaves and catching snowflakes on my tongue. When mango season finally arrived in the US, I was a child on the first day of summer vacation, giddy with anticipation. My aunt brought home two large cardboard boxes of semi-green, semi-yellow mangoes. It was an arduous wait watching them ripen—I checked on them daily like they were (my) little pets. A week later, they were finally ready and we sliced them for dessert after church. The sweet familiar smell melted away the sadness of leaving India that had lived in my core that year. The flavor was different—not sweet enough, not powerful enough—and I refused the rest of the portion on my plate.
Four plates with a small hill of sliced mango was the centerpiece of my aunt’s dinning table. Eight eyes lingered on the sunflower yellow fruit as our minds wandered back home. I giggled at sharp vision of my perpetually stained shirts all season long. The mangoes more important than being tidy and presentable like a proper school principal’s daughter. Sam and I even attempted to grow our own fruit by planting the seeds we’d juiced dry in front of our house. We laughed at the image of our sad barren mango farm. I used to check on those plants daily just like I had the mangoes my aunt brought us that day; they never sprouted.
That afternoon, my family reminisced for the first time in eight months. We didn’t try to assimilate; we didn’t try to change our accents. We shared the stories from a season that was light years away from our new life.
Recently after a family gathering, my mom pulled out a box of mangoes from the trunk of her car and tried to hand them off to me [because if it’s mango season and you’re a south Indian mother, then you travel to all events with mangoes in tow]. While I negotiated how many I could actually eat before they began to rot, their familiar scent delivered me to a time when refusing a mango would have been a sin. A time when I ate them for breakfast, lunch and dinner with chapatis, sliced, and drank the juice straight from the fruit. When there were seasons for fruits and mangoes didn’t appear in the winter. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have experienced that because I used to pray for mangoes all year round. It didn’t occur to me that if I got mangoes year round, it would come from a far-away place and their flavor could be compromised.
A long negotiation passed between my loving, but pushy, mother and me; I took three mangoes that I smelt and tested for firmness like a professional mango farmer. Later that week as I bit into the end of the last mango seed—the best part—still frames of my childhood filtered in: my sticky, yellow fingers that my grandmother swatted away from her appetizers, demanding I wash them first, and the perfectly straight rows of mango and papaya trees in her yard.
Just as I began mourning the end of the mangoes from my mother, the universe sent me a small gift: a friend made me a mango yogurt parfait for breakfast. Sheets of vanilla yogurt spread with alternating layers of mango puree mixed with cinnamon, orange juice, and honey, topped off with a slice of Kiwi. Yes, it was more like dessert than breakfast. Each spoonful was a luxurious morsel of flavors and textures with the power to ignite fresh ideas to an old palate. On my way home from breakfast, I got to thinking about how I couldn’t recall the taste of an Indian mango. That it had been a decade since my last indulgence. That in America, mango wasn’t just a fruit to be eaten on its own; it was a tropical, and dare I say, exotic ingredient used in few kitchens brave enough to push boundaries. I realized that I had been in mourning for two decades, and by doing so had lived life oblivious to a world of recipes that could be elevated by adding my dear mango. And that sums up how I negotiate change—mourn, mourn, and then mourn some more.
So it comes as no surprise that when a dear friend became a mother this year and our relationship changed, initially, I was sad, angry, and frustrated that all my calls were left unanswered and I, now, spoke with her weekly instead of whenever I felt like it. I refused to accept the new stage in our friendship, fighting for the old—calling too many times, leaving way too many messages. I had been sulking, dwelling on how much I miss her and how different things are and how I have a hole where she used to be in my life. I can be a bit melodramatic; I blame it on my early exposure to Bollywood films.
Yes, everything changes – sometimes sharply, sometimes fluently, but I have been the type of person that pushes the plate away refusing to accept the new fruit in front of me. When I did this with the mangoes, it was I who didn’t get to eat and accept the subtle differences in flavor. It was I who didn’t get to experiment by adding mango to cereal or oatmeal. Once I accepted that I would have mangoes from India once in a while, and still have “American” mangoes that can be an ingredient in several dishes rather than a main dish, I began to enjoy mangoes again.
Today, although I may not be able to bite into an Indian mango whenever I crave it, I know it exists and plan my visits home accordingly. Similarly, things are different right now in this friendship. This doesn’t mean that I will never experience the closeness we once had. Additionally, if I accept her for who she is today, I may taste the support that I have been craving in a whole new way.
Mango Season is almost here. I say bring on the fragrant rivers of acceptance.
Sonia Chintha is an Indian American writer who lives in the Washington DC area. She blogs, writes poetry, and fiction. She is an English teacher who believes that our experiences teach us more than any test.