TASTE MATTERS

The fruit that sent Mirza Ghalib into raptures

Most passionate mango-eaters will dismiss other people's opinions on the subject, but the Urdu poet deserves to be taken seriously on the topic.

Most Indians I know are passionate about the mangoes they grew up eating and refuse to believe that there can be superior varieties out there. For the most part, I am no exception. You can keep your Alphonsos and Dasehris, as long as I can have my Himayat Pasands and Benishaans.

But however dismissive one is of the opinion of others, one cannot help but take Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib seriously on this topic. Quite apart from that impressive name and his lofty standing as the Urdu poet, Ghalib has a well-deserved reputation as a mango-lover extraordinaire.

One only has to go through his letters – the first instance of Urdu prose, by the way – to realise that his passion for mangoes crosses the line into obsession. I have often gazed longingly at the names of mangoes mentioned by him in his missives to his friends, and tried to imagine what many of the unfamiliar ones would taste like.

In case you too are the gazing kind, here’s the list arranged in alphabetical order: Alphonso, Aziz-Pasand, Baadaami, Baaraah Maasi, Bishop, Bombay Green, Chausa, Dasehri, Dil-Pasand, Fajri Samar Bahisht, Fasli, Gulaabakhsh, Hamlet, Husn-aara, Jahaangir, Kishan Bhog, Khatta Meetha, Khudaadaad, Langra, Mahmood Samar, Malda, Malghoba, Naazuk-Pasand, Neelam, Nishaati, Ramkela, Ratol, Rahmat-e-Khaas, Roomaani, Safeda, Sarauli, Sinduri, Sultan-us-Samar, Totapari, Xavier, Zaafraani, Zard Aaloo.

What qualities does a mango have to possess to be called Naazuk-Pasand (one preferred by the delicate)? Or Rahmat-e-Khaas (a special grace)? What on earth is a Hamlet? Is the Baaraah Maasi really available twelve months a year? Who in their right minds would name a mango Zard Aaloo (yellow potato)?

And why, for heaven’s sake, is there no mention of Rasaal, that juicy fibrous mango of Hyderabad, of which the act of eating has appropriately been described as akin to sucking on a beard dipped in honey?

Ghalib’s mango-philia is so strong that he is not averse to humbling himself for a chance to be gifted the fruit. In a letter addressed to the caretaker of Calcutta’s Imambara, he writes ingratiatingly: “Not only am I a slave to my stomach I am a weak person as well. I desire that my table be adorned and that my soul be comforted. The wise ones know that both of these cravings can be satisfied by mangoes.”

This is followed by a disarming request for the mutawalli to “remember” Ghalib “twice or thrice” before the mango season ends, though he worries that this may be too insufficient to comfort “your humble servant”.

Ghalib’s concern isn’t without basis, for he certainly had a voracious appetite for the fruit. As a 60-year-old, he laments in a letter that he can no longer eat “more than ten or twelve at a sitting... and if they are large ones, then a mere six or seven. Alas, the days of youth have come to an end, indeed, the days of life itself have come to an end."

Altaf Hussain Hali, Ghalib’s student and biographer, records three stories about Ghalib and mangoes in his book Yaadgaar-e Ghalib, that have found their way into popular lore. The best-known is the one of Hakeem Raziuddin Khan, who while visiting Ghalib noted that a passing donkey had just sniffed at a mango peel and kept moving along. Look, said the Hakeem, even donkeys don’t eat mangoes. True, replied the poet, donkeys don’t eat mangoes.

Then there is the one about Ghalib accompanying Bahadur Shah Zafar, in the orchard of Baagh-e Hayaat Bakhsh, whose fruit was reserved for the nobility. Ghalib peered at the mangoes with sufficient intent for Zafar to ask what he was looking for. Ghalib replied in a calculated fashion:

I have heard the elders say:
bar sar-e har daana ba-navishta ayaañ
ka-een fulaañ ibn-e fulaañ ibn-e fulaañ

(On every piece one can see written quite clearly
That this is for so-and-so, son of so-and-so, son of so-and-so)

Perhaps, said the canny old man, I can spot the names of my ancestors on these fruits. Zafar got the message and Ghalib his case of mangoes.

The third story is of a gathering where the virtues of mangoes were being discussed. Maulana Fazl-e Haq turned to Ghalib and asked him for his opinion. Mangoes, said Ghalib, need to satisfy only two conditions. One, that they be sweet, and two, plentiful.

It’s hardly surprising then that Ghalib composed a masnavi titled dar sifat-e ambaah (On the Attributes of Mangoes), which included lines such as:

mujhse poochho, tumheñ khabar kya hai
aam ke aage neyshakar kya hai...
ya ye hoga ke fart-e rafa’at se

baagh-baano
ñ ne baagh-e jannat se
angabee
ñ ke, ba hukm-e rabb-in-naas
bhar ke bheje hai
ñ sar-ba-mohr gilaas
ask me! for what do you know?
a mango is far sweeter than sugarcane...
perhaps from the great heights above
the gardeners of heaven’s orchards
have sent, by the order of God
wine filled in sealed glasses

I only wish Ghalib had added the following couplet:

aur jinse ho dil hamesha shaad
vo to hote hai aam-e Hyderabad

and those that always please one’s heart
are the mangoes of Hyderabad.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.