When I was 25, I realised that I would do anything to travel for free. Even if meant accompanying my father. He had read somewhere on the internet that Israel had the best water-management systems in the world. Despite my qualms about travelling with him and political antipathy towards the country, I went along. My small, frail and temperamental father and I met in Tel Aviv, on a quest to see Israeli farmlands and their drip irrigation.
On the first morning, we visited an elderly gentleman who grew flowers in a glasshouse. The nursery was managed by technology that would monitor the water for each plant and every flower. As we walked through the pampered gerberas, my father was impressed by the technology but also wearied by the hubris of it. We were grateful to the old man for giving us his time, and had a meal together. It was at this point that my father produced from his bag a kilo of sapotas for the high-tech farmer. The old man, though joyous and full of admiration for the sweetness of the fruit, panicked at the possibility that Indian bacteria could have made it past the Ben-Gurion airport, leaving my father with a bitter aftertaste. What a waste of goodwill, my father muttered afterwards – the old man cared more for biochemical security than the taste of a naturally grown sapota from Tumkur.
That was the first time I understood the depth of my father’s love for fruits. They are his primary means for emotional barter and conviviality. The fruit from his farm is his pride and joy, in a way that his family never had been. And I realised how important fruit was to my own emotional vocabulary too.
Every year, for as long as I can remember, eating the first mango of the season has given me a happiness that no other experience can match. If I can, I share this moment with my father. When I put the first slice in my mouth, a slow warmth suffuses me, and a smile breaks across my face (as does acne, shortly afterwards). After attending to every sliver and fibre, leaving no bit behind on the skin and seed, I sit in contemplation of my good fortune of living in a country where half the mangoes of the world are grown. My father and I eat, and look at each other with the deepest fondness, in a way we would not otherwise.
My relationship with my father – fragile and fraught – has always been able to mend itself by the promise of a mango. It was a testament to the ferocity of our fights one year that my father did not make a single mango-related phone call to me. Our tradition is that my father monitors a mango on a tree, watching it mature, and tells me to visit in time for its ripening. He takes me to the tree and watches me pluck the fruit. Regardless of our fights, in that one moment we are united in shared love for the fruit. I bring the mango back to the house, we cut it, only slightly haggle over pieces, and eat them with smiles of contentment.
When I was about six, my father realised that his hard-earned money could get our family mountainous quantities of alphonsos. For him buying the mango of his choice was an achievement surpassing any other. Each summer he would buy only alphonsos, something that displeased the rest of us who loved other varieties. We would bicker about wanting raspuris – thoo, my father would say, what is a raspuri in comparison to the king of fruits.
He took this obsession to greater lengths. He had long nurtured a dream to own a farm of fruit trees, and the time came for him to make it real. One day he drove alone to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra to handpick the saplings. At his land in Tumkur, he oversaw the planting of every sapling, and watched them grow every year. He learnt the ways of mango blossoms. His inner calendar was ordered by rains that helped his fruit thrive or bruised them on the branch. An untimely summer storm would cast a dark shadow on his mood. The extra burst of jackfruit would make him sad, for it meant a smaller yield of mango.
Global fruit gathering
Earlier this summer, I realised how much of this man is imprinted on my being. We had an exceptional blossom of mango flowers, and my father and I walked past every tree with the sweet anticipation of an abundant mango summer. Both Bangalore and Tumkur were on the boil – and the drought had hit us all. A few days after I returned from the farm, I sat at a party where every Bangalorean begged, prayed and ached for rain. And with enough gin in my blood, all I could argue was – How could you choose rain over mangoes? How dare you?
It must have seemed absurd, but it occurs to me how much of my happiness every year depends on the boxes of mangoes I can eat. When I was a student in Delhi, I made a calculation that helped me move from one academic year to the next – that summer holidays in Bangalore and the first term in Delhi combined to give me five months to eat mangoes in a year. Raspuri, banganpalli, dussheri, alphonso, langda, malgoa, mallika, thothapuri, everywhere I went. Life could accord no better privilege than this.
On the trip where the slight to the sapotas seared my father, we discovered in a Tel Aviv market a fruit called the persimmon. It looked interesting – the size of a peach, the colour of a mango, the skin texture of a sapota. How was there a fruit in the world we had never seen? We bought some and returned to our hotel, excited to eat this loot. With the first bite, both of us were in love. We went right back to the market, having ascertained how many kilos of free baggage we had to carry the fruit back. We bought dozens of persimmons, packing them into every crevice of our suitcases. It was a blessing to meet a fruit we had never seen before, and my father also packed seeds into a plastic bag, to try and grow persimmons on the farm.
My father has smuggled seeds of every fruit he has eaten back into the country. He has tried, and failed, to grow an apricot tree, after listening with envy to my stories of lying under a shower of apricots in Ladakh. He seemed to think the intensity of his desire for an apricot tree on his farm would make his sapling bud, with no consideration for the heat and dust of Tumkur. The stunted little apricot tree still stands where it was planted, and we frown as we walk past it, my father unwilling to concede defeat. He has tried to make his own feni from the fruit of a cashew tree, the most terrible concoction I have ever drunk. He has had a rapturous, short-lived romance with a nanjangudu banana plant. I think his heart never mended after it was struck by a lightning bolt. He and I have frittered away hours of our life speculating on the health of strawberries that would just never grow, eating scarce berries the size of fingernails as though they were nectar from the gods.
That the fragile peace between my father and me is brokered through fruit sometimes makes me laugh. I feel a deep ethical struggle with my love for his eccentricity, knowing that perhaps it is only with family one can carry both moral distaste and love. If I were Pablo Neruda, I would craft this “aroma of exasperated love” into more exquisite speech. I would be able to describe how our difficult relationship finds its contours shaped by knives, textures, pulp, the vivid colours of fruit. I only know there is no better way to find reconciliation than over a sliced hemisphere of mango gold.