The only redemption for the fiery furnace of Indian summers is the extravaganza of mangoes. Over 300 varieties of a seasonal treat that is, sadly, denied to diabetics because when ripe it is the sweetest fruit of all.
The summers of my childhood are memories of prickly heat, afternoon naps under the fan, looking for shade, avoiding heatstroke or sunstroke and being so miserable that only a hill station holiday would compensate; temperatures climbed to the late thirties, unlike the peak of 50C this year.
The only other compensations were the swimming pool at the Delhi Gymkhana (Lady Willingdon Swimming Baths!), choc ices and best of all mangoes. My father was a connaisseur and his favourites were Langra (the lame one), Dussehri, the short lived Alfonso or perhaps Chaunsa, which came at the end of the season. Chusni (suckers) were for the children as they were so messy to eat and Totapari (parrot) were too lowly to bother with. They had to be ice-cold, cut in a particular way (cheeked, diced in their casing and eaten with a dessert spoon) leaving the juicy gittak, stone, to be sucked voluptuously. Finger bowls were brought to the table and no one was rude enough to wipe hands on napkins. We had to go and rinse them properly and wash around our mouths, in case we came up in pimples or boils. Mangoes are very heating in Ayurvedic terms. We dreamed of getting into a bath with iced water and eating an endless supply of mangoes. They were orange-fleshed, perfumed and sweeter than honey.
Dehradun and Saharanpur in U.P has the best mangoes and we always brought back a basketful in the boot whenever we went there.
The only decent mangoes to be had in Oxford are in Cowley, so I cycled to Shah’s shop on Magdalen Road but he was out of them. “Later they come,” he told me in his grumpy way and at that moment a large white van climbed the pavement and the driver waved imperiously to me to get out of his way. A tall bearded man wearing shalwar kameez climbed down and started berating Shah. “Why are you being rude about Bangladeshi mangoes? Look this lady will buy them.”
“She is not Bangladeshi”, says grumpy Shah.
“Why should only Bangladeshis buy Bangladeshi mangoes? What is wrong with you?”. The bantering continues, both men playing at being irritated.
“Are your Bangladeshi mangoes any good” I ask the bearded giant. He draws himself to his full height.
“Any good? See for yourself” and he slices a cheek from one with a penknife. It is indeed delicious, the colour of deepest apricot and delectably juicy just like a Dussehri mango from my childhood. “I am Akram Khan and this joker Shah thinks I have nothing better to do than argue with him. I left Birmingham early this morning and I still have to go to Slough, Coventry and Leicester delivering mangoes. “
Another slice of mango is given to me. “You have some too,” I say. “I have sugar” he says regretfully.
Then in a burst of comradeliness, ” We are one and the same- Bangladeshis, Punjabis, Islamabad, Delhi- all one. God, that is Allah, made us all. That will be £10 for a box of eight.”
“Make it £8”
“No bibiji, £10” he says firmly.
In this respect Akram Khan sahib is not at all like Ahmad, who came around to our house with his vegetable and fruit trolley, lingered under the shade of the Ashoka tree and patiently humoured my mother when each time she refused to pay him what he had added up with his stubby pencil. “Ten rupees for tomatoes? Go, go, go and cheat someone else” she would say.
I can’t say that to the mango seller from B’rum so I get on my bike and cycle home to feast on the king of fruits and maybe share them with a friend or two.