Although nothing comes close to the kallamanis and neelams that I ate 30 years back, I'm happy with my banganapallis, malgovas and imam pasands today.
The house smells of mangoes... banganapalli, malgova and imam pasand are sitting side by side, on a steel tray. Every time I walk past them, I roll the fruits; that way, I'm hoping they will ripen evenly. Every evening, I check the fruits, to sort the ripe from the raw... and anything that's squishy or soft is immediately dunked into water, and peeled for an after-dinner dessert.
Summer has always been about mangoes; when I was little, summer holidays were spent in a teensy village near Trichy. For some reason, the varieties that were popular in Chennai (then Madras) were unheard of there. Only naatuka (country fruits) were freely available, and were brought home in cane baskets, often straight from the trees. The ladies who sold it, however, were no less argumentative than their city counterparts. But finally they would relent, and bring down their price a notch, and sometimes even leave a small fruit or two as a token gift. As soon as the fruits were bought in, and left in the pooja-room - as an offering, and also as safe-keeping from monkeys - we - the kids - would drop hints on how hungry we are. But no mangoes were given to us until lunch was over; and only after we had eaten could we take away the fruits to the terrace or verandah and eat them.
I remember eating three varieties. There was a mango called kallamani (my grand-mother called it thirugukaachi) and it was curved on one end, like a parrot's beak. The flesh was sweet and fragrant, but the mango was most interesting because you could make a cut in the middle - all the way around - and twist off one half from the other! It was a magical experience - we could then scoop out the flesh with our fingers and eat it, with juice running down our elbows; or we could be all posh and dig it out with a spoon. Kallamani had a thick skin, so even after we ate it, the cups retained their shape. The other mangoes we got there were rumani, its skin as thin as kallamani's was thick, and neelam. Rumani - available later in the season - was small and round, and we could peel off the skin with our teeth; then, we would hold the entire, orange ball in our hands and admire it from all sides before eating it.
Neelam was the trickiest mango - it was the sweetest and most exotically coloured fruit (the flesh was a bright orange), and it almost always had beetles inside. And since we never knew which fruit had the beetles ('vandu' as we called it), eating it was fraught with suspense. What if one bit into the beetle? How did they get inside the fruit? How did they breathe? Neelams always raised the same questions as we ate them, and it was fascinating (in a morbid way, of course) to watch the squat, black insect crawl out of that lovely orange flesh...
All this became a memory, a very distant one, when we moved abroad. It felt tragic when April came but mangoes didn't. Actually, that's not true - there were mangoes available, round the year, but they tasted insipid. The first time I bought some, I didn't know that. I was actually thrilled to find some displayed prominently in the grocery store, with little stickers that said 'Caribbean'. So I bought home three - one for each of us. They were large - as big as a good sized coconut - and green. I thought they would ripen and turn yellow. So I put it on a tray and left it on the dining table.
I waited for a week, turning it over this way and that. The mangoes stayed green; the skin did not dimple, it did not go soft. The husband asked, with mock concern, if it was made of wax; the daughter said she was getting impatient and could we please cut one of them. So we did. It was not made of wax but it tasted weird; it was like biting into a pale orange and fleshy fruit which tasted of nothing. We were disappointed and I promised I wouldn't buy any more.
But I still had two large 'mangoes' left. Since the family refused to 'pretend' they were mangoes and eat them, I scoured the web for recipes, and found one for mango rice. The recipe was a hit, and from then, the only time we bought the mangoes was to make it into mango rice.
Next, we tried the Indian Stores; they sold mangoes by the box, mostly Alphonso. It was very exciting, the first time we bought a cardboard box home. It was packaged very nicely, with pictures of ripe alphonso mangoes printed on it. The box also had 'breathing holes' for the mangoes and the fruits were placed on a bed of shredded paper. We waited for two days - as the shopkeeper instructed us - and then unpacked the box. It was a little disappointing: the fruits were runts, and while they tasted sweet, they lacked the burst of flavour that we longed for. We spoke fondly of the mangoes of childhood, and like all memories that become sweeter with time and distance, the mangoes of my childhood too became sweeter than condensed milk.
And so, every year, when we came home during the daughter's summer vacation (mid-July) we ate the last fruits of the season. But for the last couple of years, April and May have been mango months. We buy enough to make up for the lost years; and the house - as soon as we open the door - smells wonderfully fruity. Of course, nothing comes close to the kallamanis and neelams that I ate 30 years back, but I'm happy with my banganapallis, malgovas and imam pasands. Anything, as long as it's not a mango that has flown many thousand miles, only to be grated and ground and cooked with rice and salt.