I received a Whatsapp message from my mom in May – about two months after our part of the world had gone into a lockdown. “Doesn’t look like there will be any mangoes this year,” she wrote. I could hear her disappointment on the other end, an energetic knowledge of loss extending beyond the screen and the words. I felt it too. The scarcity of ritual rooted in intergenerational pleasure was palpable.
Back in India, the mango is more than the “King of Fruits,”’ it is a prophet – offered to Hindu gods in ceremony, represented as an emblem for an ineffable, sensual yearning in poetry and literature, and at mercy of foreign trade and political maneuvering. Transcending its plant genus into a cultural icon, the mango seasonally owns our collective consciousness.
For three weeks every year, Indians across North America rush local grocers and unmarked basements, informally catalogued, to suck, slurp and call on cultural memory. During the season my parents usually show up at my door with a case, and call the next day to check in on “our status.” There is a cheap thrill in the scarcity of it all. And perhaps, some desperation to taste a part ourselves that has not been reduced, prepackaged, and sold to the dominant gaze.
Off the shores of the Indian Ocean across the land historically funded by colonial rapacity and through the Atlantic, a faint stream of blood trails the import mango market. “Who will eat the ghotla?” mom asks; the seed is slippery but it has mingled with ancestral soils more than I have. Some mangoes arrive despite climate and COVID – they are $40 a case, double the price. Few will eat them this year.
The tragedy is less about fruit. But rather, the gravity of loss within paltry options for cultural intimacy in a society infatuated with the Indian as a monolith. Strict parents, ‘arranged’ marriages, chai tea, good grades, spiritual secrets, and mangoes. This, coupled with a people who have lost agency over ancestral technologies and teachings like yoga, meditation, incense, bindis, and mala beads, can cast an existence overripe with cliched, and disconnected, ways of being and knowing oneself.
As colonized people and settlers on colonized land, used as pawns to legitimize systemic anti-Blackness, modeling palatable otherness, attached to internalized hegemonies of gender, caste, religion, and class, and awash in celebrations of identity politics – can culture find a depth beneath the surface? We are told we are foreign from the land and we are foreign to the land. We believe them. Soon, we are foreign to ourselves; suffocating, gasping for morsels of cultural knowing.
When my teeth scrape against the tongue of a mango slice, and my eyes close to arrest the moment – five generations of ancestors have done the same, binding us not in place or story, but ritual. The connection is weak, but a signal is found in the dishcloth stained with the fiery orange of marigolds and mangoes. Still, I am insatiable.