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My mango is better than yours

The Hapoos vs Langda debate leads the Indian mango wars every summer. But did you know that most modern mango varieties owe their existence to Portuguese grafting techniques?

Last weekend, my phone buzzed incessantly with social media alerts. It doesn’t happen often. I have less than 1,700 Twitter followers. But we are at the cusp of mango season, the annual fruit-crazed follies of the subcontinent, and my timeline was filling with anticipatory heat: India versus Pakistan, Chausa or Banganpalli or Kesar. I could feel her pain when author Nilanjana Roy posted on Twitter: “Calling for a cease fire in the annual mango wars, cannot discuss while aam-deprived in @lockdown. Hapoos vs Langra regulars, hold your fire."

This mango infographic by @indiainpixels circulating on Twitter last weekend created a storm when it asked people to ‘Pick your favourite!’.
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This mango infographic by @indiainpixels circulating on Twitter last weekend created a storm when it asked people to ‘Pick your favourite!’.

The hullabaloo ensued after the circulation of an infographic on “Indian Mango Varieties by State", accompanied by the demand, “Pick your favourite!" Twelve specimens were pictured—among them, Karnataka’s Totapuri, Uttar Pradesh’s rose-hued Ambika and the perfectly paisley-shaped Bengali Himsagar. But true aficionados could only see an outrageous, canyon-dimensioned absence. No Hilario? No Mankurad? No Goa? This list was an insult. The Delhi-based maven of statecraft, Constantino Xavier, cast aside diplomacy to tweet, “Leaving out Goa’s mangoes in this list…is like missing the Taj in Agra (angry face emoticon)." Then he added @vmingoa, to lure me into battle.

I am used to it. Every year, the same thing all over again. Spring ripens into summer, we commence drooling about mangoes, and everything descends to ranting and abuse. But what gets me steamed is the sheer ignorance, because the hierarchy of mango deliciousness was established hundreds of years ago. In his vivid, discursive 1698 Storia Do Mogor, the Venetian adventurer, Nicolao Manucci (who spent 64 years criss-crossing South Asia from Balkh to Puducherry, always dwelling on the pleasures of the palate), writes with categorical zeal: “The best mangoes grow in Goa. These are divided into varieties, with special colour, scent and flavour. I have eaten many that had the taste of the peaches, plums, pears and apples of Europe. However many you eat of them, you still desire to eat more."

Manucci’s account includes this crucial detail, “They have special names, as follows: Nicolau Afonso, Carreira branca, Carreira vermelha, Parreira, Babia, Porta, Secreta, Mainato." That is the first account of mango cultivars with individual nomenclatures. The great scholar of Indian gastronomy, K. T. Achaya, notes “the hills of north-eastern India adjoining Myanmar are the likely centre of origin" and “in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad and in the slightly later Shatapatha Brahmana, the virtues of the mango fruit have been extolled for three thousand years" . But only after “grafting was first used on the mango by the Portuguese" did the varieties we squabble about start to emerge into being.

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The first mango in Manucci’s list now dominates the Indian palate. Like most varieties from Goa, it carries its original progenitor’s name. Very little else is known about Nicolau Afonso, whose fruit is often misattributed as being named for the empire-building general Afonso de Albuquerque. But it is his mango that beguiled the Marathas and Mughals, captivated the British and conquered the world. Its direct descendant—the name became Alphonso and then simply “Hapoos"—is grown across 150,000 hectares of the Konkan coast in Maharashtra. Each year, 50,000 tonnes are exported to the Middle East, Europe, Japan and Australia, with the rest going straight down the gullet of Indian urbanites.

THE PORTUGUESE CONNECTION

There is delicious irony that the cities of India—most famously Mumbai—now go into paroxysms of delirium about the arrival of mangoes from the Konkan, but the exact opposite was true in the 16th century. Midway through his Colóquios Dos Simples E Drogas Da India, the polymathic scholar Garcia da Orta abruptly halts conversation in his veranda in Goa when sails are espied. He is expecting mangoes from “Bombaim…that island of mine". They are intended for the governor but Orta can’t resist: “Give them here. I want to taste them first." His companion raves, “these surpass all the fruits of Spain (effectively, the entire known world), so good that I think it will be necessary for me to remain here. It does not seem to me that I can now leave."

The 1563 Colóquios is among the first books printed in India, and styled as 59 conversations with an obviously made-up friend. They comprise an extraordinary exegesis of medicines, plants and natural curiosities of the subcontinent—from bhang (hashish) to elephants—annotated by dazzlingly diverse citations: Roman, Greek, Perso-Arabic, Chinese, Ayurveda and Unani. The fantastically entertaining 34th Colloquy pays tribute to what Orta explains, “The more that is said about the taste of this fruit, the more is asserted."

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The academic and author Jonathan Gil Harris points out in TheFirst Firangis: Remarkable Stories Of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners Who Became Indian: “I believe that the hints of becoming Indian in Orta’s professional life are related to a key detail (which) informed all his key decisions—to migrate to Goa, to find service in Ahmednagar, to embrace Muslim traditions of knowledge. (He) was in fact a Sephardic Jew named Abraham ben Yithzak."

Orta hit the ground running in India, to flee the anti-Semitic writ of Portugal. But late in life, with his stature assured, the Crown awarded him the Ilha da Boa Vida (Island of the Good Life) in the Northern Province of the Estado da Índia, where he returned to establish a manor and extensive gardens. That estate became the foundation for contemporary Mumbai. When it was ceded to the British in Catherine of Braganza’s 1661 dowry, the settlement was signed in Orta’s old house, and the Raj inherited the most consequential tree in mango history.

In the Colóquios, its owner gloats, “I have a mango tree in that land of mine which has two gatherings, one at this season and another at the end of May." That “parent tree"—as my 1879 edition of Hobson-Jobson calls it—became the progenitor of many varieties, including the “Mazagaon mango" which was engraved by James Forbes in his 1813 Oriental Memoirs folio as “deservedly esteemed one of the greatest blessings in India". In 1817, Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh rhapsodized, “to eat any mangoes but those of Mazagong (sic) was, of course, impossible." Maria Graham’s 1813 Journal Of A Residence In India adds, “The tree from which all these species have been grafted is honoured during the fruit season by a guard of sepoys; and in the reign of Shah Jehan, courtiers were stationed between Delhi and the Mahratta coast, to secure an abundant and fresh supply for the royal table."

JOURNEY OF THE MODERN MANGO

The 250-year story between Orta’s bountiful tree and the state-secured Mazagaon fruit, coveted by the viceroy and Great Mughal alike, is the journey of the modern mango. It begins with the 1510 conquest of Goa by Afonso de Albuquerque, after which the Estado da Índiabecame the first European foothold in Asia, and nerve centre of “the Columbian Exchange". New goods, plants and animals cascaded between the Americas, Africa and Asia. Indians encountered chillies, tomatoes, potatoes and corn for the first time. But ideas and techniques also rode the waves, especially after Francis Xavier arrived in 1542. His brand-new Jesuit order sought to differentiate itself by propagating science. In 1575, the priests began to tinker with Indian fruit.

Goan botanist João de Mello de Sampayo describes this turn of events with poetic ardour in his 1902 A Mangueira, “(the Jesuit fathers) stumbled on the bounty of the mango, with its delicious taste and exquisite aroma, and its soulful form which imitates the human heart." Dozens of new varieties were created, sampled and exported across the subcontinent. By 1673, the punctilious fellow of the Royal Society, John Fryer, could state with authority that the Goans “have improved (the mango) to the utmost perfection; when ripe, the apples of the Hesperides are but fables to them; for taste, the nectarine, peach and apricot fall short."

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The agriculturist Fernando do Rego (who died last month at 91) speculates in his own impassioned As Mangas De Goa (The Mangoes Of Goa) that Jesuits “baptized" new mango species with the same zeal they renamed converts to Catholicism. He notes that in 1727, the Scottish voyager Alexander Hamilton enthused the Afonso was “the wholesomest and best tasting of any fruit in the world". As early as 1792, the Estado da Índia’s ambassador to the Peshwa court in Pune, Vithalrao Valaulikar, was sending frantic messages to his superiors about strictly curtailing exports because baskets of the new Goan mangoes had become an essential tool in his negotiations.

From the beginning of the 17th century, Goan mangoes fanned around the world, with far-reaching historic consequence. Rego writes that some of the first grafts, along with expert native cultivators, were sent to Brazil. These were Fernandinas, Afonsos and the Malgoa (the original name, often corrupted to Mulgoba, reflects its place of origin), which later transformed into the Haden, Tommy Atkins and Kent mangoes that today supply the vast majority grown and eaten in the Americas. The same species trailed through the Philippines to Mexico (which is now the world’s largest exporter).

The great “road to Damascus moment" for Goan mangoes was the Jesuit mission to Akbar’s court at Agra in 1579. The Great Mughal was fascinated by science and encouraged the Europeans to share their expertise in grafting. After sampling Afonsos and other varieties from Goa, he excitedly propagated them across his dominions, most notably in the 100,000-tree Lakh Bagh orchards of Darbhanga in Bihar. Those trees, further refined over generations, generated the Rataul, Langra, Dassheri, Chausa, Totapuri and hundreds of other coveted species.

THE FRUIT OF POETS

By the 19th century, the great poet Ghalib could be known as an inveterate mango hound who had sampled hundreds of varieties and lamented (at 60) he could no longer consume “more than ten or twelve at a sitting... Alas, the days of youth have come to an end, indeed, the days of life itself have come to an end." His masnavi, titled Dar Sifat-e-Ambaah (On The Attributes Of Mangoes), begins with the couplet mujhse poochho, tumheñ khabar kya hai/aam ke aage neyshakar kya hai, which the scholar and poet Mustansir Dalvi translated for me as, “If you were to ask me, what do I know—sugar cane barely compares with ambrosial mango."

When I asked the mangophilic author Chandrahas Choudhury, who often travels for the specific purpose of guzzling mangoes, which part of the country stands out in its devotion to our favourite fruit, he told me “for sheer volume of cultivation, breadth of commercial varieties, forms of mango hospitality, and ubiquity of mangoes in the language, proverbs and metaphors of the common man, nothing beats UP". He shared the text of what he called “the best mango literature", the story Gulab Khas by Abul Fazl Siddiqi, in translation from Urdu by Sagaree Sengupta and Muhammad Umar Memon.

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Siddiqi describes the intriguing weeks-long competition for best new mango species during the waning years of the British Raj, which was organized every five years by zamindars in Avadh and Rohilkhand, who “fed mangoes to everyone with the same open-hearted generosity, from the ordinary village headman to the Viceroy, from fakirs to aristocrats…there was no occupation during the entire period of the show except consuming the mango crop, persuading others to help consume it, sending mangoes out, and requesting mangoes to be sent in from other places. The whole world was nothing but mangoes and life was lived only for the sake of this luscious fruit."

Gulab Khas depicts the origins of “aam admi", the metaphor in wide usage across north India and Pakistan, to mean “the common man". When it was co-opted by the incipient politician Arvind Kejriwal in 2012, then minister Manish Tewari objected: “Aam admi has been synonymous with our party since 1885. Nobody can hijack the intrinsic relation between Congress and the aam admi." When I wrote to the historian Ramachandra Guha about this, he recalled the phrase being coined by Jairam Ramesh. But Ramesh in turn emailed me, “Congress ka haath / Aam admi ke saath was mine in 2004 but please don’t say I claimed credit for it because in hindsight success has many fathers. Ram Manohar Lohia had previously used the words aam admi, and so had many others."

India, however, is not the only country where the mango has become an important metaphor. Rather incredibly, in 1968 the fruit became symbolic of the end of the Cultural Revolution in China (where up to two million citizens died), when chairman Mao passed on a gift from Pakistan’s foreign minister to workers involved with crushing the Red Guard factions. More recently, it signalled openness to trade between India and the US, when exports from Maharashtra were exchanged for Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

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By this point the cult of the Hapoos had reached its zenith. The admittedly attractive fruit, with its trademark hardy shelf life and powerful aroma, dominated the very idea of Indian mangoes. Everywhere they reach, people go crazy for them. That is, except for Goa.

FAMILY JEWELS

India’s smallest state reserves an outsized appetite for the Fernandina, the amazingly sweet and juicy Hilario, and above all, the majestic Mankurad. Because local landholding patterns have never allowed for extensive orchards, supplies of these complex cinnamon-caramel, ice-cream-textured beauties are restricted to individual trees. Nothing is exported and much of the fruit doesn’t even reach the marketplace. Instead, they are bequeathed like family jewels—with great ceremony, accompanied by hushed, respectful tones.

The finest mango man I know, the veteran agriculturist Miguel Braganza, says: “The Hilario mango is a chance seedling that developed in Siolim (it’s named after Hilario Fernandes, the grand-uncle of star musician Remo) but to every Goan the word mango is synonymous with Malcurada (the older Portuguese name of the Mankurad). I grew up with a tree and now live next to it again. From December, one’s eyes scan for flowering, and watch the mangoes grow from pea to marble-sized, then get a blush of orange-yellow. There is nothing in the world like the taste of tree-ripened (Ambear-piko in Konkani) Malcurada mangoes. I could eat a half-dozen of them in one sitting as a child, and still retain that ability."

Everywhere they grow, mangoes connote sensuality. Mahatma Gandhi himself once gorged so much he then complained in abnegation, “mango is a cursed fruit, we must get used to not treating it with so much affection." But in Goa that carnality is taken to another level of specificity, as the archives of every male author are replete with (today markedly politically-incorrect) comparisons of fruit and female pulchritude. My grandfather—the Indo-Anglian poet Armando Menezes—did it in English. The late father of the current Prime Minister of Portugal, the Lusophone novelist Orlando da Costa, in his O Signo Da Ira (in excellent translation by D.A. Smith), lingers wistfully on “breasts that now seemed like two malcurada mangoes ready to be picked, but still clinging fearfully to the tree".

In the annals of identity in Goa, there are many points of divergence: region, religion, social standing, politics. But on mangoes, there is only consensus. You can keep the rest. Ours are the best. The late Konkani laureate Manoharrai Sardessai put it best: Like a drop of honey / Soft as a bride’s lips / Our pride, our wealth / Is the Goan Mango.

Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer.

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THE MANGO HISTORY OF THE WORLD

How the fruit was grafted and travelled from India to Brazil

1510 - Afonso de Albuquerque conquers Goa. The new Estado da Índia becomes the fulcrum of the Columbian Exchange as plants, animals and people travel between the Old and New Worlds.

1575 - The brand-new Jesuit order of Catholic priests begins to experiment with grafting mangoes, for the first time in history.

1580 - The first Jesuit missions to Akbar’s court in Agra, which included artists and various agricultural and natural curiosities, such as the first turkey birds seen in Asia and baskets of the first grafted Goan mangoes.

1661 - The marriage treaty between Catherine of Braganza (daughter of the King of Portugal) and Charles II transferred the “island of Bombay" (what is today Colaba and Fort) to England. Part of the settlement was Garcia da Orta’s crucial “parent tree" of twice-fruiting Mazagaon mangoes.

1683 - Seven mango trees of prized Goan grafts, along with expert native cultivators, are sent to Brazil by the Portuguese viceroy, Dom Francisco de Távora.

1937 - India sends baskets of Alphonso mangoes (and two fruit-sellers to accompany them) from Mumbai’s Crawford Market to London, to commemorate the coronation of King George VI. They create a lasting sensation at Covent Garden.

2006 -The US opens its markets to Alphonso mango imports, in exchange for India allowing in Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

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