I don't think people of other continents can understand this passionate love we have for the monsoon. It wreaks havoc, yes. But when it doesn't it brings unmatchable joy, mixed with relief and gratification, to our parched brown souls. And yet we have no word for it; neither Hindi nor Urdu, with their rich vocabularies, offer anything but barsaat. And that means, simply, rain - saawan is the month in which the monsoon arrives. The word monsoon itself comes from the Arabic mausam, appropriate season.
Times have changed - we hear traffic around us, the click of computer keys and the ringing of telephones, but when I think of the monsoon, in my mind I can hear the koel. And then, though they do actually follow in real time, the stream of consciousness moves on: the plaintive kuhu-kuhu of the koel is immediately associated with mangos. Shady mango orchards, with leaves so dark and dense as to be almost black, are the perfect setting for the music of the season and the diva, the koel. Megh and Malhar are the ragas appropriate to this season, evoking the spirit, the atmosphere, of the monsoon, its sense of expectancy, fulfilled finally by the long awaited downpour. Many bandishes sing of separation, virah (or birah), and this dadra in Desh, not properly a monsoon raaga but often sung now, brings it all in: the koel, the mango and the unbearable longing. Although all poetry is difficult to translate and sometimes even transcribe, this, loaded as it is with emotions specific to us who wait for the monsoon and love the mango, is even more so. But it is so well loved that it warrants an attempt:
(Chha rahi kali ghata
Jiya mora lehraye hai
Sun ri koel banwari
Tu kyun malhar gaye hai
Chha rahi kali ghata
Jiya mora lehraye hai)
Ai papiha aa idhar
Main bhi sarapa dard hoon
Aam par kyun jhuk raha hai
Main bhi sarapa zard hoon
Farq itna hai ki us mein
Ras hai, mujh mein haye hai
(Muddaton dhoonda piya ko
Maine kar jogan ka bhes
Na to maine unko paya
Aur na paya unka des
Log kehte hain ki dhoonde
Se khuda mil jaye hai...)
Mangos are woven into the fabric of our, for the want of a better word, culture, and no wonder.
What do we do with them - come March and we start with smelling the blossom. Then the gales of April shake small ambis (amiya, or, in U.P., kairi) to the ground and we make quick, short-lived pickles or panna, the cooling sweet-and-salt drink. If we're not so old that our teeth are set on edge, we eat them in the raw, just sliced, with salt. Then come the real mangos, the varieties too numerous and too contentious to mention (suffice it to say that we can come to blows about the relative superiority of, let's say, the Alfonso versus the Langda). It's unnatural that this sweet fruit, considered heating, garam, by traditional vaids and hakims, comes in the hottest season, and not when it's frosty and you need your calories. After months of bitter cold they arrive in such abundance that then you have to devise ways of consuming them before they spoil. It's always either fasting or feasting. But we're used to that, so then come the "permanent" pickles, the aam papar, the murabba, the aamrakhand (the mango-infused version of the Maharashtrian shrikhand) and mango kulfi.
What I love, though, is a curry whose name is debatable. Some call it gur-amba or gur-umba, obviously gur and amb, aam. But then there are cavillers who insist that gur-amba is a drink made of raw mangos, whereas this is made of sweet, ripe ones. Some say malanji and others - imaginatively - khatai (even though it isn't khatta). I'll go with malanji, because that's what my mother called it, but I'm waiting for someone to explain where that word comes from, or if it's even right. It should be eaten with missi roti or parathas, but eating it with one's fingers with rice, especially when it comes to handling and sucking the guthli, stone, is better. It elevates a meal of what would otherwise be a tedious summer menu of tinda, tori and ghiya. Enough of the cucurbits, and on with Mangifera indica.
MALANJI (RIPE MANGO CURRY)
2 large ripe mangos, or 4 small ones
11/2 tbsp ghee (or 11/2 tbsp sarson ka tel, mustard oil
4 whole dry red chillies
10-12 leaves curry patta (optional)
1/2 tsp saunf, aniseed
1/2 tsp methi dana, fenugreek
1/2 tsp kalonji, onion seed
1/4 tsp turmeric
1-2 tbsp grated gur, shakkar or 1 tbsp sugar (optional)
Peel mangos and cut each cheek away from the stone. The stone can be stripped if you want to leave it out of the curry, but keeping it in, with the flesh on, adds to the fun of the curry. Cut the cheeks into large pieces, about two inches by one inch. Heat ghee (or oil) and sauté red chillies and curry patta (optional). Add saunf, methi dana and kalonji. After a few seconds add mango pieces and stones. Add turmeric and stir gently. Meanwhile boil 2-3 cups of water. Add to cooking mangos and simmer till mangos are cooked through but not mushy. Taste and add grated gur or shakkar, if the curry is not already sweet enough.
To cut down on ghee, use less, about a teaspoon, and sauté the spices. Mango tends to stick, so add boiling water first and then the pieces of mango. Simmer till the mango is cooked through.
Gur and shakkar are usually hard to come by when mangos are, so use sugar if necessary. Sugar is sweeter, but the colour of the curry is richer with gur or shakkar.
The writer is a freelance writer based in New Delhi, India.
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