Exploring Mangoes as Metaphor in South Asian Writing

The usage of mangoes as a literary device is as varied as the variety of fruit available in the local markets.

Summer in the Indian subcontinent is overripe with clichés. Milky clusters of champa blossom in the searing heat; koels, hidden from mankind behind the glossy leaves of jamun trees, are crazed with song; jamun trees, laden with purple fruit, buzz with bees making honey while rose-ringed parakeets make love on low-lying branches.

Among all these – the heat and dust of the city, the hullaballoo of birds and small animals, strange and sublime summer vacations – is one great enduring metaphor of the subcontinent’s summer: the mango. Too beloved an image to be discarded for being overused, the mango as a literary device in literature and poetry represents unspoken thoughts and feelings, unseen body parts of potential lovers, the summer’s transience, (and, as a corollary, the transience of youth and beauty), or even the quality of light on a particular day.

Hindu mythology bestows upon the mango flower a task that is vital for stirrings of a visceral nature. The god of love, Kamadeva, armed with flower-tipped arrows, uses the mango-blossom arrow as a weapon of mass amore, certain to turn women into love-tormented creatures, breathless with desire. Sanskrit literature is glutted with descriptions of mango blossoms being ecstatically pecked at by birds, or trembling in anticipation of secret trysts beneath their glorious shade.

Kalidasa, who lived either in the first century BC, during the reign of Vikramaditya, or in the fourth-fifth centuries AD during the reign of the Gupta Empire (the dates have never been determined conclusively), was peerless in his canonisation of the mango flower. In his Rtusamharam or The Gathering of the Seasons: A Poem in Six Cantos, Canto 6: Spring begins with this verse, translated into English by Chandra Rajan:

Sprays of full-blown mango blossoms – his sharp arrows,
Honey-bees in rows – the humming bowstring:
Warrior-Spring set to break the hearts
of Love’s devotees, is now approaching, my love.

Spring, like that facilitator of love affairs, Kamadeva, is approaching and an outbreak of passion is to be expected. Mango blossoms are irresistible to bird and beast alike, as is vividly demonstrated by these lines:

Drunk on the honey of mango blossoms,
the koel rapturously kisses his mate…

There are other rapturous encounters involving mango blossoms. In Kalidasa’s play Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller, a maid plucks a mango bud and offers it to Kamadeva, thereby demonstrating its efficacy:

Mango-blossom bud,
I offer you to Love
As he lifts
his bow of passion.
Be the first
of his flower arrows
aimed at lonely girls
with lovers far away!

Mango flowers are venerated in Sanskrit epics and poems as arsenal vital for seduction, but their appearance in recent literature also delineates the essence of summer. Ruskin Bond, without whom one would never have known the unsullied tints of schoolboy descriptions, writes in a piece titled ‘A Vagabond in Delhi’, “For who can forget that summer brings the jasmine, whose sweet scent drifts past us on the evening breeze along with the stronger odours and scents of mango blossom, raat-ki-rani and cowdung smoke.” Resonating with Kalidasa’s account of nature’s carnival (but devoid of the ancient poet’s ecstatic sensual undertones), Bond’s narrative places the mango blossom as a sensory prop, integral to the season’s upsurge of swooning flora.

Despite the mango flower’s delicate charms, and usefulness as a marker of warm seasons, it is the mango fruit that is more popular now as the subcontinent’s multi-purpose metaphor. It makes its appearance in book titles: The House of Blue Mangoes, A Case of Exploding Mangoes; when suffixed appropriately, it becomes the name of a fictional town: Mangobagh in Anees Salim’s The Vicks Mango Tree; when it is missed and written about in retrospect, it appears in pickle, inside crated parcels, and on sari borders as a resplendent motif of the homeland. Sometimes, it appears in unexpected places. In Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address, first published in 1991, unripe mangoes are observed by ten-year-old Sandeep, in the hospital’s green patch meant for recuperating patients: “Small, green, unripe mangoes hung from the mango trees, and bees floated in the air, as if controlled by invisible threads.” A sudden spring amid the sterile white of the hospital.

The mango fruit’s most frequent use in fiction is as a succulent emblem of longings, yearnings and revelations, both physical and metaphysical. Indira Ganesan’s Inheritance, published in 1997, begins with a reference to mango trees that are a part of a landscape both idyllic and revelatory. “It was a summer of awakening,” the narrative declares, “My grandmother’s house was different from my home in Madras. Here, I could walk under the mango trees in a place that lacked only a waterfall to make it a kind of paradise.”

The novel peddling mangos as a proxy for all that is felt but cannot be uttered has led to snide and highly quotable remarks from contemporary authors. Rana Dasgupta has famously referred to the trend, by observing that it was on the wane: “Having moved beyond postcolonialism and a welter of sari-and-mango novels, Indian literature has struck out into darker, messier terrain.”

Salman Rushdie, when receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Asian American Writers Workshop at Tribeca in New York in 2013, said, “I have a rule that I offer to young writers. There must be no tropical fruits in the title. No mangoes. No guavas. None of those. Tropical animals are also problematic. Peacock, etc. Avoid that shit.”

Mohammed Hanif, whose political satire A Case of Exploding Mangoes in which mangoes are a part of an assassination plot against General Zia-ul-Haq, has also, in a gesture as ironic as it is spunky, contributed to a piece that appears in Granta magazine, titled ‘How to Write About Pakistan’. The list, compiled together with Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie, is a set of ten rules, three of which are as follows:

  1. Must have mangoes.
  2. Must have maids who serve mangoes.
  3. Maids must have affairs with man servants who should occasionally steal mangoes.

Perhaps it is the anatomy of the stone fruit, which belongs to the flowering plant genus Mangifera that makes it a luscious representative of the female bosom, traditionally charged with causing an “awakening” – early, late, or just-in-time for puberty – in the uninitiated male. Perhaps it is the fruit’s texture and fragrance that makes it the perfect metaphor for lust (unrequited or mutual) and copulation (in fantasy or in real time). In E.M. Forster’s classic A Passage to India, out in 1924, Dr Aziz tells Dr Fielding, “For you, I shall arrange a lady with breasts like mangoes.”

The mango’s usage as literary device is as miscellaneous as the variety of fruit available in the local markets. While one can pick from a surfeit of safeda, langra, chaunsa and dussehri, there are other more delectable options, like the fragrant neelam, or the sharply-curved totapuri, or the hamam and the malgova from southern Indian states. Mango metaphors too acquire the terroir, or the characteristic flavour that a specific soil and climate imparts to a crop, of a region’s canon of literature and poetry. In the Malayalam poem The Master Carpenter, by G. Sankara Kurup who was revered as Mahakavi G. and was the first to win the Jnanpith Award, the bark of the mango tree is the roughly-textured object of the poet’s nostalgic contemplation. These lines, translated by K.M. George and A.K. Ramanujan, tell of that ache:

This is April.
The jackfruit tree that shines
like slashed gold at the touch of a chisel,
and the honey-mango tree that always tempts the hand
to carve a toy boat from its trunk,
will be shaking now
with, blossom, with fruit.

Regional Indian poetry, always a redemptive force, glistens with mango verses – flower, fruit, leaf, bark appear in elliptical stanzas, demolishing the clichés shrouding their potency in novels. For who can resist the stony beauty of these lines from Padma Sachdev’s Dogri poem, The Well, translated by Iqbal Masud:

To the right
of our hill
there’s a shining well
full of water.
Last year
summer covered it
with green mango blossom.
The green tempted
a calf,
which fell in
and drowned.

Sensual or merely profane, the temptation of the mango, whether flower or fruit, remains difficult for the writers of the subcontinent to resist, no matter how many times it falls into over-pulped cliché.

Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.