June 23, 2012

Mango-licious Musings in Edison

They are called Marathon mangoes for a reason perhaps. They are so sweet that one would want to extend the pleasure and eat them out slowly, savoring each finger licking moment!

I was at my kitchen counter, peeling mangoes on a hot early summer afternoon. Ripe and succulent, as I was peeling the skin away, thick mango juice dribbled over my fingers turning them yellow and making me stop every split second to smack the irresistible juicy channels that I believed shouldn’t be wasted a wee bit.

                                                                    (pic courtesy: kungfudana.blogspot.com)

The Marathon box of mangoes came all the way from Mexico. The other day, I picked up the august Alphonso from Subzi Mandi. No second thoughts. As a Malayalee who grew up on Mangoes, relishing mangoes tantamount to one of my perceived birthrights.

When summer came down harshly upon Kerala, winter had already given way to spring here in New Jersey, US. Facebook pages of my friends were awash with pictures of mango tree climbing scenes, freshly plucked mangoes, mango pudding, mango souffl├ęs and what not. I patiently waited for the mango batches to make their way through the cold storage chains all the way to Edison. It did. Ceremoniously and majestically, the way it merits a real King. Masses thronged at the stores to get a peek at the boxes.  At the Indian stores, Mangoes are displayed right at the very entrance to the store (as if they needed a strategic position!) Given the weight of the mangoes and the space it would occupy in the shopping cart, shoppers prefer to pick up their boxes after their shopping, just before securing a place in the queue at the billing till. There was near pandemonium at the mango section. Talk about a sharp olfactory sense! I saw half the crowd smelling the mangoes and am sure it gave at least some of them a high; just by inhaling the nostalgic smell.

At my kitchen counter here, before even I peeled a full mango, I was home in Kerala. Blissful moments of mango picking and eating intermingled with images of the Mango tree’s transformation to the seasonal vicissitudes.

                                                (pic courtesy: :www.flickr.com/photos/knowprose)

At Alappuzha where I grew up, we had five mango trees at one point in time. As the season lifted its veils, the leaves turned tender. To me they looked vulnerable. Standing under a mango tree then, I felt one with its youthfulness; brimming out of its boundaries. To nurture and bring forth the pulsating life within, the tree grew far and wide with tenderness ruling roost in its leaves that they almost melted and shrunk in the heat of my palms. In its urge to get itself ripe to bear fruit, the leaves even changed colour from the darkest of greens to light lavender mixed with shades of crimson, pink and lighter hues of emerald and malachite. During this season in Kerala, even in purely urban settings in the thick of city life, it isn’t difficult to spot such a mango tree- as our homes are so incomplete without at least one mango tree greeting us right in the front yards of our homes! Early mornings, stepping into the delicate canopy of the mango tree was like walking on a soft bed of feathers. Cleaning the courtyard posed a challenge though, with the leaves turning heavy after the dew from the wee hours of the morning settled on them.

                                                      (pic courtesy: thisislata.blogspot.com)
Later on, the tree shed all its tenderness. The leaves turned green again, but a totally different, bold and confident green that filled me with happiness and a sense of prosperity. And then, one fine day the leaves made way for the mango flowers. They reminded me of creamy white pearls floating in a light shade of green. Walking towards my home from the road, the Mango tree in my frontyard looked like a huge bridal bouquet, with the whites and creams bursting out while the leaves were confined to the minimum, jutting out here and there as the spiky flowerets celebrated life. Not that all the tiny flowers bore fruit. The tree willingly shed at least half of its flowers to the whims and fancies of the summer sun that was round the corner.

                                                         (pic courtesy: muaaz.org) 
Looking closer, I saw tiny mangoes. Too small to even make their presence felt. But, together, they painted a new picture. The whites and the creams gave way to the green. When I thought the tree would bear a zillion mangoes, it cast off so many tiny fruits, every day for days on end. And then for a few days, the famous ‘Kannimaanga’ ruled over my life. They became part of my midmornings and laid-back summer afternoons. Adding spice to chutneys, they walked all the way up to the pickle factories.

                                                                (pic courtesy: indianrecipesworld.com)
By the time I had enough of the ‘Kannimaanga’ days, the fruits that decided to stay put started gaining ground. The tree, humbled by its own bounty, lowered its branches just for us to feel their presence in our lives; closer.  The mangoes started to change their colour. Diffusing their dark green hue, they borrowed a flaming orange tint from the summer sun that was by then making its presence felt. Soon it was Mango season!

                                                                           (pic courtesy: muaaz.org)
As the mangoes started to ripen, the trees in my courtyard attracted a lot of birds. On and off, I saw a parrot here and there, but mostly it was the ravens, the bats and the squirrels that shared from the season’s booty. Being the early bird, I visited the trees at the crack of dawn. The first few days after the ripe mango season began; I found fruits; some half pecked and half eaten, some fully eaten with just the naked mango seed tossed around. But I was always lucky to find a handful fully ripened fruits hidden inside the many bushes in the courtyard that escaped the birds’ attention. As more fruits ripened, there was enough and more for all of us. During summer holidays, at times after playing in the scorching sun, a siesta was in order. Upon waking up I headed out to the trees. With the fruits collected, I walked up to the backyard where I relished them sitting on the steps overlooking a dozen other trees.

                                                     (pic courtesy: readersdigest.com.au)

There are many more memories about mango picking - racing with my brothers, cousins and at times neighbourhood friends to reach the tree during windy days to stake my claim to the maximum number of fruits, and giving a hand to grand mom while she made mango-thera on ‘panampu’ (bamboo mats) or on ‘muram’ (the winnowing pallet).

Not that we don’t get to buy mangoes here. Here we are spoilt for choice. Mangoes make their way from various tropical climates to the grocers here. (Adding to the carbon footprints, and thus to our guilt too!) But, nothing beats the joy of watching the metamorphosis a mango tree undergoes as it transforms itself from a leaf filled tree to a fruit filled one! And eating the fruits from one’s own courtyard on lazy summer afternoons is a pleasure incomparable!

First published in Vibrant Keralam, July issue.

June 6, 2012

Rainless in Edison

There is an occasional drizzle here in Edison, New Jersey, USA. It starts with a mild shower of mist and ends up in something like a drizzle. I wouldn’t like to classify these sporadic spills of water as rain. More so because I belong to Kerala and I am an ardent lover of our rains, especially the monsoons.

                                                                       (pic courtesy: http://flickriver.com)

Last Sunday morning, when the rest of Edison was still under warm comforters, I stepped out for my morning stroll. The previous night it had rained quite heavily (for Edison standards) and I was eager to see and feel my surroundings, up close and personal. It was still raining mist. I bathed myself in a million tiny droplets of water, too small to even leave an impact on my hair or clothes. Even after I walked for good thirty minutes, at times stepping into the canopy of long lines of oak trees, I didn’t get to feel the rain on my face or under my feet. I came over to a small brook that flows through my apartment complex. Nearing the brook, I sharpened my senses, trying to absorb the sound of the flowing waters. From the sound, I could make out that the brook was fuller than its usual self. The night rain had certainly added to the impact created by the irregular April showers. I stepped on the wooden bridge over the brook, stood by the side of the fence looking for a wonder, a mystery that wasn’t there. The brook flowed by with more vigour than I had seen it to possess during my previous visits. A few warm, orange-breasted Robins tugged earthworms by its side. Many sparrows tweeted on the itsy bitsy branches alongside the brook. Grey furred squirrels tottered by. I saw my first Ground Hog of the season come out looking for food. I had enough company. But, I felt something missing.

                                              (pic courtesy: http://malayaleejunction.blogspot.com)

I don’t know when I will learn to come to terms with reality. The rains here are very different from what I have seen, heard and felt back home in Kerala. Every time it rains here, I try to enjoy whatever little impact it creates. However, I find myself traveling home; every single time the rains decide to come down.

                                                     ( pic courtesy: http://www.chitra-aiyer.com)

I grew up in Alappuzha. But, most of my holidays have been spent in the foothills of Chamampathal, a village in Kottayam District where when it rains, it’s magical, mystical. The Rubber trees change their avatar to remind me of ‘mudiyattom’ artists. Coupled with the furore of winds, they cast an eerie spell on me. Just after a few minutes of downpour, small water channels flow down the hill, making their way through the backyard to the front yard, in harmony with the contours of the land. Even when I confine myself to the Verandah, the raindrops don’t spare me. They respond to the wind like obedient children. They follow it wherever it fancies taking them. They lash on me. With much vigour, they come in through long, open Verandahs. They peep through half-opened windows and leave their imprints on the walls, and even on beds inside. They flip through pages of the book that I was reading, just to get a sneak peak. They blow off burning candles and kerosene lamps and nudge us to come out and be one with them.

                                                                ( pic courtesy: teambhp)

After the initial drama, they mellow down and then continue to rain for what seems like ever. In between when the rains settle (if at all they decide to), I step out and often get carried away by its impact on life around. I don’t know what to call the multifaceted green that greets me. Wherever I turn to, it’s the plushest of greens. If green can be multi-hued, it is in Kerala. Sprightly grass heads dance with little raindrops perched on their tiny heads. You walk under a tree, and if a wind decides to come by, the tree bathes you magnanimously in a zillion big, rounded drops of water. You could even ‘hear’ them coming down! You go stream-visiting after the rains and often stand by its side, taking in the sights, sounds and fury. By the sides of the streams or rivers, green takes on wild forms. With no axe to grind, they flourish and celebrate life in all its richness and vibrancies.

One of my most vivid memories of rain dates back to my pre-degree days. The day the University exams got over, three of us friends decided to explore Alappuzha. We walked by the side of the canal, near the KSWTC boat quay towards Punnamada. Just minutes after we started off, it started raining. And then, it poured for hours. Undeterred and determined to enjoy every bit of the moment, we danced in the rain and watched the raindrops meander out of our soaked canvas shoes. Jumping in the many muddy puddles on the road, we teased the silvery smooth water droplets out of the yam leaves. Some of the rain water settled inside the wooden cavities of canoes anchored on the sides of the canal. Trees, big and small, already green, turned magically verdant.

                                                       ( pic courtesy:http://impeccablez.deviantart.com)

Here, even while it rains, the flowing waters are missing. At times, I long for the rain to come in through my shoes. But, they don’t bother to. They settle down too quickly and disappear into oblivion and into designated underground channels. Though I try to take in as much as possible of the little showers that come by, I miss the loud, animated, vibrant rains back home. I miss the spontaneity of life in Kerala where often we are caught unawares by the rains that decide to come down at the drop of a hat. Even while trying to appreciate the fast advancements in technology here, the big leaps in convenience it offers, I miss not checking the ‘chances of precipitation’ on weather.com. I miss the camaraderie of the innumerable rain water strings that roll transparent pearls down our tiled crimson roofs in unison. (Here, they are all collected by efficient pipes that are too sleek to be even noticed, only to be gathered into the designated storm drains below.)

                                                   ( pic courtesy: http://www.karmakerala.com)
 Having seen a variety of rains in a handful of countries across the globe, I touch my heart and say proudly that the best of all is in vibrant Keralam. Be it the celebrated idava-pathi, the south western monsoons that catch us by surprise with its arrogance and sudden onslaught, or the thula-varsham, when rains befriend thunder and lightning to turn more sonant, or the retreating monsoon, the one that bears a forlorn, depressed outlook, or the venal-mazha, the one that comes with its occasional cool showers; rains in Kerala evoke a host of emotions and keep calling a rain loving Malayalee back home.

First published in Vibrant Keralam, June 2012 issue.