Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
As the cool evening breeze swept the stray curls off her face, Chitra eagerly glanced at the steel platter next to her. Big, enticing chunks of raw, green mangoes smeared generously with salt and a shocking red chili powder made her salivate in anticipation. She impatiently picked up a slice and instinctively closed her eyes as she parted her lips. With the first bite, the fiery-sour chunk instantaneously caused her taste-buds to explode with relish. The intense tartness disseminated inside her mouth and quivers of aftershocks radiated to her cheeks, jaws and ears. Chitra winced and cupped her face with both her hands as she chewed on.
As Chitra relaxed on the woven-rope bed in the open courtyard, she glanced at the two magnificent mango trees laden heavily with fruit which formed an evergreen canopy over the courtyard. These mango trees made her nostalgic about her parental home, yet, they were the only reason she felt at home here. As Chitra savoured the tangy chunks, she seductively ran her tongue over her lips and pondered how similar her life was to the slivers of raw mango dunked into pounded red chili powder. Astonishingly sour and scorching hot-yet delightfully delicious……
She caressed her discernible abdominal bulge and heaved a sigh of relief. Just one more month to go and the family heir will be born….about the same time when the green mangoes neatly stacked in hay-baskets in the store-room will turn luscious ripe and saccharine sweet.
“Chitra, come in dear! It is prayer time,” Narayani amma called out from the kitchen. Chitra picked up the empty plate and carefully rose to her feet to join her mother-in-law. Narayani amma had lighted the oil lamp and decorated the deity in the puja-room with flowers. She tenderly applied a speck of vermilion on Chitra’s forehead, offered a sweet as prasadam and embraced her. “May you be blessed with a healthy, baby boy!” she said as she beamed with joy.
Chitra pinched herself to confirm that she was not dreaming. She felt uneasy basking in so much love and attention. Was this the same Narayani amma who had tortured her all these years with cruel barbs for her barren womb? She had almost come to believe that her mother-in-law was incapable of ever loving her or for that matter anybody at all. And soon after Chitra discovered that she was pregnant after eight years of marriage, she found herself suddenly being smothered with love and care and attention and food.
Prasad arrived from work early and spent all his time chatting with Chitra, until Narayani amma called out for dinner. Chitra had never doubted her husband’s love and devotion for her. She only wished he had a mind of his own; it was as if Narayani amma thought and spoke for both of them.
Chitra wished her parents had been alive to share her joy. She felt nostalgic as she reminisced the wonderful childhood years spent in their cozy village. Their house was nestled in a mango orchard and Chitra could tell the time of the year by sniffing the breeze that drifted from the grove.
The cool winter months from December to February would herald the mango flowering season, clusters of tiny rose-white florets contrasting with the green leaves. The house cloaked in air thick with the fragrance of the flowering mango trees would portend the fast approaching annual exam and it was time to start burning mid-night oil. By the time bunches of tiny green globular mangoes sprouted and fell off to form a carpet on the ground below, it would be late March or early April and summer vacation would have begun.
Vacation time was mango time! She couldn’t wait for the sour, green mangoes to grow big enough to be plucked and made into fresh pickle. Her father would call out to be careful as she nimbly climbed onto the trees and yanked the dangling mangoes off the branches with their long stems intact. She would be cautious not to snap the stem from the mango; the sticky sap that oozed out could cause blisters on her skin or burn her eyes! She would wash the mangoes clean with a pail of water from the well in their backyard and rush to hand them to her mother.
Her mother would gently squat on the floor and pull the cutting tool open-a sharp curved iron blade with an oval, serrated tip, fixed to a rectangular wooden plank- and begin her task. Chitra would watch intently as each mango was vertically slit and the two identical halves of the tender white, bean shaped seed were scooped out revealing a deep dimple on each half of the mango. As her mother would proceed to cut each half with consummate ease into small, identical cubes, Chitra couldn’t keep herself from munching on some.
Her mother would then toss in salt, red chili powder and crushed raw mustard into the huge bowl of chopped, raw mangoes. The seasoning would be poured into it; a crackle of mustard and fenugreek seeds in hot gingelly oil, followed by a pinch of asafoetida-and voila, fresh mango pickle would be ready! Ah! The heavenly aroma! Wasn’t fresh mango pickle the best thing that could have ever happened to mankind? Chitra would want to exclaim in delight! She would scoop ladles of the spicy-sour pickle onto her palm and lick it clean! Who would want to wait until lunch time to savour this divine offering?
By the end of May, it would be time to harvest the mangoes. A group of skilled men from the village would be called for the job. They would arrive with long bamboo sticks with a sharp sickle tied to one end. Their lithe bodies would deftly manoeuvre the most devious branches to strip the tree of every single mango, which would be gently dropped into a jute sack. At the end of the day the mango trees lush with fruit moments ago, would suddenly look bare and melancholic, bereft of their dignity.
A major chunk of the harvest would be buried in haystacks in a cool, dark, dry room to ripen. Rest of the mangoes would be pickled, transferred into huge, glazed, off-white ceramic jars with honey-brown tops, oil poured to the brim and their lids covered and tied with a white muslin cloth. The jars would disappear into dark kitchen shelves, and be left undisturbed to age with grace. It would be months or sometimes even years before the mango pickle found its way to the meal-platters- a piece of hard pit covered with soft, succulent flesh, soaked to its core in the delectable spices.
Baskets-full of mangoes that missed the jute sack and fell to the ground were treated like outcasts. Pickles could go bad if these mangoes inadvertently made their way into one. Neither could they be left to ripen because they would inevitably rot on the side of the impact. These mangoes would be cut into chunks and passed on to children to be eaten with salt and chili powder. The rest of these mangoes would all be cut into long, narrow strips, salted and sun-dried for use in the kitchen for the rest of the year.
Since childhood, mangoes were a way of life for Chitra. They found their way into every other edible item- jams, juices, chutneys, sambhar, kozhambu…. It is the Mangai pachadi that rings in the auspicious New Year too- Chitra thought to herself! She recalled how her Patti made it with semi-ripe mangoes, jaggery, chili and dried neem flowers thrown in. As a child Chitra detested the bitter flavour of neem in it. But Patti used to tell her that the Mangai pachadi symbolizes our life-a blend of sweet, sour, spicy and bitter happenings!
Did Patti have a premonition of the bitterness she was to face in her marital life?
After she got married, her parents had only seen her sufferings and felt her pain as long as they were alive. When Chitra’s mother had made a meek suggestion to Prasad about adopting a child, Narayani amma had exploded with rage. “We are high caste Brahmins and our family heir will have our blood. I will never accept any other child as my grand-son.”
Prasad had chosen to keep mum.
It was an irony of fate that when she had found happiness her dear parents were not with her to share it.
Neither was Jason or Usha in town anymore to share her joy with.
Jason had joined six years ago as a peon in the same school where she worked as a teacher. He had been raised in an orphanage in a neighbouring city. Chitra and her other colleagues realized Jason deserved a better job-but he needed to study further. Every evening after school, Chitra spent a few extra hours in the staff room coaching Jason towards achieving a graduate degree. He had passed his exams with flying colours and had got himself a lucrative job in the Gulf.
Chitra had been elated when he got the new job, yet she had felt a twinge of sadness to part with Jason, who had become a close friend by then. She would confide in him and shed tears agonizing over her troubles. Jason would patiently lend an ear and sympathize with her. How happy he would have been to hear about her impending motherhood! Unfortunately, Chitra had known about her pregnancy after Jason had left their town for good. He would have excitedly nodded his head-the dark mop of unruly curls- and advised her to take extra care of her health. She vividly remembered with fondness, the twinkle in his eyes and the thick bushy eyebrows that collided at the centre and spun into a curious circular maze on his forehead. Like a whirlpool.
Her heart was filled with pride when she talked about Jason’s achievements to Prasad. After all she deserved at least part of the credit for it! Since Prasad had never met Jason, Chitra had wanted to invite him home for lunch before he left. But Narayani amma had refused. “What? A boy whose caste, creed or religion is unknown? I cannot allow him to step into our home!” she had snapped. Prasad made no attempts to convince his mother nor did he evince any interest in meeting Jason. Chitra felt truly let down, but she knew Jason would understand.
She missed Usha awfully as well. For several years Usha had been her colleague, friend and a shoulder-to-cry-on, but she and her family had migrated to the city for good, two years ago. When Chitra had failed to conceive three years into her marriage, she had suggested to Prasad that both of them go to the city to see a doctor. Narayani amma never forgave her for that outrageous suggestion. Did Chitra doubt her son’s ability to father a child? It was she-Chitra who needed a doctor to look into her fruitless womb and she was free to go anywhere for a check-up.
Prasad chose not to defy his mother, lest he incur her wrath. He started spending more time at office to avoid any altercations.
It was Usha who accompanied Chitra to the city on ‘official work’ where Chitra got her medical check-up done. The gynaecologist found no obvious medical problems and advised her to come back with her spouse. Chitra never went back to her doctor, nor did she mention anything about the visit to Prasad or Narayani amma. How could she? In any case it would have been futile to convince Prasad to get himself tested. She had no choice but to suffer the agony mutely. And keep praying.
Her beautiful baby boy was born on a bright morning in May. The warm, humid air in Chitra’s dainty town was saturated with the invigorating aroma of golden succulent mangoes that the market place was laden with.
As Prasad dotingly watched, Narayani amma snuggled her grandson to her bosom and wept with joy. Her prayers had been finally answered and the heir to her family had arrived. True-blue Brahmin blood coursed through his slender veins. Chitra had remained childless for so many years that she had almost lost hopes of ever seeing a grandson. She had been fraught with fear and despair at the prospect of no heir being born to inherit and propagate the family name. In fact, she had clandestinely started to look for a new bride for Prasad. Obviously Prasad couldn’t live without a child all his life!
Chitra’s bundle of joy lay snugly swaddled next to her. She tenderly lifted him and held him to her breast. As he suckled hungrily she felt her eyes moisten and her heart swell with pride. His birth was a blessing; a turning point in her dreary life. Chitra dreaded even a peek into her past. The constant taunts, stinging remarks, and the immense physical and mental agony that she had to endure…..
But all that was now a thing of the past. A gentle breeze drifted into her room bringing along a whiff of sweet, ripe juicy mangoes. Chitra inhaled deeply and let the heady scent permeate her soul. She glowed with contentment and adoringly gazed at her son who now slept peacefully in her lap. He looked like an angel, especially with the dark mop of curls on his tiny head. She smiled and kissed him on his forehead where his two eyebrows mingled into each other. Like a whirlpool.
Author’s Bio: Reeta Mani is a doctor by profession, and a writer by passion. She lives in Bangalore, India. She writes to free herself of thoughts that plague her, issues that dishearten her and inequities that leave her feeling helpless. She has written short stories, essays and travelogues for Pulse, Reading Hour, YJHM, Chicken Soup series etc. She has also published several short stories for children. She loves to weave medical information into her stories to educate and foster inquisitiveness in children. She won the second prize for her short story in a competition for Writers of Children’s books organized by Children’s Book Trust (CBT), New Delhi in 2005.
Some of the web links to her published articles-
- puja-room– Room where the deity is kept and worshipped
- prasadam– Food, which is a religious offering consumed by worshippers
- sambhar, kozhambu, Mangai pachadi – South Indian cuisine
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)
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