Mangoes and memories of homeEvery batch of mango pickle contains little snippets of our family's chatter.
Before the start of summer, my mother orders raw mangoes from Tarai and dreams of making tangy mango pickles spicy enough to cause a little wildfire in a plate of dal-bhat. She speaks to her sister on the phone, and orders her to send only the round, petulant ones plucked straight from the tree, still carrying the smell of countryside. After a few days, the mangoes arrive at our doorstep in a cardboard shoebox, wrapped in newspaper and tired after a long bus journey listening to the driver's crass Bhojpuri songs.
First, she bathes them in a bucket of ice-cold water and cuts them in slender slices, tempting enough to make my sister and I steal some as they are left to bask on a nanglo under the blistering sun. After a few days when the slices look like 80-year-olds- full of flavour and knowledge, she puts them in a large bowl and marinades them in oil, salt, paprika, cumin, and coriander powder. Then, they are shoved in large glass jars, and left to further ferment under the sun. Every batch of mango pickle contains little snippets of our family's chatter, my pesky little fingerprints as I steal and eat the pickled mangoes straight from the jar, and most of all my mother's undiluted hope that they will turn out better than last year's.
These jars travel to places you would have never thought possible. One jar, I'm sure, travels to the UK where my cousins live, evading customs and hiding in suitcase underneath a pile of flowery knickers. Another jar travels to Australia where my elder sister lives. For this one, my mother makes me print a false label that says it is "dried goods" and sticks the label on the jar with some scotch tape. Other jars find a home at our neighbours; most often the auntie whose voice always carries the latest gossip at around midday.
As you take a bite of the pickled mango, and your teeth grind together by the weight of the sourness and your eyes water by the spices, you realise that like love, good things in life can also be overwhelming. I for one know how overwhelming my mother’s love can be sometimes. But like her mango pickle recipe that she learned from her mother and her mother learned it from my great grandmother, her love has been perfected with years of struggle and practice, whose secret little recipe only she knows.
It’s 2021 now, years have turned my childhood memories into a black & white flashback from a movie that lacks definition and clarity. I know my mother still dreams of the perfect mango pickle every summer. Meanwhile, my sister and I live in Sydney now. My mother ardently asks if the customs or a sniffing dog found the jars bundled in shirts and pillowcases every time she persuades one of my relatives to bring them to us. But they never do. Border laws are too strict now, and every year we feel like our roots are slowly being uprooted from the ground up.
In between the long and straining shifts at the local pub where my feet feel like they have painfully grown other limbs, I contemplate what it means to be me. Most days, when I return from the city I feel like the tall buildings will swallow me up if I stare at them too long. I become astounded and embarrassed by the way my tongue rolls English like it has never spoken another language before. Turning 22 a few months ago, I made a promise that I will never sever the roots that have held my memories like a secret wad of money inside the hidden compartment of the bottom drawer.
So, at the start of spring in October, I hustle to the sleek mall nearby and pick some round, petulant mangoes from the fresh food aisle at $3.99 each. When I tell my mother how much it costs for a single mango here, her voice rises like an anxious spring breeze while she calculates the currency in rupees and states that you can get a whole kilo back home. But the stickered mangoes never exactly smell like the sun to me. I bathe them in cold water, put the exact spices as my mother does, and leave them outside on big trays. I follow her instructions word by word, while long-distance calling her on her phone. When I check the mangoes a few days later, they always look shrivelled and do not taste like the ones from my memory. Maybe it is the weather. The sun does not wait long enough in the sky here to toast them to perfection, and the summer heat chars them too deep. I always end up chucking them out, like my past mistakes.
This spring I am dreaming again, like my mother, to make the perfect mango pickle spicy enough to cause a flame in my wintered plate of dal-bhat. I will call her again and go through every instruction like it’s my map. I will bring the mango jars in as soon as it starts raining, and leave them out only three hours a day if the sun is overbearing. I will reuse the finished coffee jars as it will make the process feel more real. I will try again and again, until the pickled mangoes finally lead me to the person I once was.