Voices on the New Diasporas - an MIT student journal


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The House That Was Full of Mangos

by Kaya Shah

On the third floor of my grandmother's house in Baroda, black barrels lie buried amongst trunks of raw papadams and suitcases full of moldy cotton saris. The barrels are filled with fermenting mango chutney. Bits of unripe green mango, tart and chalky to the taste, slowly amalgamate with pungent beads of methi.

***

When my parents took my sister and me to India to visit relatives, I always felt like I was coming home. When I was seven I told my mother, ďNow Iím back where I look like everyone else.Ē

I felt the same way about Baroda. I felt as though I was meant to live there, to live in my grandmotherís house. It was four stories tall, one room wide, and three rooms deep. It shared a common wall on either side with other houses, and the side that faced the street was painted the green color of ripe mango skin. If you wanted to reach the kitchen on the far side of the house, you would have to walk through the formal sitting room and through the common room. Each floor had the same plan, except that bedrooms flanked the common room. My father always told me about how the house had been passed down from father to son for the last hundred years. When he was growing up, his fatherís family lived on the second floor, his uncleís family lived on the third floor, and their cousinís family lived on the fourth floor. All of the women cooked in the first floor kitchen while the men sat on the porch playing chess, smoking cigarettes, and chatting with the neighbors on their porches.

I always felt jealous of my father. Our family lived separated from all of Tennessee by square blue columns on our front porch and the brownness of our skin, while he had grown up in a house with thirty-six blood relatives. Half of those relatives wanted to feed him, and the other half wanted to teach him to play chess, to fly kites, to swing on a rope into the Vishwamitri River.

***

Over the course of a week when I was seven, I explored the entire house. I loved to wander through the upstairs rooms on my own. In the common room on the second floor, there was an assortment of old furniture. The worn armchairs and coffee tables had endured decades of use in the downstairs sitting room. They had become shapes covered by ragged cotton saris, which I lifted up while everyone else was napping in the hour after lunch.

From the common room on the second floor, I entered the room my father and his older brother Anand had shared when they were growing up. I found ceiling-to-floor metal cabinets embedded in the wall. I stood up on my toes to try to pull down the rusty metal handles. I was able to open each one--they werenít locked. In the first cabinet, I found dozens of medals and trophies. There were some academic awards, but there were mostly athletic awards. Badminton, cricket, soccer. I saw my fatherís name on each of them. In the second cabinet, I found old school uniforms and photographs. There my father was, standing with his cricket team. There he was, standing in his uniform in the middle of his high school graduating class. There he was, standing on the front porch with his older brother, seven older sisters, father, and mother.

***

While growing up, I didn't look like my father or my mother. My motherís family claimed that my delicate older sister looked just like my mother, while my fatherís family claimed that she looked like my father. Looking at my fatherís pictures, I decided that I look exactly like my fatherís youngest sister, my Sita foi.

Every time my sister and I came to visit Baroda, Sita foi would make us fresh rus out of mango juice and pulp. She would call us into the kitchen and seat us on mats on the floor. While she kneaded ripe mangos with her hands, she would ask us how school was going. Her broken English was always loud and commanding as she massaged the sides of each mango. She made two rows of fruit on the kitchen counter Ė one for those she was going to knead and the other for the ones she had kneaded. From the floor, we watched eagerly as the row of kneaded mangos grew longer.

She told us that she wanted to fatten us up on rus as she began to puncture the mangos over a large stainless steel bowl. She squeezed all of the juice and pulp out of each fruit, making a sticky yellow mess of her hands.

When my sister and I were each handed an aluminum cup filled with rus, we quickly drank up the thick pulpy liquid.

***

As I climbed up steep green wooden steps to reach the third floor, I could feel the age of the house. It was in the scant bit of light that scattered over the floor; the family that lived here moved out before light bulb sockets would have been installed. It was in the dust that coated the stairway railing and the cold stone floors. My bare feet left footprints in the dust as I tiptoed around black plastic barrels of mango chutney.

Here in the common room of the third floor, my grandmother had her seven daughters bring up the chutney. She had done this for decades, since my fatherís uncleís family moved out. The chutney would sit fermenting in vats for months, after which time it would be taken downstairs and distributed in plastic containers to all of my grandmotherís descendents. My parents would carry a tub on the plane home in their hand luggage. One gallon-sized jar of the relish would last us at least one and a half years.

***

The unapologetic sour and spicy taste of the mango chutney reminds me of the women of my fatherís family. My Sita foi is nearly six feet tall. She, like her six older sisters, married a farmer's son. All of the women have strong featuresófaces like large round mangoes, big long nose, high cheekbones, full hair, long torsos, wide hips. Even the way they dress, with huge red bindhis in the middle of their foreheads and their brightly-colored saris, speaks of something proud and defiant. They chatter and bicker loudly and never apologize for anything they say.

I can still remember waking up to my grandmother's voice berating my mother. She reprimanded my mother for not waking up my sister and me to learn to prepare mango chutney. My seven aunts had been cooking since six in the morning. My grandmother must have been in her late seventies then, a wrinkled bowed up old woman who had shrunk to the height I had just reached when I was eight. I still remember wondering at the voice I had never heard before. Her voice was so loud and strong; she yelled in the provincial Gujarati that reminded me of my father.

***

A few days later, my mother attempted to encourage us to help mix the chutney. My seven aunts were spread out in an outdoor space behind the kitchen. It wasnít exactly a backyard Ė it was more like another room with walls but no ceiling. The space was bisected by long clotheslines, and the houseís bathroom stalls were in the back. My aunts did the washing in a series of metal buckets close to the house. They would scrub clothes clean with dark green washing soap and old bristled brushes.

The mango chutney was prepared in a line of metal pails arrayed underneath the clotheslines. Five of my aunts sat on the floor next to a bucket. First my Puli foi roasted fenugreek and methi seeds in an old pan over a burner. She periodically emptied the mixture into the pail at her side. Rekha foi scooped up the mixture and began to coarsely grind it in the mortar in front of her. When she was satisfied, she poured the grounds into the bucket at her side. Veena foi added red chili pepper, salt, yellow turmeric, and a little coconut oil into Rekha foiís bucket. She mixed the spices with her hands and then scooped the resulting paste into the pail at her side. Promodini foi was busy cutting unripe mango fruit off the seed. She tossed the uneven pieces of pale yellow fruit into her bucket, which Gita foi poured into her pail and covered with a little salt. After she had mixed the salt in with both of her hands, she then retrieved the spice paste from Rekha foiís side and then poured its contents over the cut mango pieces. When she was finished, she poured her bucket into a large black plastic vat.

Because my sister and I were young, my aunts let us I stir the contents with our hands. Our short arms could barely reach halfway into the barrel; they became tired with the effort, even though we took turns mixing.

When Mira foi and Arti foi were satisfied with the job we had done, they scooped out a bit of the chutney with their fingers to taste it. If they were satisfied, they emptied a one-liter bottle of coconut oil on top of the pickled mango and then covered the vat. Mira foi would yell out for my male cousins. After a few more minutes of yelling, two would arrive to carry the vat up to the third floor and bring down an empty one.

***

Unlike my mother and sister, who prefer to read quietly, I have always found use for my voice. When I was in the second grade, my name was chalked in permanently on the blackboard because I always felt a need to talk to the person next to me. In kindergarten in Nashville, I was forced to sit in a corner nearly every other day because of the fights I had with my best friend, Lindsay. We would scream and hit each other; I think we were best friends because we enjoyed fighting so much.

In my favorite memories from my childhood, I used my hands. I loved to hang from the topmost limbs of a tree in our front yard. I remember doing handstands on Lindsayís trampoline. We would make pigments out of red berries and grass and stain my gray concrete driveway with our artwork. When we became bored with the berries, we would smash unsuspecting ants. I had heard of mud pies, so I instructed Lindsay to help me fold leaves around triangular blocks of mud. I was so proud of our samosas.

***

As I climbed up the steep wooden steps to the fourth floor, there was even less light to see. I felt my temperature rise as I ascended into the warm, roof-heated air. The dust on the steps was so thick that my feet left no imprint. As I unhooked the latch to the door, I pushed the door forward. It opened easily. In the darkness, I could see nothing but a few slivers of sunlight coming through cracks in the roof. I heard the scuttles of some small animal, probably a mouse.

I felt my way forward, with my toes. I felt nothing for the first few steps. Then, my toes felt the scratchy texture of burlap bags. A footís length forward, and I felt layers of dry hay. I put my other foot further out in the straw and took a step forward. My foot came down on something round and smooth, which immediately ruptured underneath my weight. The heated air on the fourth floor brought the smell of mangoes to my nose.

I quickly backtracked, and I found a balcony door on the side of the house. As I unlatched it and threw the doors open, the room was saturated with light. Straw covered the entire floor, and hundreds of mangoes were nestled in it. They were mangoes from the family farm, and they were ripening in the heat and dark of the fourth floor.

***

One day, my cousin Jaydeo took his daughter Mansi and me on a drive through the farm. I remember that it was unbelievably hot and dusty Ė the monsoons hadnít yet arrived. We rode on Jaydeoís new Tata motorcycle. Mansi rode behind her father, wrapping her arms around his waist, and I sat behind her with my arms around her waist.

We drove down a dirt road which branched off onto a smaller road. The place was filled with stout mango trees. The leaves, long and slender, hung down like tired fingers. Fist-sized green fruit hung from the branches, the shape reminding me of the lima beans served at my school cafeteria. As we drove along the road, the fruit turned shades of orange and red.

The farmers we saw wore blue or turquoise cotton fabric wrapped around their heads as protection from the sun. They trimmed rampant branches with long metal sickles or gathered the fruit into broad wicker baskets.

I can remember thinking then that I wanted to be a farmer, to live by working with my hands, pulling fruit off of trees. It seemed so simple, so fulfilling. I felt that I was meant to work on the farm, to live in Baroda in my grandmotherís house.

***

When my grandmother died, all of the property went to my father and his brother. The house was left to my Anand kaka, though my two eldest aunts remained living on the first floor of the house. Puli foi and Rekha foi were confined to the first floor because of their arthritis and shortness of breath.

After my Anand kaka passed away two years ago, the house and farm were left to my father. My mother wants him to sell all of it, but I know he never will. Iím pretty sure he knows that he wonít ever move back to India; itís just that he doesnít want to admit it. I know I will never work on the mango farm, but one day, I might be able to make rus or mango pickle.

Gone are the days when my grandmother would collect her seven daughters to make mango chutney out behind the kitchen.

© 2005 MIT E-merging Journal