Where the Koel Sings…

 I see the solitary green mango stare at me from across a crowded aisle in the rundown Asian supermarket near my place. It stands alone and proud, untouched by the chaos and the mess from the overflowing shelves all around it – the sole occupant of a now empty cardboard carton. I pick it up on an impulse and bring it back to the counter to pay for it. “$4”, the lady behind the counter tells me. $4 it is then, for a slice of firm and unripe tartness. My head is agog with ideas even as I balance it precariously on the top of all my other shopping and bring it back home. A sole green mango in a season of downpours and biting winds offers a host of endless opportunities – for an unripe mango in the winter is a harbinger of sultry summers now relegated to dusty memories.


A summer evening long ago – a shimmer of silk, a pile of sandals and shoes outside a neighbouring house as we sat crossed legged on the floor inside, the ladies and the girls of the neighbourhood feasting on the ambe-dal – soaked and cooked horse gram piquantly seasoned with grated raw mango and a smattering of red chillies- handed to us in leaf cups; downing the gossip, the giggles and occasional sharp bite of the chilli as the hostess passed around the ‘panha’ (the juice of unripe mangoes flavoured with jaggery and cardamom) in small steel tumblers.


A small hand held securely in a weather beaten one, even as we waited to cross the road, with our goodies of more ambe dal to eat later, packed securely in those green leaf cups. “Hold my hand tightly, don’t let go – we are near the main road now”, “I can’t, I am trying to eat the dal with one hand”, “Can’t you wait till we get home?”. Ah, but you couldn’t wait really, the first lesson that summer taught you was that the seasons race you by; if you waited for too long, summer was gone in the blink of an eye and you were left with an empty longing for the geriatric mango trees to blossom again.


Long summer afternoons, stupor in a never-ending siesta around the winding roads of the dusty town, as the whirr of the ceiling fans was occasionally punctuated by a koel’s cry in a far away mango tree. “Ah, the first messenger that the monsoons have arrived on the outskirts of the town”, the old octogenarian neighbour would say.  Sudden storms, angry, dark skies lashing out at a parched earth. Green mangoes raining on the tin roofs of the washing sheds around the neighbourhood. Teeth clamped together in a moment of pure delight as the mangoes and the chilli powder overpowered your senses. The rain, threateningly close now – on your doorstep almost. “Come in, come in now”, the mothers and the aunts and the grandmothers would shout in unison even as giant surges of powerful moonson winds lured the half dried clothing away from the clothes-lines.


Then there were the summer holidays in a place away from home but as good as home. Anticipation looming large in the confines of the shaded drawing room where the gaggle of cousins lay sprawled, half asleep and half awake waiting for the clock to strike four o’clock. For four o’clock was official tea time. The time when the aunts and the uncles gathered around the old, rickety dining table and downed hot tea as the hot afternoon stood sullenly outside, and ruffled our hair and humoured our requests for ice-cream and bhel and panipuri at the promenade around the now dried-up lake. “Look at the heat outside”, they would laugh, “why don’t we wait till the sun sets? How will you eat your ice-creams if the sun melts them before you can eat them?” “The poor bhel wallah”, my aunt would say, admonishing us mildly at this point, “is probably having his afternoon rest at this time. Let us wait, shall we, till he can step out for the evening and start making bhel?”


Late evening walks along the crowded lakeside. Bhel with raw mangoes, icecream in tiny cones that left sticky, happy tattoes of summer on your arms and elbows. The delighted squeals of children from somewhere over the lake. Crowded rickshaw rides back home to comforting meals eaten on the terrace, even as the day started to cool down. The first stars of the night, the sharp smells of mango blossoms wafting over the terraces and the balconies where summer holidays were being enacted in all their mirth. Falling asleep to the tune of All India Radio even as sleep claimed the last of the grown up cousins who had dared everyone that he would stay awake all night.


The king of all fruit – the Alphonso, being brought home royally in rickety wooden crates, covered with layers of soft hay. A quick glimpse before the Alphonso was relegated to the dark, cool interiors of the house, usually beneath an old bed, even as the fruit was brought out every couple of days for an aamras feast. Chins, hands and plates being covered in a golden hue as the sweet, rich tones of the mango became the subject of a summer slumber.


The places, the moments, the people are no longer around. They are now sepia memories in old albums, reiterating the lesson that summer taught us long ago that the seasons do waltz by, that a moment ends for a memory to be born. Those that roamed the streets with you hunting for summer’s bounty have now moved away. The streets have changed; the trees are no longer there. The loved one that held your hand as you waited in line for ice-cream is now a black and white photograph on your dressing table. Summer has long since disappeared, leaving a trail of muted and distant sounds behind.


The heart follows its own seasons though, and for that we should be thankful. Because sometimes a raw green mango in a lone cardboard carton in a land far away from home, takes you down memory lane again. Like an errant summer shower, a memory arrives and leaves you less parched in its wake. Because in some remote recess of the heart, the koel sings eternally of her songs of a distant land and the monsoons are always waiting on the outskirts of the town.