The Mango Season

By Esther Brooks,2014-11-04 17:12
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The Mango Season

Table of Contents

Title Page

    Dedication Acknowledgements Praise Praise Prologue - Happiness Is a Mango

    Part One - Raw Mangoes Use Your Senses The Politics of Giving and Receiving Gifts Chopping Mangoes and Egos

    Part Two - Oil and Spices Thatha and His Merry Women Swimming in Peanut Oil and Apologies

    Part Three - In a Pickle Nanna’s Friend’s, Friend’s Son Confessions and Lies

    Part Four - Old Pickle, New Pickle The Similarity Between Cattle and Women Number 65 and the Consequences of Confessions and Lies You Can’t Make Mango Pickle with Tomatoes

    Part Five - Leftovers Bridegrooms and Boyfriends Father of the Bride


    Copyright Page Praise for A Breath of Fresh Air “[Malladi] draws us into the novel with her characters, who are refreshingly free of

    stereotype. . . . Their voices are clear and strong, each one carefully modulated to be

    different, and as the book progresses, they surprise us [with] their reactions to events and to

    each other. Malladi has successfully managed to avoid sentimentality and melodrama in herhandling of emotional material—a near-fatal accident, a child’s mortal illness, a spouse’sinfidelity. And that is no mean achievement for a first-time novelist.”

    —CHITRA DIVAKARUNI, Los Angeles Times

    “This first novel by Amulya Malladi, born and raised in India, gets off to a gripping start.. . . In simple language, Malladi tells a simple story of love, betrayal, jealousy, guilt, andforgiveness. . . . A glimpse into a foreign culture is always a treat, and this novel combinesthat with characters with whom we can empathize, as they deal with universal problems andemotions. . . . A fast and fascinating read.” —United Press International (UPI), Book of theWeek

    “[A novel] about women struggling to come into their own in modern India. . . . Malladi’swriting style is unadorned and simple. . . . She sketches some remarkable women . . . andunlike many women-centric novels where the men are beasts or spineless, Malladi treats hermale characters with compassion.”

    San Francisco Chronicle

    “A well-balanced, pitch-perfect novel you’ll read in a few sittings. Open a box of Kleenexwhen you come to the end.”

    —SHAUNA SINGH BALDWIN, author of What the Body Remembers

    “In this accomplished debut novel, Malladi depicts believable and well-defined charactersfacing tumultuous circumstances with grace and sensitivity, passion and pride.” — Booklist

    “Debut novelist Malladi deserves credit for illuminating a troubling aspect of Indian culture.. . . Anjali is an admirable heroine, and women will relate to her heartbreak as the mother ofa dying child.” — Publishers Weekly

    “A plainspoken reverie about love and destiny. A terrible accident gives the story a sense oflife’s inexorable cruelty, but the brilliance and steadfastness of Malladi’s characterselevate them, and carry them beyond their tragic circumstances into a kind of fabulous Greektimelessness. The story of Anjali’s star-crossed marriages zips the reader along, butalthough the book is a quick read, it’s also deep. This book is ostensibly about India, butreally, it is about everywhere.” —AMY WILENTZ, author of Martyr’s Crossing

    “Amulya Malladi’s pure voice pulled me right into the heart of this tale of the Indian womanAnjali and her family. Her story made me nod my head in agreement, and grind my teeth inanger, and it broke my heart with its clear look at the consequences of our shared humanimperfections and our attempts to rise above them. A Breath of Fresh Air is a gift for all of

    us in these complicated times.”

    —NANCY THAYER, author of Custody and Between Husbands and Friends

    “[A] first novel about an Indian woman haunted by the Bhopal tragedy . . . This is absorbingstuff, particularly Anjali’s struggles as a contemporary woman in India.” — Kirkus Reviews

    “Here again is an instance of a novelist taking what could be the humdrum details of familyheartbreak and raising them to the level of clear-eyed, well-crafted art. . . . Malladi writesdispassionately and yet movingly of love and destiny in modern India . . . a portrait ofmodern Indian life that is complex, fraught with morals and customs that are in many casesoutmoded and in all cases difficult to navigate. Malladi writes with a steady, sure hand;accumulating details casually, she catches the reader unaware with the depth of her insightinto love and loss.” — St. Petersburg Times

    “Gemlike . . . the quality of Malladi’s writing elevates A Breath of Fresh Air well

    above standard issue . . . a fine study of the tenuous control we have over love and memory.”San Francisco Weekly

    “A lovely . . . novel about a spirited woman in contemporary India . . . and about theconvolutions and contrariness and surprises and disasters of that phenomenon we like to callTrue Love.”

    The Voice Ledger—ANN LAFARGE,

    “The story is rich with insight into Indian culture and psychology, while it presents truthsthat are universal.” — The Calgary Sun

    “Sensitive and moving first novel.” —Toronto Sun

    A Breath of Fresh Air is—well—a breath of fresh air. . . . Reads breezily, thanks to theauthor’s refreshingly simple prose. Which is not to say there aren’t layers of meaning thatenrich the tale. . . . A vivid picture of modern relationships in her native land. [Malladi]excels when she examines with clarity the differing emotions of all four protagonists.” — The Santa Fe New Mexican

    Praise for The Mango Season

    “With humor and grace, Amulya Malladi has constructed a family story in which the heroinemust make the difficult choice between the traditional and the modern. Malladi is a writer ofgreat promise.”

    —BHARTI KIRCHNER, author of Darjeeling and Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries

    “Amulya Malladi has the ability to get so close to ordinary life that her words effortlesslytransform themselves into art with pitch-perfect prose fed by an observant eye and a warmheart. . . . Malladi is a born storyteller with an expansive and satisfying vision of themeaning of love.” —LAURA PEDERSEN, author of Beginner’s Luck

    “A fast, compelling read that speaks to all of us who have dared to break from the norm.” —

     Heart and Soul magazine

    “In this passionately told story . . . Priya’s frustration, her family’s desires, and theheat during the mango season are all well conveyed . . . a fascinating look at contemporaryIndia. Strongly recommended.” —Library Journal

    “Malladi submerges the reader in fascinating cultural traditions and rich foods garnishedwith saucy humor.” — Booklist

    “A welcome second [novel] from Malladi . . . nicely seasoned: The spice of atmosphere andgeography livens up a family saga and gives a fresh twist to a typical coming-of-age tale.”Kirkus Reviews

    “Touches on a very human conflict with delicacy and humor. Miss Malladi makes Priya’sambivalence understandable and powerful . . . a lovely novel.” —The Washington Times

    “A gentle, attractive novel with a great atmospheric feeling of India and its customs.Beautifully written and very easy to read.”

    Publishing News, UK

    “A dramatic portrait of a modern woman’s anguish over her inability to blend her twoworlds. The story is told with beautiful word pictures. Malladi’s imagery makes one thirstfor a juicy topping of HAPPINESS to end the story, a rich ripe mango. For insight into theHindu world, The Mango Season is highly recommended.” —Bookreporter.com

    “Entertaining light read.” —AsianWeek.com

    “An informative as well as entertaining novel filled with interesting situations thathighlight the rules of marriage and the importance of the institution in Indian society.”

    —Charleston Post and Courier

    “A lush, beautifully written novel of contemporary India . . . a glorious celebration of lifeand love.” — The Bookseller, UK

    “Like the strong and unconventional Anjali in A Breath of Fresh Air, Amulya Malladi in

    her second novel provides us with yet another female character who fights her own battles andemerges scathed but victorious. . . . Well written with balanced portions of traditional tugsand contemporary needs, conviction and concern, The Mango Season is a work of soul searching,

    decision making, and strength building.” — India Currents

Also by Amulya Malladi



For Søren and Tobias,

    for all that I am and all that I hope to be


    My deepest thanks to Søren for being my first reader and listener, Tobias for taking naps, mywonderful in-laws, Ruth and Ejgil, for giving us refuge and me a place to write, and to all myfamily in Denmark for their warm welcome, love and generosity.

    I am truly grateful to Allison Dickens, Wonderful Editor, for making this book better than itwas when it left my hard drive and for helping me out during a difficult time; and to NancyMiller for her continuing support and confidence in me. I will always be indebted to HeatherSmith, Amazing Publicist, for patiently putting up with all my hysterical phone calls andemail.

    A very special thanks to Jody Pryor, Alaskan, friend and fellow writer, for reading a draft ofthis book through a night and giving me some brilliant advice because I needed her to; specialthanks also to Matt Bailer, Kelly Lynch, Milly Marmur, Susan Orbuch, and Priya Raghupathi forenriching this book with their advice and insight.

    I took advantage of Steven Deutsch’s sense of humor in coming up with the first sentence ofthis book; of Radhika Kasichainula’s memory in remembering where everything in Hyderabadwas; and of Shanthi Nambakkam’s hospitality when I was last in the United States—I thankthem for their generosity.

    And lastly, a big thanks to Arjun Karavadi for his critique, honesty and friendship, and forbeing available to me regardless of the time difference between Chicago and Denmark.


    Happiness Is a Mango

    Don’t kill yourself if you get pregnant, was my mother’s advice to me when I was fifteenyears old and a classmate of mine was rumored to have committed suicide because she was withchild.

    Along with the firm advice that I shouldn’t commit suicide was the advice—or rather theorder—that I shouldn’t have sex until I was married and that I should marry the man of herchoice, not mine.

    Even though I was raised in a society where arranged marriage was the norm, I always thought itwas barbaric to expect a girl of maybe twenty-one years to marry a man she knew even lessthan the milkman who, for the past decade, had been mixing water with the milk he sold herfamily.

    I had escaped arranged marriage by coming to the United States to do a master’s in ComputerSciences at Texas A&M, by conveniently finding a job in Silicon Valley, and then by inventingseveral excuses to not go to India.

    Now, seven years later, I had run out of excuses.

    “What are you looking forward to the most?” Nick asked, as we were parked on the 101-Southcarpool lane on our way to the San Francisco International Airport.

    “HAPPINESS,” I said without hesitation.

    Summer, while I was growing up, was all about mangoes. Ripe, sweet mangoes that dripped juicesdown your throat, down your neck. The smell of a ripe mango would still evoke my taste buds,my memories, and for a while I would be a child again and it would be a hot summer day inIndia.

    There was more to a mango than taste. My brother Natarajan, whom we all called Nate because itwas faster to pronounce, and I, would always fight over the sticky stone at the center of themango. If Ma was planning to chop one mango for lunch, the battle for the stone would begin atbreakfast. Sucking on the sticky stone while holding it with bare hands was the mostpleasurable thing one could do with a mango. Nate and I called the mango stone HAPPINESS.

    HAPPINESS was a concept. A feeling. Triumph over a sibling. I had forgotten all aboutHAPPINESS until Nick’s rather pertinent question.

    “It’s like drinking a pint of Guinness in the office after tax season,” I said inexplanation when he didn’t seem to grasp the fundamentals of HAPPINESS.

    Nick the accountant nodded his head in total understanding. “But there isn’t going to bemuch HAPPINESS in your trip once you tell the family about the handsome and humble American

    you’re involved with.”

    When I first came to the United States, if anyone had told me I would be dating, living with,engaged to an American, I would have scoffed. Seven years later, I wore a pretty littlediamond on my ring finger and carried in my heart the security only a good relationship couldprovide.

    When Nick dropped me off at the international terminal he made sure I had my papers andpassport. Careful, caring Accountant Nick!

    “Off you go,” he said with a broad smile. “And call me once you get there.”

    He wanted to come with me to India. “To meet your family, see your country,” he had said,and I gave him a look reserved for the retarded. He must be joking, I thought. How could he beserious? Hadn’t I told him time and again that my family was as conservative as his wasliberal and that he would be lynched and I would be burned alive for bringing him, aforeigner, my lover, to my parents’ home?

    “Off I go,” I said reluctantly, and leaned against him, my black leather bag’s strapsagging against my shoulder. “I’ll check email from Nate’s computer. If I can’t call,I’ll write.”

    I didn’t want to go. I had to go.

    I didn’t want to go. I had to go.

    The twin realities were tearing me apart.

    I didn’t want to go because as soon as I got there, my family would descend on me likevultures on a fresh carcass, demanding explanations, reasons, and trying to force me intomarital harmony with some “nice Indian boy.”

    I had to go because I had to tell them that I was marrying a “nice American man.”

    All Indian parents who see their children off to the Western world have a few fears and thefollowing orders:

    Do not eat beef. (The sacred cow is your mother!)

    Do not get too friendly with foreign people; you cannot trust them. Remember what the Englishdid to us.

    Cook at home; there is no reason to eat out and waste money.

    Save money.

    Save money.

    Save money.


    Even though the “do not marry a foreigner” order would usually be last on the list, it wasthe most important one on the list. Any of the other sins the parents could live with; aforeign daughter- or son-in-law was blasphemous.

    “If they try to get you married to some nice Indian boy, remember that there’s no such thingand you’re engaged to a nice American man who dotes on you,” Nick joked.

    “According to them you’re just another corrupt Westerner and I’d be better off with a niceIndian boy,” I countered.

    “I’m sure you’ll convince them otherwise,” Nick said, and then hugged me. “You’ll befine. They’ll yell and scream for a while and then . . . What can they do? You’re a grownwoman.”

    “Maybe my plane will crash and I won’t have to tell them at all,” I said forlornly, and hekissed me, laughing.

    Nick waved when I looked back at him after I crossed security and entered the internationalterminal.

    I waved back, the brave soldier that I was, and walked toward the plane that was going to takeme home to India, mangoes, and hopefully HAPPINESS.

    Part One

Raw Mangoes

    Avakai (South Indian Mango Pickle)

5 cups sour mango pieces (medium sized)

    1 cup mustard seed powder

    1 cup red chili powder

    1 cup salt

    a pinch of turmeric powder

    1 teaspoon fenugreek seed powder

    3 cups peanut oil

    Mix the mango and dry ingredients and add three cups of peanut oil to the mixture. Let thepickle marinate for four weeks before serving with hot white rice and melted ghee

    (clarified butter).

    Use Your Senses

    It was overpowering, the smell of mangoes—some fresh, some old, some rotten. With a largeempty coconut straw basket, I followed my mother as she stopped at every stall in the massivemango bazaar. They had to taste a certain way; they had to be sour and they had to be mangoesthat would not turn sweet when ripened. The mangoes that went into making mango pickle werespecial mangoes. It was important to use your senses to pick the right batch. You tasted onemango and you relied upon that one mango to tell you what the other mangoes from the same treetasted like.

    “No, no.” My mother shook her head at the man sitting in a dirty white dhoti and kurta .

    His skin was leathery around his mouth and there were deep crevices around his eyes. His facespoke volumes about his life, the hardships, the endless days under the relentless sun sellinghis wares, sometimes mangoes, sometimes something else, whatever was in season. He was chewingbetel leaves, which he spat out at regular intervals in the area between his stall and the onenext to him.

    Amma ,” the man said with finality, as he licked his cracked lips with a tongue reddenedby betel leaves. “Ten rupees a k-g, enh , take it or leave it.”

My mother shrugged. “I can get them for seven a kilo in Abids.”

     . The price here is the lowest. And AmmaThe man smiled crookedly. “This is Monda Market,

     these, ”—he spread his hand over the coconut straw baskets that held hundreds ofall enh

    mangoes—“taste the same.”

    That had to be a stretch, but I didn’t say anything, didn’t want to get embroiled in thisparticular discussion. I stood mute next to my mother, patiently waiting for the ordeal to beover. My light pink salwar kameez was dirty and I was sweating as if I had never been

    through an Indian summer before. But I had been through twenty Indian summers, and now sevenyears later, I was having trouble acclimating to my homeland.

    I pushed damp sweaty hair off my forehead and tried to tuck it inside my short ponytail. I hadcut my hair a few years ago and stuck to the shoulder length hairdo. My mother had beenappalled when I sent her pictures and had bemoaned the loss of my waist-length black hair.

    “You go to America and you want to look like those Christian girls. Why, what is wrong withour way? Doesn’t a girl look nice with long, oiled hair with flowers in it? Even when youwere here, you didn’t want the nice mallipulu , fresh jasmine, I would string. Always

    wanted to look like those . . . Short hair and nonsense,” she complained on the phone beforethrusting it in my father’s hands.

    I would have preferred to wear a pair of shorts to ward off the tremendous heat but Mainstantly rebelled at the idea. “Wearing shorts in Monda Market? Are you trying to be anexhibitionist? We don’t do that here.”

    Since I had arrived three days ago I had heard that many times. “We don’t do that here.” Asif I didn’t know what we did or did not do. I was “we.”

    My mother picked up a mango and asked the mango seller to cut a slice. She handed the slice tome. “Here, taste,” she instructed, and I looked, horrified, at the slimy piece of raw fruitthrust under my nose.

    Was she out of her mind? Did she expect me to eat that?

    “Here,” she prodded again, and shoved it closer to my mouth and the strong smell of mangoand its juices sank in. And memories associated with that distinct smell trickled in like aslow stream flowing over gently weathered stone.

    I remembered stealing mangoes from the neighbor’s tree and biting into them with the relishof a theft well done. I remembered sneaking into the kitchen at night to eat the mangoes Mawas saving for something or other. I remembered sitting with Nate and eating raw mangoes withsalt and chili powder, our lips burning and our tongues smacking because of the tartness. Now,I couldn’t imagine putting that piece of white and green fruit inside my mouth. It was notabout taste, it was about hygiene, and suddenly everything everybody had warned me about Indiacame true.

    My Indian friends who visited India after living in the United States said: “Everything willlook dirtier than it did before.” I never thought myself to be so Americanized that I wouldcringe from eating a piece of mango that had languished in that man’s basket where he hadtouched it with his hands and . . .

    I shook my head when the man scratched his hair and used the same hand to find a piece of foodbetween yellow teeth, while he waited for judgment to be passed on his mangoes.

    Ma sighed elaborately and popped the piece of mango into her mouth. From her eyes I could seeshe was excited. From the myriad mangoes she had tasted all morning, this was the one thatwould be perfect for her pickle. But she was not going to let the mango seller know it. It wasHaggling 101.

    “They are okay,” she said with a total lack of enthusiasm.

    “Okay, enh ?” The man frowned and slapped his thigh with his hand in disapproval. “ Amma

    , these are the best pachadi mangoes in all of Monda Market. And”—he paused and smiled atme—“I will give them to you for nine rupees a kilo, enh ?”

    Ma waved a hand negligently, and memories of my mother bartering over everything came rushingback like a tidal wave. The worst of all incidents was when we were on vacation in KulluManali in Himachal Pradesh. It was a popular vacation spot in the Himalayas before Kashmir hadbecome such an issue with Pakistan. In a bazaar in Manali, Ma was trying to buy a shawl; it wasnot just any shawl, this was an in-fashion and in-high-demand woolen shawl, which haddifferent colors on each side. This was a blue and black shawl and Ma was haggling like shehad never haggled before.

    The bargaining had stopped over one single rupee. The man said fifty and Ma said forty-nineand they went on for ten minutes after which Ma just walked out of the store. I was aboutthirteen years old and unhappy that we had just spent half an hour haggling over something shewas not going to buy. I didn’t know that she was using another haggling tactic of walking outof the store and then being called in by the vendor who would then believe that she wasserious about one rupee.

    As I was dragged by the hand out of the shawl shop I cried out, “It is just one rupee, Ma,

    kanjoos ?”why do you have to be such a

    As soon as the word was out, I knew it was a mistake. Ma slapped me across the face in thecenter of the market and took me weeping and wailing back to our hotel.

    She never forgave me for letting the entire marketplace know that she was haggling over onerupee or for the loss of the blue and black in-fashion and in-high-demand shawl. The vacationwent to hell after that as Ma kept telling me how she was not a kanjoos , not a scrooge, and

    she was only trying to save money for our future, Nate’s and mine. When I reminded her thatshe was buying the shawl for herself , I was awarded another sound slap. I sulked for the

    rest of the vacation and for a couple of weeks even after we got back home to Hyderabad.

    Thanks to happy memories like that I never, ever, bargained. It was a relief that in theUnited States I didn’t have to do it for groceries and clothes; everything came with a fixedprice tag. And even when I went and bought my car, I didn’t barter or bargain. The niceVolkswagen dealer gave me the price; I agreed and signed on the dotted line even as Nickinsisted that I was being conned.

    “You could get it for two thousand dollars less, at least,” he told me when I was signingthe loan papers.

    “I like the car, I’m not going to fuss over it,” I told him firmly, and Accountant Nick’seyes went snap-snap open in shock.

    And that was that. Nick told me that from now on, when I wanted a new car, I should tell himwhat I wanted and he would buy it. “Getting conned while buying tomatoes in India is onething, but when you buy a car it’s criminal to not negotiate,” he said.

    But to haggle equated being like my mother and I was never , ever, going to be like my


    The mango seller picked out two more mangoes and set them in front of Ma. “Try more. See,they are all the same,” he challenged eagerly, in an attempt to convince her.

    Ma ignored the mangoes he chose and pulled out one at random from the basket in question. Theman cut a slice off with his knife. Ma tasted the piece of mango and instead of swallowingit, spit it out in the general direction of the ground.

    “Eight rupees,” she said, as she wiped her mouth with the edge of her dark blue cotton sari.

    “Eight-fifty,” he countered.

    “Eight,” she prodded and the man made a “since-you-twist-my-arm” face, giving in to herbargaining skills.

    “Okay,” he sighed, then looked at me. “She drives a hard bargain, enh ? I am not going to

    make any money on this sale.”

    I made an “I-have-no-say-in-this” face and put the straw basket I was holding in front ofhim.

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