A short story about childhood, mangoes and memories.
‘How many mangoes can you eat in a day?’ I had asked Mr. Alphonso.
‘Nine,’ he had said.
I remember thinking that he must be kidding. No one can eat nine mangoes. It would be ridiculous. I also remember thinking later that it might be possible for Mr. Alphonso. He shared his name with a popular mango cultivar!
‘Do you have some for me?’ I asked while watching him eat a Langda Aam.
He gave me a couple of slices. I made a mess while eating it. He washed my hands with the garden hose. The pulp along with the water splashed around dirtying his lungee. He sucked his teeth.
So that was that and this is now. Mr. Alphonso has died. I think because of mango overdose. But the grown ups are sobbing so I would not offer my diagnosis. His wife is weeping silently.
I tiptoe around the house looking for any mangoes. But there aren’t any. I think the old man ate them all and died happily. He was my neighbour. During the evenings, I would quietly slip in his garden and walk around in the grass. My mother always knew where to find me. He did lock his gates but there was space under the giant metal gates and if I could just suck in my tummy a bit, I could slip in.
He would stand under his porch, wearing a vest and a lungee, holding a newspaper. He would admonish me in his mock-angry papa bear voice. He would call me badmaash and I would like the word very much. Especially from his English-speaking mouth, the Hindi word sounded so funny.
But he was dead today. I look at his face. It is a smiling face. I am quite sure he is playing with us all and might wake up screaming ‘Badmash’ any moment now. But I keep it all to me because there are grownups weeping around here.
I go out to the garden. People are walking on the grass in the garden wearing white kurtas. They are trampling over the grass and I don’t like it. I don’t like their feet and leather sandals in my garden. Sure it was his garden but it seems only natural that it should be passed down to me. He had no children.
I wade through the sea of white kurtas and leather chappals to the corner of the garden and then I spot it. It is a small mound. And there is no grass around it. A small cardboard signboard stands near it. The signboard says ‘A-L-P-H-O-N-S-O’. Had he sown a mango seed before dying? I take the cardboard and hide it. It will my little secret now.
The funeral or whatever the grownup word for dispensing the dead is – got over. I didn’t stop sliding into the Alphonso house, only this time my visits were much shorter. I would rush to the garden hose, turn on the tap, water the seedling and slip back out. I was excited about the mango.
‘When will the mango season come?’ I would ask my mother. ‘It is only October, baba,’ she would tell me. What kind of an answer is that? I waited. Then I stopped watering the plant for a week. Clearly Mrs. Alphonso was watering it because after a week when I slipped inside the garden, the sapling had sprouted.
The season for mangoes came but the plant was still very stupid and small. ‘How long does it take to turn a baby mango plant into a fully grown tree?’ I asked my father.
‘Four to six years,’ he said without looking up from his newspaper. He was so nonchalant and my whole world had come tumbling down. I took a calculator and a calendar. Six years was a lot of days. I don’t remember the exact figure now but I am pretty sure I’d be dead by then. The whole world would be dead by then. Why plant a mango tree if it takes that long? Who will be there to eat it?
I asked all those questions to my father who asked me to go focus on my studies. And focus I did. Then my father got transferred and we had to leave. I could not go and say goodbye to the mango.
Ten years later, we returned to the town because my father had brought property there. We visit Mr. Alphonso’s house and are served mangoes. I pick up a slice and as if remembering something, rush outside.
‘Looking for your mango tree?’ Mrs. Alphonso asks. I nod. She points me in the direction of a fully grown, majestic tree. It has caused cracks in the fence. I marvel at the beauty.
‘The neighbours keep knocking raw mangoes off it by pelting stones. And they come inside the garden to steal the fallen fruits. It is very inconvenient,’ she tells my parents. My parents nod.
While coming back, I remember her words. How did she know it was my mango tree?