Summer, Mangoes, Birds, Bombay — Disjecta Membra

by Gautam Pemmaraju

The hot summer months of April and May allow for some indolence. Slack jawed, enervated street dogs, seem somehow to be the most suffering. If their parched tongues say it all, their blinking eyes, bereft of the sharp darting aggression of cooler nights, seem to offer urgent supplication. In part alleviation, they sleep through whole afternoons in the reasonable comfort of a shady spot, on occassion lifting up their heat-stricken heads to cast a listless, impecunious glance at the fools who walk the hot streets. Asleep

Offering vivid descriptions of city life, the hustle-bustle, street hawkers and dwellers, SM Edwardes, in By-Ways Of Bombay (1912), writes,

During the hot months of the year the closeness of the rooms and the attacks of mosquitoes force many a respectable householder to shoulder his bedding and join the great army of street-sleepers, who crowd the footpaths and open spaces like shrouded corpses. All sorts and conditions of men thus take their night's rest beneath the moon,–Rangaris, Kasais, bakers, beggars, wanderers, and artisans,–the householder taking up a small position on the flags near his house, the younger and unmarried men wandering further afield to the nearest open space, but all lying with their head towards the north for fear of the anger of the Kutb or Pole star.

In Sleepy Sketches (1877), the diarist, troubled by the ‘endless accounts’ of Englishmen of privilege and high office, which he finds to ill represent the reality of Bombay life (and life in Bombay), sets out to correct some. Asserting quite vigorously at the outset that the native has ‘no prejudice either in favour of truth or falsehood’ and that they cannot but help mixing the two, he finds issue with “hot glare of the sun and constant heat”, which to his mind “destroy the mystery of life and lead one to look on death as the end of all things” [sic]. The climate threatens the European, the writer adds, and it is so enervating for the professional man, that upon return home at the end of a hardworking day “we have little desire for recreation, and so no recreation is to be found”. The month of May, he writes on,

…brings thirty-one days of close, oppressive heat, and thirty-one nights of close, oppressive heat…when all possibility of sound sleep is gone, and we wake every hour and minute wet with perspiration; when even the crows have lost every power but that of cawing, – a power, confound them! that they never lose, – and stand desolate, with their hot wings held comically apart from their hot bodies…but still in Bombay we go to bed with the thermometer at 89°.

HotsunEntertainingly, his commentary extends to the ‘monotonous’ life of poor, suffering English women in Bombay. Amongst the married, there is little household work (the climate again is faulted here) to be done, and if any children, either they are left behind in England or “wander about the bungalow listless and white-faced, giving pain rather than pleasure to their parents”. Unwed girls, he continues, can only but hope “to get soon a husband, so rich that he can take her each May to Mahabaleshwar or Matheran, and to Poona for the rains”.

One can only imagine the evil effects of the obfuscating, oblique head nod of the capricious native upon this distraught Englishman, who perhaps was unable to consider that what he regarded as the inability of the native in distinguishing between truth and falsehood may well have been a ‘cunning plan’.

I do however agree with his thoughts on the state of crows during the heat. Many take shelter in my yard, resting awhile, drinking out of shallow pools of water here and there, and cawing shrilly at will. They too, much like the supplicating dog, look suitably troubled, if not downright tormented by the heat.

*

Another visitor to also let loose earsplitting screeches (much like someone I used to know in the past), are the parrots that come to feast on the ripening guavas upon the tree right outside my window. Parrots, according to the naturalist Douglas Dewer, writing in Bombay Ducks (1906), “are restrained neither by law nor a moral sense”. In a delightful observation, Dewer writes that there are people who look like parrots, or more precisely, “have a parrot like expression”, and they, he claims, “appear to be proud of the fact, for they invariably hold a very good opinion of themselves”. Graciously qualifying this gamely barb, the writer goes on to say that in most cases it is ‘justified’, for such a man is usually a ‘jolly good fellow’.

The plumage between the sexes differ, Dewer writes on, and while the male’s collar is rose coloured, the ‘wife’, with “an emerald-green ring around her neck, and being a mere woman, is obliged to go through life without the luxury of a necktie”. Gauva

Dewer’s commentary on the moral character of the parrot is greatly entertaining. “Polly’s larcenies would lose half their charm” were it not for dodging the stones cast by watchmen, and further explication reveals to the reader that the parrots diet is not confined to wheat, and if “there were to be no corn in Egypt, they make merry among the fruit trees”. Those who find alcohol to be the cause of crime may note, the writer further offers,

Parrots are vegetarians, teetotalers, and care not for filthy lucre, yet they are steeped in iniquity from birth to death, from egg to exit. But we may safely leave these facts to moral philosophers…Evil though their character be, we must admit that green parrots are very beautiful objects. They are ornaments to the scenery of the country.

Its call is shrill, which it emits in flight, and apart from the harsh tone, the writer finds that there is additionally, “something particularly offensive in it”. Although widely found across India, the writer reveals that they are not uniformly found over the peninsula. In Bombay however, they are ubiquitous, and found as commonly as crows.

*

Descriptions of summer, the heat, celestial gardens, tormented lovers (and entwined ones), cool nights, shaded bowers, are abundantly found in Indian literature and art. The two branches stemming from classical Sanskrit literature are ritu-varnana, descriptions of seasons and aesthetic/phenomenal expositions linked to seasons, and the barahmasa traditions, based upon the twelve-month lunar calendar. Commonly mentioned in this regard, Kalidasa’s Ritusamharam, the ‘garland of seasons’, is a poetical work fecund with erotic imagery, to say the least. The cooling effect of the moon, loose garments, cooling devices indoors that spray water, and sandalwood paste – they all help against the heat. Aided further of course, by ‘strong drinks’, madhu, and the ‘visually ameliorating effect’ of the womenfolk upon the ‘heat’ of their lovers. The fourth verse of the summer section of the poem,

nitambabimbaiḥ sadukūlamekhalaiḥ stanaiḥ sahārābharaṇaiḥ sacandanaiḥ /
śiroruhaiḥ snānakaṣāyavāsitaiḥ striyo nidāghaṃ śamayanti kāminām //

is entertainingly translated here as,

Clad in chicly coolant silken fabrics gliding onto their rotund fundaments, for they are knotted loose; golden sashes with dangling tassels glissading onto those silks, for they are battened on and off; sporting semi-shown buxom bosoms, for they are bedaubed with sandal-paste, semi-covered with pearly strings and golden lavalieres, and let-flying hairlocks, fragrant with just now applied bath-time emulsions, onto their faces, the womenfolk is visually ameliorating the heat of their lovers during these days.

*

Aside from such ‘ameliorating womenfolk’ (I have spotted some in Bandra), summer also has on offer the sweet promiscuity of mangoes (its literary life is in Vasanta or Spring). Kalidasa’s “The mango tree bent with clusters of red sprouts kindle ardent desire in women’s hearts” is one of the very many references to the peerless fruit. The mango has also been referred to as kama-anga and kama-vallabha, love’s deputy and consort.

G Marshall Woodrow in Mango – Its Culture and Varieties (1904), writes at the very outset that the mango is ‘an errant member’ of a family from Malaya, where eleven species of the genus Mangifera natively grew. The most ‘illustrious member’ however, Mangifera Indica he writes on,

…has spread in a semi-wild form throughout the tropical world, and is cultivated as far afield as Florida, Queensland, Natal, and the Canary Islands. The most ancient literature of India records its presence, and in comparatively recent times, while Tuglak Shah was on the throne at Delhi (A.D. 1325-13.51), the Turkoman poet, Amir Khrussu, wrote in Persian verse: ” The Mango is the Pride of the Garden, the choicest fruit of Hindustan; other fruits we are content to eat when ripe, but the Mango is good in all stages of growth.” (Dymock, Pkarm. Ind., I. 382.)

MangomanFurther, the word mango used in English, he writes, is probably a corruption of the Tamil word for the fruit. The best sorts he asserts, are the cut variety, the flesh of which can be spooned easily like custard, but “but some fibrous sorts are celebrated for delicious piquant flavor, and are eaten by sucking the pulp pressed out through a hole in the skin. It is to sorts of this kind that the facetious tales of eating Mangoes in a bath-room are due, the best sorts being as fit for the dessert-table as a peach or a pear.”

The messiness of eating, or ‘sucking the pulp’ of the juice varieties is regarded by many, particularly in the south, to be an essential skill. The benefits in doing so, splattered juice and pulp on ones face and clothes notwithstanding, is in the revelatory flavours. A most famous and delicious variety is from Andhra Pradesh and is called Nuzvid. The ‘greatest Indian Mango’ debate and the local Alphonso or Hapoos as the title’s rightful claimant, is unsurprisingly, a hotly debated one, and it rages on. Its season is the two months of April and May, and it is most certainly an ambrosial fruit. And an expensive one.

One such ‘facetious tale’ of messy mango eating is intriguingly revealed in Rattanbai: A Sketch of a Bombay High Caste Hindu Young Wife (1895) by Shevantibai Nikambe, the headmistress of a ‘Hindu school for high castes’. The author’s dedication, “with profound gratitude and loyalty” is to “Her Most Gracious Majesty The Queen, Empress of India”. Rattanbai, as is revealed here by the writer, returned from school one day and asked permission of her mother to attend a party the following week at the bungalow of Mrs. B, an Englishwoman. He mother agrees, but her aunt, Kakubai, was not so amenable to the idea: “Why do you want to go to English people’s houses? They will give you something to eat and defile you.” The aunt beseeches her mother to not send the girl, whereupon Rattanbai asks them if eating fruit there is allowed. The aunt acquiesces but insists she not eat anything else.

At the party, the writer reveals, one of the girls Gangabai, cut her finger while cutting a mango, and

Some girls sucked the mango instead of cutting it and the juice all ran down over the clean white cloth…

Kakubai: then you must have caused much damage to the poor, kind madam?

The mango finds itself to be the topic of a lively (and delightful) conversation between the Portuguese physician and naturalist Garcia da Orta (see here my piece on urban gardens), and his imaginary friend Ruano, in the wonderful Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (English translation, 1913 by Clements Markham), or Conversations on the simples, drugs and materia medica of India, published in Goa on 10th April 1563.

Orta says to his friend that he does not wish to unduly praise the fruit to his friend, but “there are some Portuguese who are so pertinacious that they would rather die than confess that there is any fruit equal to those of Portugal”. During their conversation, he spots two vessels coming in and sends his boy to make inquiries. Upon his return, the boy brings with him a basket of mangoes from the visitor, Simam Toscano, his master’s ‘tenant in Bombaim’. Orta says here,

He comes most opportunely. I have a mango tree in that island of mine which has two gatherings, one at this season and another at the end of May. As other fruit may exceed this in scent and taste, so much this exceeds others in coming out of season. We will first prove this fruit. Boy, get out six mangoes.

In an equally delightful footnote here by Count Ficalho, there is a mention by Dr Birdwood in the Bombay Saturday Review of 28th July 1866, of a “famous mango tree at Colaba”, which gives fruit twice a year, “at Christmas and in May”. It was a tree in the garden of Mrs. Hough who consulted every visiting botanist to reveal the mysteries of said tree, and,

…on her consulting me in 1857, – it was the 8th of December, – I told her it was obviously “the Benediction of Mary”, but I ultimately found that the tree some thirty or forty years before had been blown during Christmastide, when it at once burst into flower and fruit; which led to the habit in which it had ever since indulged. Street

There is a mention of the “Mangoes of Mazagong” in Thomas Moore’s famous frame-tale Lalla Rookh. In Hobson-Jobson, we find several interesting entries, including, Bombay Mango, Mango Bird, Mango Fish, Mango Showers, Mango Trick, which is “one of the most famous tricks of Indian jugglers”.

In Samuel Sheppard’s Bombay Place Names and Street Names (1917), he argues that the common proverb, bonum nonem, bonum omen, “has not always been borne in mind in Bombay, as the following pages will show”. In a disparaging comparison to the “beauty of the many names in Burma”, he writes of the “dull, unimaginative names…reminiscent of dull people of no account”. He footnotes here that he is in Thayetmo, or Mango-Town. I speculate that he missed or ignored Ambewadi (Amba is Marathi for mango) as well as other fruit/vegetable name localities such as Phanaswadi (Jackfruit), Kelewadi (Banana) and Kandewadi (Onion) – the famous neighbourhoods of Girgaon.

*

D.E.Wacha, in his Shells From The Sands of Bombay (1920), writes that the city’s very first introduction to ice was via Messrs. Jahangir N. Wadia & Co in 1835. The ‘comfort of citizens’ was a consideration, he writes: “Indeed, it was felt to be a first necessity in a tropical climate like Bombay with its annual holocaust of fevers”. So in 1845, through ‘public subscriptions’, finance was raised to import ice from America and storing it at a ‘suitable house specially constructed’. Thus, the first icehouse came to be. It was however, Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy who first exploited the entertainment value of ice (and ice confectionary), which he made available to the public at 4 annas a pound.

The writer also, quite importantly, mentions Bombay’s famous water woes, which not just continue till date, but also play out in the most complex and oftentimes, disturbing ways. He writes of the ‘greatest sanitary evils’ suffered by the city – the insufficiency of potable water during summer.

At such times it becomes most difficult and distressing for these waifs and strays of humanity to obtain the first necessity of life at the nearest public tap from their dwelling places. It may therefore, be realised, how the inhabitants of the town must have suffered each summer from the famine of water all throughout the first two centuries, say, from the date of acquisition of Bombay by the British.

TapWriting also of the water famine of 1824, the tank at Dhobi Talao, Wacha moves on to the role of the philanthropy of Framji Cowasji. It was his conception, the writer reveals, to bring in water from a ‘distant source’ to the city and it was thereafter, that the idea of water from ‘Vehar’, a lake flanking the northern suburb of Powai, a project estimated then at £52,063, was envisioned.

Many were the vicissitudes that occurred before the completion of the works, but, after all, the people of Bombay were gratified when they first got their water at their own doors from Vehar in 1864; though the water was actually introduced into the city in 1859.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, he writes on, people of all sections lived on water from private wells and tanks constructed by philanthropists. Intriguingly,

The malarial campaignist of to-day seems to be utterly oblivious of the past history of those tanks and wells. Had these sciolists been half so well acquainted with that history as with their own pretentious empiricism, they would see how great is the necessity preserving the 3 or 4 thousand wells, tanks and reservoirs which abound in the city, never mind the anopheles.

Presciently, the engineer Hector Tulloch, in a report on the water supply of Bombay published in 1872, prefaces it by writing,

The slightest acquaintance with the town of Bombay must convince anyone that a real necessity exists for an additional supply of water. The supply is so short at present, that all kinds of expedients have to be resorted to in order to let each part of town share in the distribution from the Vehar Lake. The natives are, if possible, [sic], more anxious for an extension of the water supply than the Europeans.

*

In a travelogue written by Dr Edward Ives, in 1754, he observes (having just come to Bombay from Madras), that the “natives of this island”, although shorter than those of the Coromandel Coast, were weaker, for it took 6 men in Madras to bear a palanquin, whereas it took a mere 4 in Bombay. Critically, he writes further,

ArchibaldhouseWhen this island was first surrendered to us by the Portuguese, we hardly thought it worth notice; but in a very few years afterwards, we experimentally found the value of it, and it is now become our chief settlement of the Malabar Coast.

Bombay being my ‘chief settlement’ as well, (for in some ways I too have come from a land afar – Hyderabad), I also, much like every other resident here, find the month of May to throw up the very same questions as posed by the diarist of Sleepy Sketches:

As the days grow old and the heat more and more unbearable, we are all seized with the intense anxiety as to the monsoon. Has it burst at Ceylon? Has it reached Goa? Will it break to-morrow or a week hence in Bombay? And each day the newspapers tell us of like anxiety in far-off towns. Correspondents give minute accounts of the heat of the places from whence they write, and record gravely the weakest rumours and the most ill-based statements, as to whether the advent of the monsoon will be early or late.

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