The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 9, 2002

Of flying mangoes & Chinese welcome
K.R.N. Swamy

Illustration by Sandeep Joshi

THE weirdest mango story I have heard of, concerns the assassination of the Pakistani President General Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. When he was killed in the crash of his presidential aircraft near Bahawalpur, there was no clue except that he had been assassinated by forces unknown. Even the usually suspect CIA had been excluded from suspicion, as Arnold Raphael, the US Ambassador to Pakistan too had died in that tragic event. 

But later, Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s lady politician, provided some clues or rather divinations, about the incident which made sense. It appears, that in the early 1980s, Bhutto visited Bangladesh and during her travels went to see a famous Muslim pir of that country. The pir was well-known for his predictions and after talking to him Bhutto was tempted to ask, "When will the assassin of my father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977, namely General Zia-ul-Haq, die?" The pir closed his eyes for a few moments and then said, "When the mangoes fly, he will die!" Ms Bhutto could not make much of this statement then and the pir was not willing to elaborate. Years later, as the enquiry into Zia-ul-Haq’s assassination proceeded, it was learnt that at the very last moment, two basket loads of mangoes had been kept in his aircraft in Multan by unknown parties, just prior to departure. The Pakistani and US intelligence services had concluded that the bombs or explosives had been hidden in those baskets and verily, as the mangoes flew apart due to the explosion, Zia-ul-Haq, the murderer of Bhutto’s father died!


The second story, this time a rather hilarious one, also concerns a basket of mangoes gifted, by then Pakistani Head of State to the Chinese President Mao-Tse Tung in the 1960s. Those days, though China had its own variety of mangoes, this "political" gift from neighbouring Pakistan was welcomed with a lot of fanfare and Mao gifted the fruits to various factories around China as a mark of his appreciation to the workers in those establishments. One of Mao’s biographers, describes that as the sole mango arrived at one of the factories, it was welcomed by the entire board of directors and ceremoniously kept in the central hall of the factory. Workers marched past or rather joyously greeted the mango, the symbol of the great leader’s appreciation of their effort to develop China as a leading nation. But soon it was evident that the particular mango was after all "mortal" and the factory chiefs found it — "deteriorating". But all the workers of the particular area had not marched past the great mango. A botanist was summoned and he injected chemicals to preserve the mango, till all the proletariat could complete paying their respects.

It is a fact that many people are fanatical about mangoes. One of the reasons that the relations between Emperor Shahjahan and his recalcitrant son (later Emperor Aurangzeb) went sour in the 17th century, seems to be the fact that, as the Viceroy of the Great Mughal in Deccan, Aurangzeb did not pay sufficient care in ensuring, that his father got the Deccani mangoes in time. As the former Viceroy of Deccan during his father Emperor Jehangir’s time, Shahjahan had developed a taste for the mangoes of Hyderabad and bore the grudge against his own son for not ensuring their regular supply.

Three centuries later in the 1950s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was conversant with the high-sounding names for mangoes in different parts of India and once, when during an economics seminar, somebody mentioned the word "shahi pasand", he wanted to know where that particular mango came from.The embarrassed economist told him that this word was the Hindi translation of the economic, term "imperial preference" and Nehru amusedly walked away. Nehru had decreed that only Alphonso mangoes from Ratnagiri in Maharashtra were to be sent to foreign VIPs. He ensured that there was a sufficient supply of these fruits with him during his visits abroad as the Prime Minister. But he did not want his "personal" gifts to his foreign friends to be carried abroad on government expense. Chairman of Air-India, late J.R.D. Tata mentions, that Nehru had asked him to bill him "separately" for any mangoes he was taking on Air-India flights for his non-official friends and had mentioned the number of baskets. JRD chivalrously wrote back to Nehru, that it was a privilege for Air-India to carry mangoes for the Prime Minister of India and requested the "permission not to charge". Once a request came from an eminent Russian statesman for mangoes and Alphonsos were out of season. As it is known, the mango season in India lasts from February to August, the last in the batch being mangoes from South India. Some knowledgeable person suggested the famous Neelam variety from Tamil Nadu but Nehru vetoed the proposal. But the connoisseur-adviser persisted and the Indian Prime Minister consented for the despatch only after he tasted the Neelam.

In Europe, especially in Britain, mangoes were known for centuries. But due to the long delay of sea transport, the India-returned-Britishers resident there, were not able to savour the varieties, they had savoured in abundance in India. The honour of getting the UK elite to taste the fresh mangoes, goes to the eminent industrialist J.N. Tata, who in the last decades of the 19th century, ensured that the mangoes withstood the three-week journey.

In South India, one apocryphal story is current about an Indian king, who in the 16th century allowed Europeans to take away exotic local plant cuttings. When his prime minister protested against this misplaced generosity, the king is said to have exclaimed, "I gave away only the plants, but not the climate in which they grow!" A striking proof of the above adage came, when in the late 1950s, horitculturists in the USA tried their best to grow the Alphonso in Florida. But despite the great care and agriculturally savvy manner with which the trees were tended, the American Alphonso proved no match for the Indian variety and Americans have more or less abandoned their efforts, consoling themselves with the fact that "tolerably" good mangoes grow in Florida.

Mango juice exports were one of our major exports to communist countries during the cold war (and even today) and I remember one Indian businessman disconsolately telling me in Moscow, that the Russians did a lot to research in finding out the seasonal variations of the mango crop and knew to the last paisa as to how much the juice costs per kilo litre during the price negotiations. If you offer them mango juice fromTamil Nadu at a certain price, the Russians would laughingly counter with a lower quotations from Karnataka! And invariably they were correct.

How to eat mangoes without worrying about the resultant damage to one’s clothes by the juice is a problem that still preoccupied many mango lovers. One famous Indian mango "King from Gujarat, did perfect in the 1960s a novel "scoop" that will get you the flesh of the mango without spilling the juice. But it did not "take off". One eminent British novelist claims, that during his sojourns in Bombay, he used to order Alphonso mango baskets, immerse himself in the Taj Mahal hotel bath tub filled with water and eat the mangoes in great relaxation. Maybe that is the only correct way. — MF

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