The Colonial Past of the King of Mangoes
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
From Portuguese colonizers to the British monarchy, the Alphonso has charmed generations of the world's elite. But what's the secret behind its stardom?
By Sohini Das Gupta
It was 1937 and the British monarchy was gripped by a crisis. King Edward VIII had abdicated the throne to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, and his brother George VI was to be crowned king. But the British Indian government decided it had a gift that could sweeten the occasion.
In April that year, The Times of India, the country’s oldest English-language newspaper still in circulation, reported that the government was set to ship mangoes to London for the coronation of King George VI. And not just any variety, but rising star Alphonso, now globally celebrated as the king of mangoes. “Elaborate arrangements have been made at Crawford Market to make the shipments successful,” a report in the newspaper read. And so sailed one king to meet another who was soon to be anointed, on a ship called the SS Ranchi, all the way from the booming port city of Bombay (now Mumbai) to London.
More than eight decades later, the redolent recall of the Alphonso remains unmatched, as does the broader frenzy of mango season every year in India. “Summer isn’t over till you can no longer find a single juicy mango in the market!” remarked my grandmother recently, celebrating a hard-won battle against COVID-19 with the last of this year’s loot. At 93, she doesn’t account for the fact that today, imported imposters of the Alphonso trickle in from the Southern Hemisphere even during the Indian winter! This, not counting the chemically enhanced phonies engineered to outlive the seasonal cut-off of monsoon. Still, fruit sellers would vouch for a ritualistic summer-end scramble, where bag-swinging uncles and aunties jostle to scoop up the final evidence of a bountiful season.
It is creamy and aromatic — a small piece of luxury you can probably afford no matter who you are.
Vivek Menezes, writer and mangophile
There’s no arguing with facts: No matter what your age or era, mangoes, especially Indian ones, can stir up a great passion in people. We are talking lush, gold juice bombs, tongue-curling wild green ones and blushing pink stunners, sweet as nectar. There are over 1,000 varieties to pick from, made decadent by, but not limited to, the Alphonso. Such is their seduction that poets, designers, and ad gurus hankering for inspiration have turned to the fruit since olden times. Indo-Persian poet Amir Khusrau crowned mangoes “naghaza tarin mewa Hindustan” — “the fairest fruit of Hindustan,” as far back as the 14th century. Mirza Ghalib, the ultimate authority on Urdu poetry, was also an authority on mangoes, weaving entire ditties around their decadence. Nobel prize-winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s preoccupation with the fruit started with “aamer manjari”— tiny mango blossoms with the power to perfume a lover’s garden.
Jumping from couplets to capitalism, Alphonso, or at least its concentrated pulp, has starred for a decade alongside the waiting, pining, aching Bollywood beauty, Katrina Kaif, in a series of TV commercials for a popular mango drink made by Pepsi. Some chapters of the expressly sultry campaign were even called aamasutra, a nod to the Indian coital canon Kama Sutra. In fashion, the mango inspired the instantly recognizable paisley pattern, a teardrop-shaped icon that gained couture approval in Europe during the British rule of India.
For Alphonso, the colonial connection goes further back.
Nicknamed Hapus in India, the internationally coveted variety is believed to have emerged after the arrival of the Portuguese in India in the 15th century. Writer and mangophile Vivek Menezes reckons that the mango was developed in the western state of Goa, where Jesuit priests used existing mango trees to introduce the technique of grafting, already popular in Europe. Their labor bore fruits, more refined than ever. Peshwas and Mughal kings “were addicted” to these Goan mangoes and probably “imported enough grafts of the new varieties” for there to be versions of the Alphonso in other parts of the country. Jump ahead several centuries to the British Raj, and the exploding appeal of the Alphonso is far more traceable.
Not long after the Alphonso traveled for King George VI’s crowning, it was shipped to London for the Queen’s coronation in 1953, according to The Guardian. Eventually a time-tested backdrop for international handshakes, it was called upon to sweeten diplomatic relations when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian premier, visited American President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Whether or not there is merit to the genius of gifting good-looking tropical fruits as a token of political goodwill, it has been attempted often enough to give us the phrase “mango diplomacy.”
More recently, Victoria & Abdul star Ali Fazal sent hand-picked samples of the Alphonso to Judi Dench, who plays Queen Victoria. In the film, the actors appear in a scene where Ali’s character inspects a gift of mangoes that has arrived from India, only to find the fruit rotten.
Dig a little and there seems to be something serendipitous about the Alphonso’s solo stardom. Indian food writer Vikram Doctor argues that its stardom comes from its superior shelf life, for being a “hardy traveler with thick skin,” unlike some equally fine Indian varieties. It also possibly benefited from being in the right place at the right time. “Remember that it was growing around Bombay, a premier city of South Asia with thriving trade relations,” Menezes adds, making a case for its special treatment in the same breath. “It is creamy and aromatic — a small piece of luxury you can probably afford no matter who you are, or where you’re located in the country.” Doctor’s heart, however, is reserved for the lemony, sweet Imam Pasand mango, grown in the state of Andhra Pradesh with little fanfare.
That the more perishable regional varieties cannot travel too far works just fine for people like my grandmother. For it is not the last Alphonso, but the last Himsagar mango that she seeks in end-of-summer markets, a musky-sweet east Indian variety responsible for her toothless fangirling. As far as she is concerned, the world can keep its Alphonso. After all, everyone deserves some face time with the king.
- Sohini Das Gupta, OZY Author Contact Sohini Das Gupta