Flash Fiction: A Taste of Mango Achaar
This story by SARA SIDDIQUI CHANSARKAR will remind readers of the mango season’s sweet fruits—and tart pickles.
“What are you doing, Ammi?” I call my mother on a May Sunday morning. My husband, Suhail, is still sleeping. I glance at the clock—it’s 8:00 am, that’s 5:30 pm for Ammi in India.
“Nothing, beti. Just finished my namaz. Now in the courtyard for some air. Green mangoes on Mrs. Gupta’s tree are swaying in the breeze.”
“Oh, is the branch that extends into our courtyard loaded?”
“There are a few on our side. Remember, beti, how Mrs. Gupta shouted at you and your sister when you plucked mangoes from her tree?”
“Haha, yes. The tangy fruit—I can taste it on my tongue.”
“Seems like yesterday . . . listen, would you take some mango achaar when you visit? I’ll make it this summer and pack it for you and Farhat. She plans to visit in July.”
“No, Ammi. It’ll be too much work for you, and I won’t come until December.”
“Silly girl! Don’t you know the achaar is good for years? It won’t spoil till December. And it’ll be fun for me. Haven’t made achaar since you and then Farhat got married and left. Then, your Abu passed . . .”
Both of us breathe into the phone for a few moments. Abu loved achaar, the spice-infused oil more than the mango pieces.
“Okay, as you wish, Ammi.”
Nothing can dissuade my mother. Perhaps the achaar will keep her occupied, fill the emptiness of her days.
I asked her to come with me to the U.S. after Abu died, but surrendered my case when she said she wanted to live and die in her home, to be buried in the same soil as Abu. Besides, I know the pain of being uprooted. It lies dormant, then gushes like a river in spate.
After I hang up the phone, my mind plays a montage of Ammi making the achaar, from purchasing the fruit to the final product.
* * *
First, Ammi will wait for a storm with winds strong enough to drop raw mangoes to the ground, because they’ll be cheap the next day. She’ll visit the subzi-mundi at dusk—produce prices go down with the sun. She’ll bargain with the fruit vendors, then walk away until a voice calls her back, “Ammaji, take them at your price.”
After reaching home, she’ll soak the fruits in water to wash off the sticky sap and cover them with a heavy thaali to keep roaches and rats away.
Next morning, after her namaz, she’ll pull her black-and-silver hair into a bun and wipe the mangoes with a clean cloth, checking each one for ripeness. Only the raw ones go in the achaar.
With the mangoes sorted, she’ll arrange the achaar spices—turmeric, hing, dried red chillies, mustard, fenugreek and fennel seeds—on a platter.
Then she’ll roll out one parantha for breakfast and have it with last night’s stir-fried vegetable. From the window, she’ll watch the sun as it shines on the tall houses of the neighborhood, then glides across the street to her porch, filling it, rectangle by rectangle. She’ll set the mangoes and the spices to dry in the sun, covering them with thin-mesh sieves.
Next, she’ll wash the ceramic achaar jar and wipe it dry. Then she’ll sweep the floor of the two-bedroom house. She refuses to hire help, saying if she doesn’t use her body, she’d be paralyzed like Mrs. Gupta, next door.
After the spices are crisped, she’ll grind them in the blender before noon, the power cut hour. She’ll have a simple lunch of pressure-cooked rice and daal, offer her mid-day namaz, and visit the neighbor five houses down to borrow her mango-cutting apparatus —a blade hinged at one end to a wooden block. She’ll spend the afternoon chopping the mangoes into inch-sized pieces.
Next day, she’ll transfer the mango chunks into a big kadhai and rub them with the ground spices mixture. She’ll pour mustard oil over them, and then ladle the mixture into the ceramic jar before tying a cotton cloth around its mouth.
For the next 15 days, she’ll shake the jar every morning, set it in the sun, and bring it in every evening before sunset.
* * *
When I call Ammi after our achaar conversation, she says nothing about it. I don’t bring it up. Maybe she decided not to make it.
In the third week of June, she says the mango achaar is ready, her voice brimming with excitement. She says she’s packed it for Farhat and me.
I imagine Ammi must have placed two identical jars in the kitchen, side by side, mentally marking the months on them—my sister’s visit in July, mine in December.
In December, I fly to India alone because Suhail can’t take off from work. Ammi points at the 10-inch Pearlpet jar on the top rack in which she’s packed the achaar for me.
“Oh, no, Ammi. I’m allowed only one check-in bag. Won’t have space for this. Pack the achaar in a jam bottle that’ll fit in my cabin bag.”
“As you wish.” I hear the surrender in her voice. Guilt washes over me. I tell her I’ll take more next year. It won’t spoil.
The achaar is so delicious that I eat it with every meal Ammi serves—with daal, with paranthas, even with chicken biryani. Three weeks of vacation pass with the quickness of three days.
In January, I land at Cincinnati International Airport, bleary-eyed after a 24-hour journey with two layovers. I wait for my cabin bag to pass through the X-ray belt.
A stern-looking officer signals me over.
“This, your bag?” He opens the black Samsonite duffle.
“What’s this?” He pulls out a package wrapped in a Hindi newspaper, several rubber bands running crisscross along it.
“Mango pickle. Home made.”
“Unpack it.” Sweat beads appear on his bald head.
I pull the rubber bands, one by one, peel the newspaper, layer by layer, until the Kissan jam bottle filled with the achaar emerges. It looks embarrassed without cover, vulnerable without armor.
“Open it.” He lets out an exasperated sigh.
I turn the lid anti-clockwise. He smells the achaar.
“Sorry, can’t let this through.”
With that, he tosses the bottle into a large plastic can behind him.
“It’s just food” are the only words I can muster, though I want to say more. I want to say it’s not a bomb or missile. Not opium or cocaine. It’s a mother’s love—simmered in the sun, preserved, and packed for a daughter who lives 13,000 kilometers away.
The officer waves the next person over.
I trudge along the airport corridors, my steps heavy, the bag lighter without the achaar.
I call Ammi that night. She thanks Allah for my safe return journey. Then she asks, “Did the achaar oil leak? Did you serve some to Suhail?”
“No, not a drop spilled, Ammi. Suhail had it with the frozen paranthas he heated up this evening. He says it’s the best achaar he’s ever had.”
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar’s stories have been published in online journals as well as print anthologies and have been nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net awards. She can be reached on Twitter @PunyFingers. To comment on this story, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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