Short Story: The Burial Mango
The over-a-century-old granny mango tree in our courtyard behaves quirky these days. She dances even when there is not a slight breeze. Though several birds and squirrels inhabit this giant trunk, none dig into the seditious drupes. Sometimes, she shakes her vast canopy during steamy summer days when the air stands still. It reminds me of someone fanning to escape the heat. Instead of sweat, yellowed mango leaves fall to the ground.
It is already mid-May, the peak season of mangoes. People in our village are feasting on mangoes. Womenfolk in every household is busy preparing pickles, salted mangoes, mambazha pulisserry, maanga thera. Kids enjoy their summer-break climbing on mango trees, plucking mangoes and having it while sitting on comfortable seats on branches with thick barks, staining their shirts and trousers. Girl children wait impatiently under the tree, spreading their long skirts to catch the mangoes thrown down by their boyfriends. All these jovial kids are aware of the angry faces of their mothers waiting at their doorsteps staring at the mango stains on their clothes. For unknown reasons, the kids of Thenguvilayil are deprived of these frivolous enjoyments.
The branches of this enormous creature are bowing like a hunching oldy, unable to hold the unbearable weight of her fleshy fruits. Still, this old matriarch is hesitant to shed even a single mango to the ground. We are eagerly waiting for the pre-monsoon rainfall to arrive. It is not because we are pluviophiles who get absorbed in petrichor. We are waiting for what is known as the ‘mango shower!’ These heavy summer rains with mini stormy winds will bring down ripe mangoes from even the ‘not-reachable’ heights of massive mango trees. After the rains, we ran outside with woven baskets expecting to collect bright yellow mangoes. To our surprise, we were greeted with fallen twigs, not mangoes. Our matriarch stood sturdy and resisted a hailstorm! As we stood there making a fool out of ourselves, she shook her boughs laden with the largest of the mangoes. Once again, we expected a mango shower but got drenched by a quick tree rain with whatever water droplets left on the leaves. It felt the same way how our paternal grandma used to tease us.
Pakkomma (our granny), known as Pakko, was fond of mangoes. She always kept an eye on the mango trees in our ancestral home. Pakkomma went to the extent of keeping count on the tender, raw, ripes and even the mango blossoms! We always felt that she loved her mango trees more than her children and grandchildren. An urban legend circulated among the cousins about the existence of Pakko. We believe that her soul is divided and resides in each mango tree.
The Naatumaavu, with its majestic look facing the highway, guards and protects the house from evil eyes. The Kastoori maavu, known for its aphrodisiac scent, attracted everyone to the rear end of the house. Neelam maavu served as the boundary wall between our neighbour, who always complained about the leaves falling into their courtyard, to the ownership of mangoes that grew on the branches bowing to their yard. Finally, there is the Kilichundan maavu, a drupe whose bottom end resembles a bird's beak.
Pakko passed away last year owing to old-age ailments. Though she complained about her weakening eyesight in her final days, she had a hawk’s eyesight in counting each mango hanging from the branches. It was part of her daily routine to calculate the number of mangoes from different branches to ensure that none of her sweet mangoes went missing. The only time the kids were permitted to climb up the trees were when she craved mangoes. ‘Kunjee…please climb up the tree and pluck the ripe mango dangling from the topmost branch’, she would say in her not very usual sugar-coated pampering words.
At the call for the afternoon namaaz, Pakko would lift her hefty stout body from the rocking chair placed on the verandah, facing the mango trees in the courtyard. Once, we tried to steal raw mangoes from the Kastoori maavu during this sunny hour of the day when the pious Pakko would be indulged in offering deep prayers. The scent of the raw kastoori mango is enough to fetch a fair amount in the market. We succeeded in our first two attempts and sold the mangoes to a local vendor for three rupees each. Meanwhile, Pakkomma continued counting the mangoes. To her great disbelief and mathematical prowess, a dozen mangoes were missing! She couldn’t believe her eyes and tried to recount to prove her eyes wrong. Each bunch is found missing at least one or two mangoes. Her supple fair skin turned red with fury. She swore upon God to catch the mango thief. With the confidence gained from the first two attempts, we decided to grab another opportunity to steal the forbidden fruit. Alas, we failed miserably! Pakkomma’s shrewd mental calculations about the exact time for the arrival of the mango thief was astute. After performing the ablution, she pretended to leave to the prayer hall but waited to catch the thief behind the doors. We moved towards the mango tree in stealth mode, expecting a devoted Pakko offering her routine prayer. Once we climbed the tree, instead of approaching us with a bamboo cane, she pelted stones over us from the rooftop, hurling abuses. And, that was the last time we chose to grab the forbidden fruit from her paradise.
Pakko’s demise was quite an amusement for all of us because she passed away at the beginning of the summer when all her beloved mango trees came to full blossom. Everyone pitied her fate as she could not enjoy not a single mango of the season. Thanks to all the folk stories that mentioned a dying parent asking for ripe mangoes from the deathbed when it is not the season and their children grieving for the rest of their lives, unable to fulfil their parents’ final wish. The same sentiment evoked in every adult mind gathered there as our granny is always equated to her love for mangoes. That is how people remember her.
Weeks later, Pakko began visiting us in our dreams. She knocked on our windows in the middle of the night, commanding us to get outside and help her count the mangoes on full moon days. She could often be seen perched on top of the kilichundan maavu, her favourite, calling out our names and waving at us. Her muslin headscarf, starched white kaatchithuni and kuppayam with golden buttons, will be seen shining in the silver moonlight. Interestingly, we never saw her gobbling mangoes in any of the dreams. She would be seen sitting or standing still counting the mangoes onnu, randu, moonu, naalu,……muppathu,…….anpathu…..nooru……! These dreams continued throughout the summer when we realised the uncanny behaviour of our mango trees. No one could get hold of the mangoes! Fierce red ants attack you and send you down in sudden flight if you climb up. There won’t be any half-bitten mangoes lying around leftover by fruit bats and squirrels. When the mangoes are ripe, they vanish into thin air overnight. Hence, we began talking among ourselves about the strange visits of our granny in our periods of sleep. To our surprise, all of us had similar recurring dreams about Pakkomma. We wondered if she was trying to convey something through her visits or what if she is living in the mango trees like ‘Eva is inside her Cat’? Initially, the rationalist elders among us neglected our interpretations as silly conspiracy theories and came up with their theory of ‘shared delusions.’ Soon, they also started complaining about the same dreams haunting their sleep.
Our dreams are becoming more robust; we even started hallucinating about Pakko during the daytime. Finally, all the grandchildren of late Pakkomma, the Lady Rawuthar of Thenguvilayil, decided to convene a meeting and discuss possible solutions. Burning the midnight oil, we sat thinking of every possibility, including the legendary rumour that Pakko’s soul resides in the mango trees. The Potterheads among us came up with the idea of destroying each of the mango trees as they served as the four Horcruxes of Pakko. The majority of rationalists voted against this bogus idea as the fall of mango trees for the dead would mean no mangoes for the living! But the rationalists fell for the argument put forward by our magical realists. The ardent Marquez fans came up with the idea of planting a mango sapling on the kabristan (grave) of our granny. Pakko shall be happy to see a mango tree growing up feeding on her flesh. She can keep a count of the mangoes, flowers and leaves of the tree, thus preventing her from wandering in our courtyard watching and counting the mangoes at midnight hours. “Also, the cemetery where she is currently resting is about four miles away from our house. We shouldn’t bother her travelling up and down every night,” said the youngest among our kins. Everyone supported this stupendous idea without any second thought, but we decided to improvise it a bit. Instead of a regular-native mango sapling, we decided to plant a bud mango tree on her grave. A bud mango tree would grow up in the wink of an eye so that Pakko can rest in peace counting the mangoes.
The following day, everyone walked towards the plant nursery like a peaceful procession to purchase a bud kastoori maavu. We went to the graveyard, opened the rusty gate and entered the cemetery in utter silence. Most of the tombstones on the graves were missing. We could easily spot the fresh tombstone on our Pakko’s grave among the multiple nameless graves. We dug a small pit, planted the sapling and watered it. Every day, we took turns and went to water Pakko’s kastoori maavu. Seasons went by, the branches spread over the grave, giving an impression that Pakko is resting in peace under the cool aromatic shadow of her favourite mango tree counting every leaf and bud. It was in full bloom, and a few weeks later, we could see ripe mangoes lying on her grave. Tiny squirrels were relishing sweet mangoes. Later we found out that after eating the mangoes, these squirrels went to other tombs, dug pits and hid the mango seeds. Were they obeying the orders of Pakomma to turn the cemetery into a beautiful mango orchard? How did she recruit these squirrels into her infantry? Or are these squirrels the angels sent by God to support the devote Pakko in her mission? None of these questions concerned us since the mango trees at our ancestral home is now free of Pakkomma’s clutches, and we could finally taste the sweetness of the fruit without fear.