On the Complexity of Using the Mango as a Symbol in Diasporic Literature

Urvi Kumbhat Maps a Personal Genealogy of the Fruit

In Calcutta, we cut mangoes into crescent moons, the skin still attached. The mess is the ritual—we drag our teeth against each rind, tear the fruit from skin, prolong every sweet note. I work meticulously through the mango, like a duty, until it would be sin to touch anything else; my hands covered in juice, yellowed and sticky. And yet I want to touch other things—my face, the sofa, my clothes, the people I love. I suck the fruit from the gutli. I sit there with wet hands, waiting to wash them clean. This is what I crave without warning: the mango’s tactility, the excess of the fruit, the way it necessarily comes into contact with more than just the mouth.

*

The mango rests uneasily between symbol and sumptuous fruit, especially in diasporic literature. This is an old observation—the character Amrit in Atima Srivastava’s novel Looking for Maya (1999) snubs diasporic writing as consisting merely of “mangoes and coconuts and grandmothers.” In the global South Asian cultural and literary lexicon, the mango is a metonym for the home country. Its symbolic ubiquity as an object of nostalgia evokes the loss brought on by migration, the sacrifice made for a supposedly better life; a way of marking “authenticity.”

The term “mango diaspora poetry” (see also here) has emerged from the collective consciousness of Twitter snark to index diaspora poems (South Asian and otherwise) that always seem to turn on the symbol of the mango, invoking a romanticized, left-behind home. Stuart Hall might have described it as a “backward-looking conception of diaspora,” concerned with a pure origin. In mango poetry, the accusation goes, the homeland is superficial and populated with tropes—it reinscribes an exoticizing gaze even while claiming belonging and authenticity.

Take Bangladeshi-American poet Tarfia Faizullah’s ghazal “Self-Portrait as Mango,” which was largely dismissed by South Asian Twitter and lauded within the mainstream literary world. In the poem, the mango is a weapon, a reclamation of the speaker’s position on the margins, so much so that the mango eventually becomes a stand-in for the speaker. The poem almost pre-empts possible criticisms (“Isn’t a mango/ a placeholder in a poem”) and seems to both resist and reenact tropes about South Asia by relying on the mango as a symbol. The speaker explicitly denounces the usual stereotypes involving spelling bees and burkas. At the same time, the mango (and the speaker, by extension) is relegated to a vague, South Asian wildness—to “jungles jagged with insects, the river’s darker thirst.”

The choice of the mango is influenced by the ostensibly white American woman the poem addresses. The poem’s speaker humorously preempts the white woman’s stereotyping gaze (“since that’s all you think I eat anyway”) and then identifies with it—the speaker chooses the mango over the coconut because the latter can be “cracked open to reveal whiteness.” The inhabiting of the mango, then, is a defensive choice, a different kind of capitulation to the white gaze. If I choose to identify with the coconut, does that make me white? To Faizullah’s credit—and this is what disallows the poem’s easy dismissal—the violence of this choice and of the mango itself is indexed in the poem. The mango “fattens while blood stains green ponds.”

The mango rests uneasily between symbol and sumptuous fruit, especially in diasporic literature.

Though the mango takes on multiple resonances, it cannot hold up its own symbolic weight, and the poem ends with a sudden separation. The speaker is no longer the mango—the speaker eats the mango. This indicates the collapse of the metaphor into its material form as fruit. What would the poem look like if the background violence occupied the poem’s foreground more fully? What about the mango prevents any easy reclamation?

How to account for such wildly disparate reactions to Faizullah’s poem? The experience of immigration entails a painful and sudden loss, and diasporic poetry approaches, records, and reimagines this pain. But this genre has turned into punchline, which is not to suggest that authors should stop writing from the subject position of the immigrant, or that all diaspora poetry is unsuccessful. Still, readers seem to be tired of diasporic writing that confronts immigrant experience through the window of this symbolically-overburdened fruit. They’re asking for more.

The mango as a symbol elides its historical entanglement with imperialism, as well as the exploitative conditions of its production. It also smooths over an increasingly violent and fascistic India that many of us—including me—don’t claim in a purely celebratory way. One might say that all commodities flatten out the violent conditions of their production. But as anthropologist Sidney Mintz says about his scholarship linking sugar’s popularity to histories of plantation slavery and capitalism: “Had it not been for the immense importance of sugar in the world history of food, and in the daily lives of so many, I would have left it alone.”

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We can’t talk about mangoes without talking about the Alphonso, affectionately called “the king of mangoes.” In India, buying, eating, and gifting Alphonsos is something of a national pastime during its unbearably short season. No one has been able to grow the variety successfully elsewhere, and exports are available only for exorbitant prices. The metaphor of migration, of sacrifice, of uprootedness is already buried in its seed, almost too on the nose.

“If you take the Alphonso from the homeland, it’s not happy almost anywhere…,” says Noris Ledesma, an American horticulturist. Ledesma complains that “the [American] Indian consumer doesn’t want another Alphonso—they want their own Alphonso” (italics mine). I too have scoured American grocery stores, disappointed with the paltry offerings of Florida mangoes. Others resort to the underground WhatsApp mango market for varieties like the Pakistani chaunsas. A friend showed me a box of Alphonsos for sale on Amazon: a whopping $200 for 6 mangoes. It soon sold out.

The mango as a symbol elides its historical entanglement with imperialism, as well as the exploitative conditions of its production.

The Alphonso is named for Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese general who colonized much of what is now western India in the early 16th century. The mango was no small part of that conquest. The internet credits the Portuguese with popularizing the grafting of mangoes in India and subsequently landing on the Alphonso cultivar. In the vernacular of history, the Portuguese “invented” the Alphonso. These claims are hard to verify, and food entrepreneur Sana Javeri Kadri points out that cross-bred mango varieties existed in pre-Portuguese India. Nevertheless, Indians across the world invoke Afonso de Albuquerque’s memory when mango season arrives in India, year after year. In the enduring legacies of imperialism, what gets recorded as fact often matters more than what actually happened.

While the Indian subcontinent is the mango’s point of origin, the Portuguese brought it to Brazil and the Philippines, among other places, as part of the colonial trade. Enjoying the Alphonso, then, is the culmination of a long trajectory—of practices of “exotic” commodification and extraction through which multiple empires were legitimized and expanded.

This colonial trade contributed significantly to mangoes being adopted into different cuisines, especially in South America and the Caribbean. Living in Chicago, the mango reaches me through these circuitous routes. I buy mango salsa at the supermarket, I gnaw at a Kind mango and chia bar after a workout, my tongue burns from mango con chile y limon on a side street in Avondale.

The mango was enjoyed differently prior to Portuguese influence, according to agricultural scientist Y. L. Nene. For centuries, South Asians had preferred the “sucking” variety of mangoes, in which the soft, juicy pulp could literally be sucked out through the fruit’s skin. Many people still prefer to eat it this way, though my own family doesn’t. European traders and generals however, identifying the mango as a fruit of commercial interest, wanted a version of the fruit that could be cut and served on a table—a way to both display this “exotic” food and to eat it without a “mess.” The Alphonso mango turned out to be just what they were looking for.

These discourses of tidiness and fetishization persist even today—it’s laughably easy to find an article about the mango that describes it as exotic. A Quora user asks: “Is there any civilized way to eat mango?” This Quora user is likely not an imperialist, though one can never be sure, but the question betrays how the vocabulary of empire persists in our everyday usage. A hypothetical Quora user from 17th-century Netherlands might have presented the “mango fork” as a solution, an implement fashioned specifically for eating the mango neatly.

Enjoying the Alphonso, then, is the culmination of a long trajectory—of practices of “exotic” commodification and extraction through which multiple empires were legitimized and expanded.

Europeans consumed and sold the mango while maintaining a healthy separation from native South Asians whose fruits (of labor, and otherwise) they profited from, for whom eating the mango had always been a full-body experience. The fruit’s popularity both belies and points to its complicated, violent history as an instrument of exploitation and wealth accumulation for the Western hemisphere, much like the spice trade. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the British—they had their forks. They would kill and plunder, but they would not get their hands dirty.

*

I never liked aamras. We drank the sweet, thick nectar at my nani’s Jaipur home—she would strip the mango of its soft meat, disappear the boat of its skin. As I drank it, I craved the indentations my teeth could make in the pulp of the fruit, the fibers that hugged my teeth. Aamras was just a uniform syrup—a mango squeezed dry, its former self suggested only in color.

But nani would prepare it with such affection that I would take a few gulps anyway. Her short hair bobbing in the kitchen, preparing and testing and tasting each dish—that was fruit too—tender and ripe as the universe and small and bright as her kitchen. Then my mom and her sisters and my cousins and siblings and grandparents would gather around the table and sip together, and that was a kind of fruit too. The sweetness of it was in the fact that it was banal, that we did this nearly every mango season. That there were always more mangoes to look forward to.

*

The year is 10,000 B.C. Giant creatures roam South Asia, gorging themselves on fruit. An elephant-like gomphothere snacks on a ripe and juicy mango, swallowing it whole. Later, he expels the seed from his body and into the dirt a few miles away. Here, a new mango tree grows.

The gomphotheres are all extinct now, as are other megafauna of that size. No currently extant organisms can swallow a mango whole; none of them can disperse its seeds. This means that the mango is an evolutionary anachronism. The mango can only exist and reproduce through human intervention; the stone fruit lives on through its entanglement with human society. In Indian mango orchards, the trees are usually planted in neat rows—there are no jungles, no wild forests.

The fruit’s popularity both belies and points to its complicated, violent history as an instrument of exploitation and wealth accumulation for the Western hemisphere, much like the spice trade.

When the mango is made into a symbol for South Asia, it becomes reflexively presented as the subcontinent’s naturally occurring bounty, which deftly disguises the labor and processes that make it available for consumption. Growing and harvesting the fruit requires relentless labor in deeply exploitative conditions. India is the world’s largest producer of mangoes. Farmers and owners profit from the work of underpaid and overworked migrant laborers—debt bondage has been reported on mango orchards, along with 17-hour work days and child labor. Workers are housed in factories, and complain of restricted movement—in one orchard, they were allowed to leave the premises only once a week to buy essentials. The rest of the time, they worked. This ceaseless toil in terrible conditions is often without reward, underreported, and easily brushed aside. I couldn’t find any recent investigations into conditions on the orchards. “My children weren’t allowed to go to school. Every hand in the farm was used to pluck, wipe and polish,” said R Parthiban, who worked on an orchard in Tamil Nadu.

And then the mango comes to us, its consumers. After all this, it becomes my nani’s aamras, my dadi’s mango pickle, a perfect orange smoothie on a boiling afternoon, thin slices on toast for breakfast, a sacred summer custom. How easy to close our eyes, taste only the marigold of its flesh.

*

After my dadi’s death, I combed through our shared years, a kind of mourning when I could not cry or write. To think of her was to think of food. She delighted in it—in eating, cooking, feeding others, dolloping extra ghee and mirchi onto everything in secret.

For a brief summer, I became obsessed with replicating her keri ka achaar. Keri means raw mango, and the achaar is made by pickling it in spices and oil, letting it ferment in the sun until it turns soft and tangy, collapsing into itself. I imagined the fruit blooming into something new through its rot in an old jam jar; the smell of garlic and mirchi and methi and haldi and dhania and onion and vinegar mixing with Chicago sky and lake. There was a ritual peace in this, to destroy a fruit’s sweetness with the help of the sun, like my grandmother did.

I never did make the achaar—I couldn’t locate the right mangoes or the patience. I knew it would never taste like hers. Yet I clung to the idea as something meaningful, a practice that belonged to my private history.

While writing this essay, I learned that in the 18th century, the word mango was a verb that meant to pickle. When mangoes were first imported to American colonies—before refrigeration technology—they had to be pickled in order to be preserved. Other pickled fruits also came to be called mangoes, until the meaning of the word itself shifted.

The mango can only exist and reproduce through human intervention; the stone fruit lives on through its entanglement with human society.

My dadi’s achaar was its own creature; and yet it was knotted in this other past. I felt dizzy as I read, tenuous links spun into the web of a history I had no control over.

*

In India, the Modi-led BJP government’s meteoric rise has led to horrifying, fatal conditions for marginalized communities. Muslims and Dalits in particular are subjected to violence, death, and abuse in the name of a Hindu nation, and the government is making surer attempts to render anyone who does not conform stateless or incarcerated. Unsurprisingly, the mango has been deployed by the BJP and its followers as a linchpin in cementing national identity. Modi, notorious for not taking interviews or media questions, prefers to talk about his love for mangoes (and not the atrocities that define existence for so many). Following the interview linked above, mango growers named varieties of the mango the “Modi Mango.” General Secretary of the Mango Committee, Upendra Kumar Singh, confirmed that the name would be documented and patented. The fruit’s production and the nationalist project of Hindutva cohered in feel-good harmony, cementing Modi’s image as popular leader and obscuring the genocidal, imperial state he heads. Diasporic writing can echo and collude with the fascist state’s mythologizing agenda, intentional or not. Our project, as South Asian writers, artists, and consumers of mangoes, is to pay attention to the mango’s flattening power, and what it hides.

South Asians all over the world claim mangoes that simultaneously do and do not belong to us. Perhaps the answer lies in cultivating practices that allow us to be both critical of power in the world and generous with each other. It lies in both embracing the gifts of the planet—like the mango—and taking note of who stakes their claim on this offering, what it becomes, how it is produced and consumed under global capitalism. The romanticization of the mango is part of the global circulation of commodities. It elicits a nostalgia that occludes a deeper analysis of the fruit’s troubled production and consumption.

Maybe this essay is a mourning. The deeper I looked, the more abundantly clear it became that the twin forces of capitalism and imperialism are deeply embedded not only in our political systems and ideologies, but in the very substance of our lives, in everything unremarkable and beautiful. When all our experiences are undergirded by legacies of violence and exploitation, how do we transform and continue long-held attachments and traditions? When everything is on the market, how do we hold on to the food we grew up eating, to the people we ate with?

For too long, I avoided bringing the mango into my own writing, anxious about accusations of self-exoticization and unoriginality. Yet that was too simple an approach. As Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd remind us, we should be wary of narratives that claim all manifestations of difference are only further signs of commodification. Instead, let’s rewrite the mango in a way that both honors its cultural significance and complicates its histories. To build on an idea from scholar Gayatri Gopinath, if the mango remains a symbol, let it signify an “India” that is the locus of complicated and violent contestations of belonging, power, and independence, and not simply a lost and loving home. There is no mango without its mess.

Urvi Kumbhat
Urvi Kumbhat
Urvi Kumbhat is an MFA candidate at the Helen Zell Writers' Program. Her work appears in The Margins, Apogee, Protean Magazine, and other publications. She grew up in Calcutta.





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