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No mango comes with the kind of arrogant aura that the Alphonso does. And fans of the fruit love to make a production number of eating it.
Maharashtra is not known for its food. Sure, Mumbai's street food is well-regarded among India's college students, and some people like our puran polis. But for the most part, our breakfast of pohe and sabudanyachi khichadi feels like bird food to a visiting Punjabi, our dals and curries bear a disconcerting faint sweetness, and our fish fries look like what the Goans do, only with less zing.
Those of us who do not have a Sena in our names take this on the chin. That's ok, we say, we educate our girls well (and then send them off to the Bay Area). We have decent weather. We're friendly (unless you wish to conduct business with us between the hours of 12 and 4 - we are not animals).
But come summer, we begin to look more smug than usual. The Hapus is here, we say, and that should shut you up. To which most of India replies: what is Hapus?
Alphonso mangoes are believed to have been named after the Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque, which Maharashtrians then mispronounced into Hapus. It seems entirely consistent with the logic of colonialism that the Portuguese should discover a fruit that we already grew and name it after one of their own, and for us to then mispronounce this into our own word.
Alphonsos are grown in coastal Maharashtra, Gujarat and parts of Karnataka, but Maharashtrians stopped listening after the first six words. Devgadh (in Sindhudurg district) and neighbouring Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra are where the best Hapus come from.
Buying your Hapus from the market, if you have lived in the city so long that you no longer have relatives in Ratnagiri who will send you a crate, is a task in itself. First, you must decide whether you would like to pay rent this month or eat the season's first Hapus. If you, like most of middle class Maharashtra, are able to wait till the end of May when the wealthiest have bought their stock (and, you say to yourself, hopefully got sick), there is the matter of making the purchase.
If you buy six, two must be ripe (ready to eat in the rickshaw back), two threatening to get there, and two must be mottled with green. Heads of larger families buy crates, in which the raw mangoes must sleep in the hay at the bottom until their older brothers, stacked above them, have gone to the Great Orchard in the Sky. You will need to inspect the mangoes, prod them, and then smell them, wrinkling up your nose in distaste for the seller, while trying not to pass out with joy at the divine smell.
Maharashtrians know that Hapus is best eaten in your underwear. This is the only way to ensure that your wardrobe is not entirely Bal Thackeray-inspired from June onwards. For women, it is a fond memory of childhood, and they repeat this tradition with their children. Aamras, basically mango pulp, and ideally eaten with pooris and dry potato sabzi, is the dish for special occasions in May and June. A Maharashtrian knows that he has truly arrived in the world when the aamras on his family's plates is made entirely from Hapus mangoes and not diluted with a few Payiris.
In 2007, the US lifted its 18-year ban on the import of Indian mangoes. Along with their conviction that there are too many north Indians in their state, Maharashtrians now also suspect that the best Alphonsos go to the Bay Area. They are also now convinced that genetic modification, hybridisation, bio-technology and other icky sounding things have made their Hapus less sweet than it used to be when they were growing up. Those unfortunate enough to have to ever leave Maharashtra must survive on the pretenders. But as every Maharashtrian knows, if a mango is not Hapus, it might as well be a papaya.
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