Illustrated by Nidhi Joshi @thatnoviceartist
(Winner of Bound’s Food Essay Contest)
Summer holidays are a different world altogether. You are left unhinged and free to do whatever you want. But, within limits of decency. If you’ve grown up reading The Famous Five, or The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, chances are you are not averse to taking risks. Youth – and a lack of wisdom and parental supervision – helps too. You thirst for adventure. And right there, in the common compound behind your colony is a lonely tree. It’s not just any tree. It’s a mango tree. And it’s summer.
The first time I knocked a mango out of that tree, I was six. Or seven. I was young, too young to give any thought of the consequences. Just young enough to enjoy a thrill that I would remember even now when I am not six. Or seven.
The mango was overripe, and had flies. None of my friends would touch it. But we exalted in our first taste of victory. We knocked down several mangoes. Mostly underripe. But then the owner of the compound, to whom the tree obviously belonged, came after us. We barely made it out of there, our short, thin, sun-burned legs carrying us as fast as they could. We had maybe 2-3 mangoes each and we guarded them as precious gifts, stunned that we were almost caught.
And that was our first lesson of the summer: always keep a lookout.
“The owner caught us many times, even scared off a bit, but how long was that ever going to stop a determined group of kids during summer vacations?”
The mangoes we enjoyed in the comfort of our homes. Sweet, sour, and dabbed with just the right amount of salt, they were a prize well won.
At the time, I couldn’t describe the taste of raw mango. Was it sweet? Was it sour? I didn’t know. I have since found the word “tart” that, while being offensive to women, also performs the secondary function of describing the flavour of raw mango. Of course, to an Indian, it’s easier to just say the word “khatta” or “chatpata” in any of our languages to convey exactly what raw mango tastes like.
Over the next few summers, while life was simpler, and quadratic equations and algebra weren’t threatening to ruin the status quo, I “hunted” many mangoes. The owner caught us many times, even scared off a bit, but how long was that ever going to stop a determined group of kids during summer vacations?
It was less fun when I was visiting Kerala. There were mango trees aplenty around our house. No one worried about a lack of mangoes so no one tried to stop me from knocking down as many as I wanted.
Thievery is less fun without the danger of getting caught. And food thievery is the ultimate sport for a six-year-old when he is bored and out of books. I didn’t have friends my age in Kerala and my brother was still learning to walk. But I was thirsting for adventure, like Sinbad the Sailor coming across the eggs of a giant mythical bird called the simurgh. So, that day, I went to a neighbour’s house and asked them to make me an omelette. I didn’t see the point in stealing the eggs since I didn’t know how to make an omelette. Also, the house we were staying at was a strict vegetarian house. An omelette was called uttapam there and it did not have eggs in it. so, for summers, I was forced to look to the kindness of neighbours. It was a good time to be six. I had hair and I was cute for other reasons. Anyway, the omelette was fantastic. It was light, slightly runny on the top, with a firm base, and the right amount of salt. Plus, I made a friend that day, the neighbour’s son, a boy my age, and with him, I was able to broaden my horizons.
“The taste haunted me and I resolved to go back for it.”
One summer, I came across a familiar scene from any millennial’s childhood: a bunch of family members, all women, gathered in the courtyard, preparing food. This was traditional, I guess. When you have 10-15 people living in a house at the same time, you couldn’t expect one person to prepare the food. You needed reinforcements. Some for chopping, some for cleaning, one to boil water, one to boil milk, one to grind the chutney, and so on. It was an excellent time for all the women to gather and gossip (I won’t get into the patriarchy of the whole affair; we’ll be here till next week).
I remember sitting in on many such sessions, getting a lot of gossip and the occasional first lick of whatever was being made at the time. Jackfruit, mango chutney, coconut chutney, unni appams, banana chips, etc.
That day, my mom and the others were peeling tamarinds, or imli. I tried to taste some, but my mother pushed me away, saying it’s not for eating. They were simply de-seeding it and preserving it for regular use. We would be taking a batch of our own back home. Mom gave me a tasting before sending me on my way.
Have you ever described imli to anyone? When was the last time you had it? In its raw form, imli was more chatpata than any airbag of chips, and that too without adding anything extra to it. The taste haunted me and I resolved to go back for it.
I should have known better but stealing food added a certain taste to it. I wasn’t alone. Shri Krishna used to steal butter when he was a kid. I never understood the significance of that. Why would anyone steal butter or all things? Nevertheless, the concept of stealing food because you crave it wasn’t unknown.
The second Pandava brother, Bheema, ate all the food that the villagers had prepared for Bakasura. I suppose one can argue that he wasn’t stealing the food, but since he got rid of the only witness to his crime, i.e., Bakasura, we can safely settle the case in favour of Bheema.
“Dad was patient as he got up to help me to the toilet six (or seven) times that night.”
There is a well-established tradition of stealing food in films and books. One only had to convince grandparents to admit to crimes untold and there will most surely be a laugh riot in the house that day.
Rebels without cause. That’s what we were, my friend and I, in our righteous crusade to obtain food that we could probably get just by asking politely. But being polite was for boring people. Heroes took food when they could by any means necessary. Even Hanuman managed to scare Surya half to death in his attempt to get an orange.
Anyway, after a series of distractions, my friend and I managed to steal a whole batch of sticky imli that we then proceeded to eat in one go. We left a trail of destruction in our wake, from broken pots to wasted flour, and we were thrashed royally, but our mission was accomplished.
We rejoiced in our victory, our faces smeared in the gooey, dark-coloured imli. We didn’t know what we were in for then. Dad was patient as he got up to help me to the toilet six (or seven) times that night. That was the last time I touched imli in its raw form.
Anyway, a heroic theft only matters if you do it once and then never again.
At some point, you stop with these adventures when you are growing up. It becomes difficult to stay a cute kid past a certain age of adolescence. People start taking you seriously once those loathsome quadratic equations make an appearance. Suddenly, your mother stops giving you a tasting of whatever she is making. You don’t get the first pick of coconut chips. And even stealing mangoes loses its flavour.
One of my last memories with my college friends before the pandemic threw us into a frenzy, was attending a wedding. For once, we were enjoying delicious soup; they always mess up the soup at weddings. There were three different cuisines, desserts that made me want to learn French, as well as an entire corner dedicated to street food – from panipuri and its siblings all the way to freshly made dosas. I found it offensive that dosas were delegated to street food. They are a cuisine in their own standing. But when food is free, you keep the complaints to yourself.
Another friend of ours showed up just then staring daggers at us.
We were on our third trip to get some sev puri, and I had gathered enough courage to try a rava dosa, when one of us mentioned that we really should go meet the bride and the groom.
It was true, we were yet to meet them. We couldn’t see them on stage because they were surrounded by family but we were confident they would understand. Food comes first.
Another friend of ours showed up just then staring daggers at us.
“I’ve been looking all over for you guys!” he said furiously.
“But we’ve been here for the past hour or so.”
“I know,” he said. “You’re in the wrong wedding.”
We were in the right place, of course. But we had entered the wrong gate. The gate we were supposed to enter was about a few hundred metres away.
“Are they mad at us?” We asked, obviously worried the bride and the groom were going to kill us.
“No, they are too busy to notice. But hurry.”
We were all prepared to put down our plates piled high with food that we had no right to. But that’s when a more cautious friend of ours spoke up.
“Is the food better over there?”
Our newly arrived friend looked at him, then looked at the array of counters surrounding us. A little drool formed at the corner of his mouth and he shrugged.
“They don’t have panipuri… or dosas. And the soup is horrid water.”
We all looked at each other, an unspoken agreement, unanimous, passed between us.
And we continued with our ill-gotten gains.
Abhilash Jayachandra is a freelancer from India. He writes about food and literature, and edits books for a few indie publishers. He is currently working on his first novel. His short stories have been published in Cast of Wonders, Hakara Journal, Prachya Review, and Strange Horizons. Find him on Twitter at @twitter.com/abhi1511
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