Summer in Mumbai is terrible. Unless of course , you are the type who lives in a centrally air conditioned house, travels in a chauffeur driven air conditioned car, and your main activity of the day, is to discuss the days meals with your cook in your air conditioned kitchen, and then , wearing your designer outfit from your summer collection, glide into your air conditioned car, to go to your air conditioned club and meet friends for, what else, an air conditioned lunch !
While I do not recommend subjecting your latest high heels to our famous potholes, or trying to climb into the bus in your latest bare shouldered outfit while battling folks with oily hair, poky briefcases, and pushy attitude, there is an overriding conviction that grows in one's mind, that all these exclusive type people, miss out on the colors and smells of mumbai, as summer proliferates around, full blast.
Summer , for ordinary middle class types, is a time for making all kinds of long term pickles and preserves. Raw mangoes, are Gods own fruit, and one can make pickles, jams, chutneys, syrups, squashes, from them. A very traditional thing , native to Western India, and patented by the Gujarati's , who are avid foodies, is Chunnda, or Chunndo. This is a preparation of grated raw mangoes. It contains zero oil, is not excessively spicy, and falls into the category where you cant make up your mind whether its is sweet or hot(cayenne hot).....
I make large (about 6-8 kg) of chunndo every year, and so last weekend saw me in a suburb of Mumbai, looking for chaps selling a particular variety of mango, called Rajapuri. (We certainly don't eat all of it, but it gets distributed amongst various friends and relatives, who are busy folks. ).
These raw mango sellers are folks who occupy a particular area , beneath a tree, every summer, and the entire family attend to you when you come. There are baskets full of Rajapuri Raw mangoes, , and some from the Western regions of India. Specific mangoes designed for specific usage. The women will be sitting with various industrial strength cutting and shredding implements. The men call out to you, bargain, advise, and do small talk with elderly experienced grandmother types who appear with their grandchildren in tow. The air is redolent with the fresh whiffs of raw mango, as they cut one to offer you a taste, before you buy.
This time there were fewer folks selling. And there was a huge stage being erected bang across the middle of the road. Actually, all roadside hawkers of things need a license to sell. The fellows who work for the Municipality in this field, check licenses; worse, they allow various unlicensed types of folks to sell their wares for a fee, which is regularly demanded, and never accounted for.
It turns out that as part of the current election brouhaha, an election meeting of some influential candidate was scheduled. All the other mango vendors had shifted out on being threatened with confiscation of goods (by the same chaps that took bribes). The few fellows left were the defiant ones.
This year the mango yield has been bad. Unseasonal winter rains have spoilt the mango blossoms. So the mangoes are very expensive. True to my calling, I still bargained. The fellows know their customers, and this one knew me from before. We agreed on a price, and he offered to do some of the processing for me. His wife would wash, peel and grate the 6 kilograms (13.2 lbs) of mangoes in front of me, and pack it up, with the seeds, to make my further work easier. I agreed.
Occasional other customers came.
"Psst. How much per kilo did he charge you", a query from the side of the mouth.
I glance at the vendor. He is watching. Lip reading. He has seen this before. He lifts 5 fingers of his hand by his side, and shakes them as if to emphasize, unseen by the new customer. That's a signal for me to add Rs 5 more when I tell the lady the price. Each one to haggle for their own end-price. I agree. Each customer is separate. He offers me a small stool to sit on as his wife is down to the last two mangoes to be shredded. The shining old style brass plate is getting full by the minute with light green, shreds , letting of a fresh scent of mangoes, that goes past you to mingle with the car exhausts, and snack-vendors-hisses as they smack a blob of butter on a hot griddle.
"They've come !they've come"......a little boy comes running in shouting. He is a young family member whose job it is to look out for municipal authorities who come by to confiscate the hawkers goods. (These are taken , then impounded, and then surreptitiously given back to the hawker for a fee. ).
In a flash, the man of the family grabs all the huge mango filled baskets, piles them up, and makes a run across the road to the compound of a sari shop. His children carry the remaining baskets, the scale, the weights, and assorted hardware that is part of their life. His wife calmly finishes the last shredding of the last mango.
I am desperate and fear for these folks. I glance around to see where the family head has disappeared. I see him gesturing to another vendor asking him to join up with him in the compound. Sends his older son to help his colleague to bring in his mangoes.
In the meanwhile, the so called municipal watch dogs, come by with serious faces. Pretend not to recognize the folks from whom they regularly demand and get a "fee" for being allowed to sit there. The wife has just finished packing my freshly shredded mango, and places it carefully in my shoulder bag. We calculate and I pay her the money agreed upon. She glances at her husband across the road. Holds up 3 fingers. He nods. The transaction is complete.
The municipal rogues are there. She quickly grabs the big brass plate, her stool, her shredding and cutting hardware, (which is custom made) . One of the municipal types tries to put his hand to the stuff. She yanks it back, and lets loose some choice words. By the time the fellow looks at his boss and turns back , she has gone.
Come evening, and a portly person in a pure white outfit , white shoes, several gold rings on his fingers, and what I call mafia sunglasses, will arrive with his hanger-ons, wishing and greeting people all around; The biggest sign of power is when his his cellphone rings, he takes it out of his copious pocket, holds it out to a flunky, who looks at the details of the caller, presses some key, and hands it back to the boss to speak. The call is disposed off, and they get down to business. With a speaker system and amplifier that can be heard across several streets, the candidate then proceeds to give false assurances, lots of fibs, and the benefit of his smile to the audience, as he stands below the photographs of the Indian Prime Minister, and Mrs Sonia Gandhi (power behind the throne). He will work on special plazas for hawkers. Replace the existing 1950's water pipe in that area with a larger one, recommend a new bridge across the railway tracks to the government. Some kind of paid audience probably listens to all this, as various housewives in a hurry, curse him in their minds for blocking their access to the vegetable vendors.
This is a peak time for the mango vendors. Once the sun has gone down, there are many folks out in the market. They must make a decent take home profit today, that will be distributed between the cost of the mangoes to them, their transport, food for the family that day, and if possible, some savings, as they trudge back to a far flung suburb of Mumbai , where they have put up with some relative.
I take a three wheeler back home, clutching the shredded stuff. Late into the night, the mixture of salt sugar and the mango is measured and mixed, and a clean white cloth tied to the surface. This will be kept in the hot sun on the terrace , just above. It will slowly cook for 10 days, and turn golden yellow, as it revels in the salty sugar syrup. Cayenne pepper and Cumin powder in appropriate quantities complete the final spicing. The stuff will be nicely mixed and then stored for the next full year, in a huge glass jar.
The stage will be dismantled the next day. Hopefully , the mango vendors will be back with their full quorum. The so called election candidates and leaders, will now catch hold of another crowded area to go tell some more fibs. For them its dream time. Visions of power, grandeur, people coming to them for favours, a car with a red beacon, and yes, air conditioning, being invited for political receptions, special security, and preferred entry into moneyed places.
Nothing changes. The air conditioned types will think they've advanced in the world . The mango vendors will plan another summer of Chunnda mangoes and pickle mangoes, and maybe now a younger child will join in the shredding effort along with the mother. An unpaid summer job of sorts, in a "family" firm. I will look at the vanishing levels of Chunndo in the big jar and resign myself for another visit, an annual trip, as it were.
The only good thing is we have national elections every 5 years. Next year, I hope to have a peaceful mango purchase, unhindered by politics and corrupt municipal flunkeys. Hopefully, there will be a better mango harvest, and plenty of mangoes in the market.
The best part is that there wont be any political obstructions to the raw mangoes then.