Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Preserving" and democracy in the season of mangoes...

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.


  1. Like the chundo, your post is sweet and hot.

    It's always humbling to see how the poor folks on the streets carry on their lives, elections, no elections, whichever party in power.

  2. I have to agree with Banno. Politics and politicans come and go, but the lives of so many people just go on and on as always as they learn to slip in and out between the cracks in the system. Survival.

  3. There are some benefits of having an election once in 5 years ! I agree !

    Until the next one comes up, lets have some Chundo and make the best of what we can do !

  4. Great post. You made me smile, "True to my calling, I still bargained." Next time I go to Asia I am bringing you with me to teach me the art. Des is great at it and does it here in shops all the time. Much to my embarassment. I am going to post a conversation I overheard of him trying to beat a salesman down in price. Oh dear.

    So glad the hawkers didnt get caught but it must be hard going to survive like that. Political promies, yeah right...same all over the world.

    I am allergic to mangos, can you believe it. Or morseo the skin. Sometimes I sneak some and its ok, other times I end up with a swollen face looking like the elephant woman. They are the most devine fruits though. Love to try some Chundo though.

    I have heard about the Indian summers - I would send over my air conditioned limo to you if I had one...

  5. ok, I need that mango pickle... how much can I offer (I keep offering you money for all kinds of good stuff you make, don't I?!! ;)
    Great post! Actually, I saw pretty much the same thing in Calcutta this time (a veg vendor gathering his wares and hiding it in his friend's shop just before the municipality police came jogging along.

  6. lovely post....I felt I could actually taste the chunndo as you were preparing it....It is one of my favorite mango pickles...I even tried making once using Sanjeev Kapoor's recipe, and it turned out to be pretty good, but I am sure the one you would make the more authentic way will taste much better...

    Regarding the municipal vultures, I see them so often in Delhi - in market places like sarojini Nagar, Janpath, Dwarka...places which are so attractive to shoppers owing to the stpendous spread of stuff on the streets. One momemnt you would be negotiating with a vendor on some cute stuff you really liked and the next he will disappear, packing all his wares in a jiffy. Then you would turn around and discover an NDMC truks trying to chase these poor fellows, in the attempt to raise some good money for the day. But there is heart-warming synergy I observed between these people and the "legitimate" shops around - the hawkers with all their stuff, get refuge in neighbouring shops till the time the municipal hawks around....

    With the huge population in India, and with no solution in sight for the burgeoning poverty and population, exodus from villages to cities will continue, and so will corruption in municipalities partially fuelled by low salaries.... and no amount of legalising and licensing can stop the phenomenon. One of many vicious cycles ....but we still manage to find happiness around them.........

  7. Oh, I enjoy your writing so much. You tell it and I am there. You make me wistful for things I have not seen, and it's a little confusing. I do not always leave a comment, my friend, because what is there for me to say but that I admire your stories?

    I bought, in a store, my first ever pickled mangoes the other day. I could not tell you much about them other than they are surprising -- and not nearly as good as my favorite Indian restaurant in Minneapolis: Nala Pak. (They must make their own.)

    I hope you've had a lovely day,


  8. The chundo sounds so good. I love cumin and use it a lot in dishes I prepare. I used to make all kinds of stuff like pickles, jams and jellies and such when I lived on the farm and my children were little. I enjoyed making this stuff very much. Your story about the politicians and the mango vendors was very interesting.

  9. Can we hope for some chundo with the sizzlers, then?

    And you're right, mangoes this year are up and way in terms of pricing....

  10. Banno Thank you. This business of running when the municipal "gadi" comes. I wonder if it will ever stop ?

    Sylvia Thats it. You said it. The crux. SURVIVAL.

    Kavi You can see why I dont want the 3rd, 4th or even 5th front to come and rule. I cant see myself dodging municipal types with 6 kg of shredded kairi stuff every 2 years.....:-)

    Chunndo. Coming up. Nicely . On the terrace....

    Lilly Thank you. I always suspected you had a bargaining gene in your DNA. It just needs the right environment to flower. Everyone cant be like Des, and bargain regardless of country of residence. So maybe you need to plan that India trip, and we will teach you the art and follow it up with a bloggers lunch....where you can eat chunndo:-)

    Roshni . Thank you. I always have last years' Chunndo preserves when making this years. So anytime you come down here, please visit. Enjoy all the Chhundo you want. I'll even fill a little jar for you. Free. We dont accept dollars. :-) (And it has nothing to do with the Lehmans, AIG, GWB etc etc)

    Koel Thank you. Yes, the sun cooked variety definitely has an edge over the fast cooked one. But you need to dedicate a lot of time to the entire operation. ....and about the municipal vultures, the less said the better.

    Pearl Thank you. Pearl , store-bought pickles are made slightly differently, and so taste a bit different. And there is a vast gulf between what the Americans call as pickle and what we call pickle.

    But international nomenclatures be damned. There will be Chunndo for you to try, taste, and even take back with you, should you plan a trip to Mumbai as part of your January sojourn here. Do let us know in advance, and we can plan one of our Mumbai blogger lunches...:-)

    Judy Seems to me , everytime I go out on a pickle mission or something useful, I end up tangling with the police , the traffic, and now the municipal folks. Sigh.

    Sucharita Sniff. Slurp. Coming up. Sizzling Chunndo at Galleria ....(come to think of it, that sounds like an "item girl" thing :-( Its OK. :-)

  11. I am obsessed with pickles and green mango so much so I will readily ask people when I visit their houses when I get a pickle craving (Indians only of course) coz otherwise my hand might just be filled with a cucumber pickle, which I love too, but it ain't no mango pickle or lime, or veggie ...ok i can go on and on.

    I buy raw mango from the Indian store when I get a chance, and last week I even put it in a syrup of vinegar chillies and some salt, and had three pieces yday!!

    Ok my mouth is watering, and I am at work, so thank you very much.

  12. sending my sister in law over to taste your mango chunda first hand!jokes apart could you mention the proportion of salt and sugar for this oil free picke of yours?

  13. SSQuo I've never had raw mangoes pickled in vinegar chillies and salt. Sounds yummy. And I am NOT at work. So excuse me while I go have a taste of the Chhunndo....:-)

    HHG She certainly hasnt reached as yet :-)

    And yes. For 1 katori of shredded mango , add 1.5 katoris sugar, and 1.5 teaspoon salt. You might need to tweak the sugar a bit to lower it, in case the raw mango is not so sour. Keep this in a jar , where the mouth is covered with a clean white muslin cloth. Keep in the sun for a couple of days, depends on the quantity you are doing. Keep stirring everyday, till the stuff tastes cooked, and mixes nicely with the ensuing syrup. Add red chilly powder and roasted cumin powder to taste. Then again tie the cloth and keep in the sun for a day or two.

    Now ready to eat.

    This stuff is oilless, and cooked this way, lasts for a year (with the quantities I make :-) ).

    I have a feeling you might be making something similar in your variety of cuisine .....

  14. Aiiiyaaa ...... you certainly sent me down memory lane with the mention of Chunda :) My mom used to make large quantities of chunnda :) and I remember I could not bear to wait until the Chunda was ready :)

    Hopped onto your blog from Priya's and will certainly be back for more :)

    btw - amhi pan mumbaikar aahot :)

  15. gauri Welcome to the blog. Ideal Chunda weather in Mumbai. Just finshed the Chunda today, and will be doing the final transfer to the big jar..... learned the recipe from my late m-in-law, who lied many years in Gujarat....

  16. Gauri I apologize to you (and my late m-in-law ) for the typo. It should say , "she lived" many years in Gujarat, instead of what it shows now....