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Mango tales

Last Monday, after a 5-hour (excluding lunch break) University Council meeting, I found two of our faculty standing outside, their heads raised to the sky.

I was worried that the combination of a University Council meeting and the hot sun had produced another Marian apparition, but found, to my relief, that they were looking at two towering mango trees, heavy with fruits including many that were ripe yellow.

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I joined them, awed by the mangoes and wondering how these had survived. We have many mango trees in UP Diliman that begin to bear fruit starting around mid-April, only to be quickly plucked by informal settlers living on campus—or so the faculty and staff like to say. But some will whisper to me about other, somewhat more dignified, thieves running off with the mangoes.

Mangoes (“mangos” is also a correct plural form), in all kinds of varieties, are found throughout the world in countries with tropical and subtropical climates. We have dozens of those varieties and, nationalist bias aside, I have to say we have the best in the world.

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The mango apparitions at UP Diliman reminded me about my plan last year to write a couple of stories on mangoes. I had intended to time the column in May, at the height of the mango’s natural fruiting season (without carburo, the chemical), but I would miss my own deadline, as I’m doing today. But then it’s only June 1 and there are still mangoes around.

Queen Victoria

Let’s get on to the first story, set in the late 19th century during the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, (featured in a BBC Channel 4 documentary, “Queen Victoria’s Last Love,” and in a book, “Victoria and Abdul,” which became the basis for a film of the same title).

As Empress of India, the Queen had been gifted with two Indian servants intended to help in the kitchen and dining room. Male household help remain popular in India, and one of my feminist Indian friends loves to enumerate the many duties of her “manservant”—from cooking to gardening to packing her luggage. She quickly adds, with a wicked smile, yes, there’s breakfast, but not bed.

As might be expected, gossip about Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, her Indian servant, went the rounds, especially as he became more of a munsi or teacher who regaled her with stories from India (at that time including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh), and taught her to speak and write Hindustani (now called Urdu). The royal household, and the Queen’s advisers, turned hostile to him, worried that he was exerting undue influence on her.

On a lighter note, Abdul Karim got the Queen intrigued by the mango, which she had never seen. “Queen of the fruits,” he had described it, and the Queen ordered mangoes shipped from India.

The film shows her excited as she is presented with the precious fruit. But the anticipation gave way to disappointment because the mango had not quite survived the 6-week voyage and had become “off” (British English for “rotten”).

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The story goes that the Queen had to settle for mango chutney.

China’s cult

A more exciting mango tale comes from China, set in more recent times at the height of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong mobilized young Chinese, the Red Guards, to purge China of “bourgeois” and “capitalist” thinking. He was trying to consolidate political power with a youth base, but the Red Guards became uncontrollable, wreaking havoc wherever they went.

In 1968, Red Guards took over Beijing’s Qinghua (Tsinghua) University.  Mao had to mobilize some 30,000 members of Worker-Peasant Mao Zedong Thought brigades to quell the student uprising. Five people were killed and hundreds injured before the students surrendered.

Mao thanked the workers, declaring that henceforth, “workers must exercise leadership in everything.” Even more explicitly, he declared that workers must become the “permanent managers of the educational system.”  It was a turning point in the Cultural Revolution. The students and the Red Guards lost; many were sent to the countryside to be reeducated.

To thank the workers who rescued Qinghua University, Mao sent mangoes to several key Chinese factories. These were mangoes recently given to him by Pakistan’s prime minister.  The accounts vary as to how many mangoes were sent: I’ve read 7, 8 and 40.

The workers had never seen the exotic fruit and read all kinds of meanings into it. One was that Chairman Mao had sacrificed the mangoes for the workers. The mangoes were also compared to peaches, a symbol of longevity, so another interpretation of the gift was that Mao had given up part of his longevity for the workers.

The mangoes were revered. One group boiled their mango in water, and the water was considered holy. Other groups made wax replicas of the mango, which were encased in glass and paraded around, or placed on altars so people could pay homage.

The mango mania spread, the fruit appearing on tin mugs, bed sheets, washbasins, pencil boxes, textiles, soaps and even cigarettes. One photograph on the internet of an enamel tray featured a mango with a caption: With each mango, deep thanks. In the National Day parade in 1968, there was a huge contingent around a float featuring a large heap of mangoes (probably fake ones).

Mao-mango mania

A poem (one report says a song) was written: “Seeing that golden mango/ Was as if seeing the Great Leader Chairman Mao!/ Standing before that golden mango/ Was just like standing beside Chairman Mao!/ Again and again touching that golden mango:/ the golden mango was so warm!/ Again and again smelling the mango:/ that golden mango was so fragrant!”

The Mao-mango mania lasted about a year and a half, and then died out.  The mango folk art items can still occasionally be found in Chinese flea markets and antique shops, together with Mao memorabilia. A few years ago, Zurich’s Rietberg museum exhibited some 60 of the Chinese mango items, resulting in a flurry of articles in the Western press about this cult of the mango, made more intriguing because it happened at the height of the Cultural Revolution, when religion was being swept away as remnants of the old society.

In 1974, Imelda Marcos, working on establishing ties with China, brought a case of mangoes as a gift. Jiang Qing (Madam Mao) was said to have tried to revive the Mao-mango mania by sending the mangoes to workers.  There was no impact.

Later, she commissioned a film, “Song of the Mango,” but shortly after, she fell from power (not from the film or from mangoes, but from political developments).

Today, the Chinese are still gripped by mango mania, but it’s so much easier now for them to get dried or fresh mangoes, either imported into China, or bought fresh in the Philippines by the droves of Chinese tourists.

mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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