On the day of the funeral, the mango tree in the back yard hung low with yellow fruit. That spring, there had been no green mango picking. And Amma had not made her legendary mango pickle.
It seemed as though hundreds of people had come to bid farewell to Appa. Their embraces were wet and Gnanum idly wondered if they were crying or perspiring. Only Appa looked cool, suited in his time-to-shine blue two piece. He looked as though he had just been to a wedding and had decided to take a nap. There was even a little smile on his face.
The Sangam group from the temple were singing thavarams in a whiny, slightly off-pitch way. Every now and then there would be a crescendo of wailing.
Gnanum looked over to the heaving group of women. In the centre was Amma, silent. Her forehead was bare. No customary, big, red bhottu. Her sari was white and her neck without her gold thali. Amma, without Appa, seemed pale and colourless.
Gnanum watched as a ripe mango fell off the tree and split softly at the feet of the mourners. Little flies hovered around the fruit. Appa had planted the tree long before Gnanum was born. It had stood there for over half a century, almost as long as he had been married to Amma.
Aunty Saras had once told Gnanum that when Amma was pregnant with her, Appa would feed Amma pieces of mango under the umbrella of the tree. Appa had that special way of slicing fruit. With his little pen knife he would finely score the skin, carefully peeling them back like petals around the base of the fruit. He would then carve diamond shapes into the flesh, and pry out the little jewels of fruit with the tip of his knife. Gnanum had not inherited Appa’s patience. She ate her mango whole, peel and flesh, and suck on the husk until it was white. She would then spend another hour trying to tease out the fine threads from between her teeth, while Appa shook his head and laughed.
Gnanum looked up and remembered the very first time she had climbed the tree. Every spring had been pickle season. Appa and Gnanum would wait for the tree to fill up with green fruit. Then Appa would say, “Gnanum, come, it’s time.” Timing was everything. Amma needed the mango still tart and crunchy for her mango pickle.
Appa had a long broom stick and on one end was a thick piece of wire bent twice over to form a hook. Under the hook was a bag made of hessian. Armed with his ‘mango catcher’ Appa would march off into the backyard. Gnanum would follow with a big enamel bowl. They would stand together, necks hinged back and hands shielding their brows from the sun, surveying the premature fruit.
That afternoon, Appa had looked down at his assistant, raised his eyebrow and said thoughtfully “You know, I spy some really fine specimens at the very top of the tree. I’m afraid the old mango catcher is not going to reach all the way up there.” Gnanum felt a little tingle of excitement. “My dear, I think you’re going to have to go up.” Gnanum suppressed a shriek of delight, looked up at Appa and with a little salute, said “Yes sir!”
From the top of the tree, Gnanum could see all the way to the sea. She could see the big houses and green lawns which belonged to the white people. When she looked down, she could see Appa, watching her closely.
Appa and Gnanum entered the kitchen together with their harvest and poured them into the basket next to Amma. Freshly boiled glass jars glimmered on the counter. Gnanum had to stifle a sneeze as the pickle spices travelled up her nostrils. Amma looked up and asked, “Thumba, were those monkeys on the tree?” “Only this little monkey here.” Appa replied. “Today she got just a little bit closer to the sky.”
After the mourners had left, Gnanum found Amma leaning against the solid trunk of the mango tree. Gnanum approached her, reached up and loosened a plump mango from the branch above. Sitting silently next to Amma, she began to slowly score the skin.
This short story was submitted by Pralini Naidoo. She is a PhD student at the University of the Western Cape. Pralini will present some of her creative work at the Food Politics and Cultures Festival.