by Balwant Gargi, translated from Punjabi by C. Christine Fair
I was a bachelor and had been unable to rent a home in Patel Nagar. Wherever I went, the landlord would glower at me and ask, “Where is your wife?”
I would explain “Well, sir, I’m about to get married and that’s why I am searching for a house.” In the meantime, the landlord’s obese wife or young daughter would come outside for some chore or another and I’d realize that I wouldn’t get the house. The landlord, after rebuking his daughter, would look at me intently and explain “This is a neighborhood for families. Bachelors have no business here.”
Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t rent a home. I had one or two recommendations sent over, agreed to pay an advance of three months’ rent, and even provided proof of my monthly salary from my pakka job with the Government of India. Still, I received flat refusals from every landlord.
Finally, an elderly contractor, who had neither a son nor daughter, agreed to rent me a smallish room. The rent was Rs. 70. Opposite was a dirt courtyard in which there was a water tap and a broken bathroom. It also had a low, mud wall. Three refugee families lived on the other side of the wall.
I would get up at the crack of dawn, stand in front of the neighborhood dairyman to get some fresh buffalo milk, prepare a quick breakfast and tea, then, by early morning, I’d lock up and head to the office. At five o’clock, I’d go to a coffee house, eat some piping hot vadde and dosa, drink some coffee, and listen to the backbiting gossip of Punjabi writers. On my return, without fail, I’d buy a pound of ripe mangoes.
From the time I was a child, my maternal aunt planted this notion in my head that anyone who slurps down a pound of ripe mangoes and drinks buttermilk every day during the summer months would be sanguine and healthy and would never fall ill. As soon as you get down at the Patel Nagar bus stand, there would be several fruit and vegetable shops. Here there would be some twenty or so cart vendors who decorated their handcarts with various kinds mangoes: Langra, Sandhuri, Malda, Chausa, Safeda, Totapuri, Fazli, Dasheri, Saroli, Tapka and Alphonso of Bombay, which is also called Hafiz ji. The hawkers would compose verses praising their goods and jostle with each other over their prices.
Without even touching a mango I can discern how large its seed is; whether it’s hairy or bald; whether the inside is yellow, saffron-hued, the color of sandalwood, light brown like the color of an almond, or a pale green; whether the pulp is moist or stringy; whether its taste is sweet or bland, bitter or sour.
While studying in college, my childhood friend, Sadhu Singh, and I would go to fairs and weddings. Whenever we saw a young woman or a girl, we would rate their attractiveness.
If an old man were nearby, Sadhu Singh would say “It’s really hot. Let’s get out of here for a while and peek at the bounty of abundant mangoes.” “Mango” was like a secret codeword that we used to communicate with each other. Whenever we’d see women, we would swap notes on our assessments like this: Sadhu Singh would ask “Did you see that chick? Her mangoes have been sucked dry, right down to the seed.” I’d answer, “Didn’t you see that Sandhuri?” Sadhu Singh would ask “Which one?” and I’d respond, “The one standing between the Langra from Benaris and the Chausa.” Sadhu Singh would remark “Your eyes are sharp, Kanjara! I was just drooling over that Fazli, which would probably choke me if I actually bit into it. It’s nothing compared to your Sandhuri. I swear on the Guru Granth Sahib, she’s as sweet as raw sugar.”
We used to take pleasure in describing the beauty of young women and the lusciousness of their young limbs in the vernacular of mangoes as if we were connoisseurs. When we were kids, we would climb mango trees and, as we plucked the red mangoes near the top, the dense green leaves gave off a fragrance which was identical to the scent effused by the body of Rabbo, the mirasan, whenever she’d come into our courtyard and pick me up lovingly.
In our village, I grew up playing in the courtyards of my father’s sisters-in-law. Then my full, black beard came in. Even though I was still a little boy to them, in the neighborhood of Patel Nagar, I was a dangerous bachelor. I had no connection to this neighborhood. I would leave for the office in the morning and return after dark. On hot summer days, the people would sit upon the cots they opened and put out in the alleyways. Embarrassed, I’d lower my eyes and open my courtyard window. I would sit beneath the tap and bathe. Then, I’d sprinkle two or three buckets of water onto the scorched soil of the courtyard which released a musk that rose from the hot ground. I’d unfold the cot in the courtyard, tie a cloth around my nether regions while remaining unclothed from the waist up, and gulp down a chilled mango from the bucket. It was so pleasurable. I’d next drink two glasses of buttermilk and, after this routine, I’d go to sleep.
My reputation as a respectable man spread throughout the neighborhood.
One evening, after completing my routine, I laid down on the bed and saw something hanging from the clothesline in my courtyard. A small shirt of some kind was dangling. It couldn’t have been my shirt. Nor could it be my pajamas or underwear. I kept thinking that maybe when I left for the office early in the morning, I hung my scarf to dry and then forgot about it. But I wrung out my scarf and hung it upon a nail to dry. To solve this mystery, I got up and removed the garment from the clothesline. It seemed as if I had a snake in my hand. It was some woman’s bra.
I began to wonder how this bra got into my home. Who left it here? I knew that while I was away during the day, the neighborhood women would come here to fetch water and do their laundry. The neighborhood dairyman told me that whenever he brought water from the tap to wash his water buffalo, several women were always there in the courtyard washing their clothes. I didn’t say anything when I heard this because it meant that my house was safe during the day and because of the accessibility of my courtyard, in their eyes I was a gentleman. So, what did it matter to me? On Sundays, when I was always at home, no one ever came.
In the darkness, I examined the bra by feeling it. It was netted, soft, had round things that were made of chintz and its straps were still damp. Feeling mischievous, I pulled two left-over mangoes out of the water and placed them in the bra’s chintzy cups. I strapped it to my chest and began stroking them. Then, feeling embarrassed by what I was doing, I burst out laughing. I looked all around. Even though no one had been watching, I nonetheless felt silly about what I did. I removed the bra, tossed the mangoes back in the bucket and hung it back on the clothesline as I found it.
In the morning I went to get milk. When I returned, the bra was gone.
I made tea, had breakfast, and headed to the office. The day passed per the usual routine.
One day, I returned from the office as I was having a headache. On that day, I was immersed in an old file in the office. The officer insisted that I could leave only after I finished the work. In the evening, when I wrapped up my work and left the office, my body felt as if it were breaking. I didn’t even have the strength to stand in the long line for a bus ticket. I grabbed a scooter, went straight home, and laid down on the bed. That day, I did not buy any mangoes.
My head hurt until very late into the night. I couldn’t sleep because it was hot and humid. In the middle of the night, a cool breeze came in and mixed with air, and I could finally doze off. I slept until the break of dawn. That day, I took leave from the office, brought the bed inside and considered resting for the day. I drank tea, shut the door, turned on the fan and fell asleep.
At about 11 o’clock, I got up drenched in sweat. The power went out unexpectantly and the fan had stopped. I was suffocating in that room. To get a bit of fresh air, I opened the little window. In the courtyard, there was a woman hanging her bra on the clothesline. From the waist down, she wore a delicate petticoat which, when wet, clung to her body. From the waist up she was naked, her hair was open, and her complexion was perfectly black. She was the young wife of the man who operated the neighborhood tandoor — a mother of two children, who sat in her lap as she baked the bread in the tandoor.
I immediately closed the window and then opened it ever so slightly and began to peer out through the crack.
She had been looking for an opportunity to come here and bathe. She closed the door to the courtyard, crammed a stick used to clean teeth into the lock, and was enjoying her bath without worry. She shook out the water from her bra then stood on her tiptoes to hang it on the clothesline.
I stood there, holding my breath.
Both of her arms were stretched upwards. I could see the shaved hair of her armpits as well as her firm, black breasts. Upon then were dark areolas, as if someone had painted them with tar and a brush. Purplish nipples swelled up upon the areolas. They reminded me of two black mangoes dangling from a branch, which bent beneath their weight.
In the sunlight, two drops of water were glistening upon them as if they were drops of juice that seep from the mango as you ever-so-slightly squeeze it. I was beholding the beauty of these juice-filled black mangoes when, suddenly, she glanced towards the open window. She dropped her bra and at once turned her back towards the window.
I quickly stepped back from the window. I heard the clanking of the bucket from within the bathroom and the fluttering of footsteps. After some time, there was a banging sound of the door to the courtyard opening then closing. She was gone.
I came back to bed and stretched out. After some time, the electricity returned. The fan began to blow, and I laid in bed, half-asleep, until evening. By the time I got up, the sun had already set behind the walls. My body felt refreshed and in good health. I washed my hands and face and headed out for a walk. Per my usual habit, I went out to buy some mangoes from the fruit carts near the bus stand.
The cart wallah, who has long known me as a regular customer, said “Babu Ji! Fresh Sandhuris came today! Have a taste.”
I tasted the mango. It was flavorless. When he saw me shake my head, he showed me a Banarasi Langra and said “Take this. Take it. It’s very sweet.”
I felt it and bought it as a sample to try. It was absolutely tasteless. After this, he showed me Saroli, Chausa, Dusehri and Maharani varieties. But each struck me as unpalatable and bitter. The fruit seller indignantly asked “Babu Ji, I have shown you all of the very best varieties. What kind of mango do you want?” Impulsively, the words fell from my mouth “Black Mango.”
The fruit seller looked at me in astonishment.
Acknowledgments: The translator is grateful to Balwant Gargi’s son, Manu Gargi, for giving me permission to translate this story as well my various Punjabi instructors over the years, especially Seema Miglani of the American Institute of Indian Studies program in Chandigarh.
This story was originally published by Muse India in November 2021.