Uma tried to kill herself on a hot summer morning when the mouth-watering fragrance of ripe mangoes was always in the air, and when just holding this succulent delicious fruit and inhaling its scent deeply would send us into raptures. Mango varieties are so seasonal in Jaipur that you can accurately tell someone which month of the year it is by knowing which type of mango is in the markets. The first good variety each summer is the dussehri, the small narrow elongated kind with a thin yellow green skin. Not fibrous, good dussehris are bright reddish orange inside. They came from the mango belt of India—Lucknow district in Uttar Pradesh—where the 200-year-old mother tree of this variety still lives. Eating just one is not at all satisfying. During our summer break from school, in the mid 1970s, Mummy would wash and keep a whole bowl full of them on the dining table after lunch and we would eat two or three each, holding them in our hands and peeling the skin off with our teeth. The fun was in eating them whole and ending up with nothing but the thin almost-flat seed inside which ran the length and width of each fruit.
Dussehris were not the first variety to hit the markets though. The mango season started off with the Safeda and the Totapari. Safedas, as their name suggests, are a very, very pale yellow, almost white in colour inside and out. Good safedas can be sweet but they are definitely not the crowning glory of mangoes. Totaparis are poor excuses for this magnificent fruit. They are good for salads and salsa or they are eaten raw—washed, sliced, and seasoned—but we would hardly buy them, waiting instead for the dussehris to arrive.
I remember well the huge mango tree in the front yard of the Sharmas, who lived opposite our house in Tilak Nagar. It was a big tree with its branches covering the front of the white, two-storey house and spilling out into the sidewalk over their compound wall. Dark green mangoes hung from its branches in the summer months. These mangoes were never ripened. They were either eaten raw or used for cooking and making pickles. Uma was their middle daughter. The only one with a dusky complexion; the only one of their girls not married; the only one to whom our nosey neighbor on the right referred to while gesturing with flabby arms and whispering loudly about the color of a girl’s skin. During my teenage years, I would see Uma leave for work each morning, the pulloo of her sari draped around her right shoulder, a big bright red bindi on her forehead, the strap of her handbag hanging over her left shoulder, and a ready smile on her face if she were to see you—the same routine every day, six days a week, four weeks a month, twelve months a year.
Suicide or Atmahatya in Sanskrit, literally means killing of the soul, the Atman. Hinduism, just like other religions, does not condone suicide. According to the Manusmriti, the recorded words of Lord Brahma, libations of water that is offered to all departed souls should not be offered to a person committing suicide, a mortal sin. Human birth is attained after several cycles of birth and death in other forms, and hence sacred. Once human birth happens, the aim is then to save the soul from this cycle of death and rebirth. The soul should attain Nirvana, freedom from this unending cycle. The soul of a person who commits suicide does not go to heaven or hell, but is reborn to complete the life span and then go to hell upon death.
Dussehris were followed by the much-awaited juicy langra, and having a ripe sweet one would result in my saying often, “Oh my God, I have died and gone to heaven.” Very aptly, the langra originally came from the holy city of Varanasi, so God’s blessings were already bestowed upon this king of mango varieties. Peeling off their dark green skin would reveal the deepest of mustard inside and a flavor very different from the earlier safeda or the dussehri. The langras were good for milkshakes too—chilled milk, ice cubes, mango slices, a generous amount of sugar, a bit of cardamom powder, and a pinch of saffron all blended together and we were in mango heaven all over again. Mango milkshakes were a given in Anil’s house almost every day during the desert-cooled summer evenings.
Mummy’s voice on the phone that summer morning sounded different. We were on one of our summer visits home to Jaipur—Anil and I—and were with his parents in another part of Tilak Nagar. “I was washing the mangoes I bought at the market yesterday in the kitchen sink and suddenly heard shrieks. There was smoke coming from Uma’s room. She set herself on fire.”
Uma’s sisters, older and younger, were married by then. My teenage years were past too, and I had married and moved to the US with Anil. Through the years, Uma’s routine had continued. Mummy would see her leave for work every morning, the same as the previous day.
Uma’s room was on the upper floor of the Sharma home. From her house, Mummy could see the bedroom window in between the branches of the giant mango tree. That morning, Uma had sprinkled her bed with kerosene and set it on fire after laying down on it.
“I ran over to their house,” Mummy said. The entire neighborhood had heard Uma’s shrieks and the courtyard of her home was filled with people. Buckets of water were used to douse the flames and soon Uma was brought down to await the ambulance. “Her burnt blackened skin was peeling off.” Mummy’s description of what she saw was horrifying.
In ancient Indian ascetic tradition, suicide was permitted in some religiously or spiritually motivated situations. The final act of self-sacrifice or renunciation of the body was seen as returning the elemental body to nature’s elements. Agnipravesha was self-immolation—offering the body to Agni, the fire. Prayopavesa, or slow starvation offered the body to the Air. And Samadhi, entering a cave and suspending breath in a state of self-absorption, was making an offering of the body to the Earth. Death from one of these manners liberated the soul from the cycle of birth and death. But death in one of these ways was allowed only at the culmination of other intense spiritual practices.
Like a bell curve on a graph, the mango season in Jaipur would wax and wane in the matter of a very few hot summer months. After peaking with the langra, we would have to satisfy our mango craving with varieties like the chaunsa, neelam, and the kesar. The chaunsa was the favorite of the Persian Emperor Sher Shah Suri who gave this variety its name after he famously defeated the Mughal Emperor Humayun at Chusa in the sixteenth century. The chaunsa competed with the langra for the title of King of Mangoes but in our house, no variety could topple the latter from its revered state.
The neelam, too, did not hold such a high stance for us even though its fragrance attracts animals and birds to such an extent that it is a wonder there is some left over for human consumption! The kesar variety, interestingly, is called the queen of mangoes for its attractiveness and color of the pulp. When I buy pureed mango in cans today, it is mostly pulp from the kesar, which has a very distinct flavor. The langra was such a favorite in our house that my predominant memory is only that of either eating it or the dussehri.
The giant mango tree just inside the Sharma compound wall would just attract flocks of green parrots and they would blend well amidst the dark green foliage, their red beaks being the only discernable body part. I would often see graceful peacocks with their long colorful tails perched on the compound wall just under Uma’s window, in the shade of the big mango tree.
Why did Uma kill herself? I have often wondered about that particularly hot summer day all those years back. During my teenage years, our only acquaintance with the family was as neighbors and nothing more. If we crossed each other on the street, it was a polite Namaste and that was all. That day, Mummy had stayed with Uma’s burnt body until the ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital. Whatever propelled Uma to attempt to end her life in this excruciating manner did not get its way until three painful days later. She lay in the burns ward of the government-run hospital, gasping for life but seeking death. In death, Uma’s body finally attained what she had preempted in life—her body was placed on the funeral pyre and confined to flames with due Hindu rites. Did the priest hold off on offering libations of water? Has her soul been reborn? I wonder.
A human body, contrary to popular belief, does not burn well unless the flames reach the temperatures of an incinerator or a funeral pyre. In ordinary house fires, only the organic materials char and burn. According to experiments conducted on cadavers, the thin outer layers of skin fry and begin to peel off as the flames cover the surface. After a few minutes, the thicker dermal layer of skin shrinks and begins to split, allowing the underlying yellow fat to leak out, adding fuel to the fire. Uma’s body would have been on fire for only a few short minutes before the smoke and her shrieks would have made family members and neighbors put the fire out. But that short time would have been enough to melt her nylon sari and have it cling to her burnt body. Enough time for her skin to blacken and start peeling off. Enough time for those who saw her in that state to have a lasting horrifying impression. Enough time for the flames to cause black streaks on the white outside wall around her bedroom window. Enough time for the intense heat and smoke inhalation to cause massive damage to her lungs and other internal organs. The leading cause of death from burns is sepsis, respiratory failure, anoxic brain injury, and shock. What killed Uma ultimately might have been any one of these.
I did not know the family well enough to attend the funeral but Mummy was at their home when Uma was brought home from the hospital one last time, before being taken to the cremation ground. The flames had not burnt her face and hair so she lay on the freshly washed floor of her home’s living room, covered up to her neck in a white sheet, a bright red bindi on her forehead, as if in deep sleep. Our neighborhood was rife with gossip as expected. Uma was having an affair with a married man. It was none of our business. We did not care. She had become pregnant out of wedlock. How do we know that? Nobody wants to marry her because of the color of her skin. As supposedly dark-skinned South Indians living in the North, we had heard enough of that to ignore such comments. Here in the US, my children discovered they were neither white nor black. They were brown. Different shades of brown do not matter here. But Uma was the darkest of browns and that mattered there.
I love the color of ripe mangoes. The rich shades of orange and yellow and red are the same as the fall foliage. The same colors we used as children when we drew flames on diyas with our oil crayons. We would color the leaping flames yellow and then draw in streaks of red and orange.
We Indians seem to have the monopoly on suicide by fire, whether honorable or not. History tells us that we set ourselves on fire to protect our honor. The Rajput practice of Jauhar, common to the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, was the collective suicide of a community facing certain defeat in a battle. It consisted of the mass immolation of Rajput women at the same time that their fighting men died in battle in order to avoid capture, enslavement, and dishonor at the hands of Muslim invaders. Chittorgarh, in Rajashthan, is famous for the Jauhar of Rani Padmini, Rani Karnavati, and the wives of sixteenth century’s Maharana Udai Singh.
Eating mangoes without first peeling and cutting them with a knife and setting ourselves on fire are very Indian. Watch us kneed a langra with our thumbs until the firm inside is pulpy, then cut just the top off and suck the juicy pulp straight into our mouth and you will know what pros we are! As a child, sometimes, the juice would trickle down my palm, past my wrist, and it would be fun chasing the sweet juicy stream with my tongue before it reached my elbow.
Here in the US, I buy mangoes that come from South America and Haiti. I miss the varieties I could get in Jaipur, but I am never home during the mango season. Whenever I am home though, I see the big mango tree still standing tall in the front yard of Uma’s home. I see her bedroom window, long devoid of the black smoke streaks, and wonder if her soul is still in there. Unhappy at the world; unhappy about how life ended; unhappy for eternity. But life goes on. The mango tree will live for centuries I presume unless it is felled prematurely like Uma’s life.