How to make green mango chutney
Forget the calendar that reminds you that it’s mid-April and tax time, US-returned soul you’re fated to remain, you will know it is time for Vishu or the vernal equinox by the following signs: rising heat, showering golden laburnum, falling neem flowers–and green mangoes. Those last tell you that the real mango season is coming sure as the sun always rises. There is little doubt that mangoes are royals, for carpets of diminutive little neem flowers shower down to welcome them, even as cascades of golden laburnum (cassia fistula, or what Ashram-associated folks will call imagination) spill down from the sky. Almost as though the intensity of the summer’s heat pours down in brilliant yellow, accompanied by a lighter sprinkling of white neem, all in anticipation of the imminent arrival of mango.
But they are not here, yet. You will squint in the glare and close your eyes.
The equinox is celebrated in Tamil Nadu and Kerala as the start of a new year: Varsha pirappu (the start of a new year) in Tamil Nadu and Vishu (“equal”) for those of us who come from borderlands or into Kerala. For these transitions, however, there will be no fireworks, no descending ball, no count-down chorus. Instead, there will be a quiet ritual called kani or “first sight” which you must organize for yourself, for it to have any real meaning. Vishukani: the first sight of the new year.
If you’d been of your mother’s or grandmothers’ generation, you might have slept late the eve of the equinox, preparing the Vishukani: fill an urali (wide, shallow vessel used in ceremonial cookery) with all things golden and glowing, brimming over with promise and possibility: golden cucumber [kanivellari]; golden laburnum [konnappoo or kanikkonna]; ripe yellow bananas; a halved jackfruit, its bulbs each a-glow; mangoes tending from green to gold [maa-pala-vazhai]; coins which once might have been gold; cloth edged with gold; a mirror which reflects all things golden; and your daily gold: rice, coconuts, betel leaves. You would have assembled all this in a vessel made of a bell metal called panchalokam, a gold-hued five metal alloy symbolically standing in for the five elements of the universe: earth, fire, water, air, ether. You would then have lit a brass lamp [nilavilakku], and gone to sleep with the flame burning golden.
You’d have risen early the next morning, opening your eyes to Vishukani, the burning lamp, the golden laburnum which blooms only when the sun is at its most exalted and stands verily for the sun itself: the eye through which Vishnu gazes at all creation. You would have then gone to rouse your sleeping children from the slumber of the past year, and lead them, eyes still closed, to the Vishukani now a sign of hope and aspiration and the prayer that the abundance first beheld should endure.
Other rituals would then have followed, and a remarkable feast.
Being not of your mother’s or grandmothers’ generation, however, your rituals are less spectacular and more awkwardly construed: this post, some flowers beside a lit lamp and a garlanded deity, sleepy children lead happily to coins that are now theirs, and the traditional green mango pachadi or chutney which holds it all together.
The mangoes are still green, remember. You will have picked three, firm and tart. You will peel, dice, and cook them with jaggery [raw palm sugar], salt, turmeric, and red chillies, and you will season them with freshly picked neem flowers as is customary on this day.
Tamilians speak of six distinct tastes or aarusuvai (aaru=six, suvai=tastes): sweetness (innipu/ இனிப்பு), sourness (pulippu / புளிப்பு), bitterness (kasappu/ கசப்பு), saltiness (uvarppu/ உவர்ப்பு), astringence (thuvarppu/ துவர்ப்பு), and spiciness or heat (kaarppu/ கார்ப்பு). Although one or other (or more) of these tastes could be emphasized in each dish, it is the six which make a whole, complete experience.
Green mango pachadi seasoned with neem flowers represents such a whole: sweet jaggery, sour mango, bitter neem flowers, saltiness from salt, astringent turmeric, and hot/spicy (dry red) chillies. No element is excised in some pretense of unattainable perfection. The perfection exists only in the whole acceptance of life itself.
You will open your eyes to this reality and hope that you and your children can, in spite of all your cultivated cosmopolitanism and their ascribed Texan origins, still glimpse the vision of a truly golden and abundant life, rich and full in all its varied tastes.
Puthandu Vazthukal, y’all.