There is a gentle buzz in the air as people gather around the tables, their gazes moving from one platter to the other. On offer?
In fact, not merely that. The variety will stun you. And then Mr. Sandip Nowlakha from the Murshidabad Development Society tell me with a smile that well, this time, there were just a few things on offer – last time, they had around 50-odd kinds on display.
Naturally, I am dazzled by the splendor.
ITC Sonar strives to bring in focus the heritage of Bengal, and all that the state has on offer. Naturally, mangoes are an essential part of it. In keeping with the spirit, only the mangoes grown in Murshidabad is kept on displayed. I am stunned by the splendor and the names – Bimli, Bombay, Bara Sahi, Kohitur, Kalabati, Sarenga, Khirsa Pati, Champa, Dudhia Banaras, Him Sagar, Molamzam, Nawab Pasand, Begum Pasand, Mohan Bhog, Jahanara – the list seems to be endless, and I am left reeling after inhaling the sights and sounds. Mangoes seem to be of every shape and size, and must be handled with care, as I learn from Pradip Chopra, the President of the Murshidabad Heritage Development Society, who tells me that there are certain procedures that must be followed while consuming mangoes. My gaze locks on the Kohitur, laid gently on some cotton wool, and handled with care, much as you would like a baby.
As I watch, a lady expertly cut a Himsagar mango into pieces. She uses a thin knife and slices off the skin expertly, revealing the plump, yellow flesh. Then she makes two incisions, crosswise, straight down to the center of the mango, and then swipes the blade to cut four perfect slices of mango, leaving the thick seed, along with a considerable bit of flesh, behind. She is relentless in her action, her concentration completely on the mango, and doesn’t look up as I fork a piece from her plate and put it in mine. She cuts the mangoes in the style of the Sheherwali Jain people, who settled in Murshidabad after shifting from Rajasthan.
Slowly, I turn towards the food on offer – there is a huge selection, yet my eyes go back and forth between a few specific choices which I earmark. But then I look at the Kutti, a specialty from the region, consisting of chopped mangoes, Bengal gram, mustard oil, mustard and salt, which is tangy and slightly sweet, and scoop up a bit on a piece of mathri that comes with it.
The cuisine is interesting – Jains generally follow a Satvik diet, and I receive a book where the history of mangoes in Murshidabad and a brief introduction to the Sheherwali Jain cuisine, related to mangoes, is given.
There are a number of fun dishes on offer – a sushi platter is made available with mangoes featuring heavily in it. I spy a mango maki, mango nigiri, and a version of California Roll, with mangoes as the central star. The freshness of the mango complements the soft rice and seaweed. I miss the wasabi though I know that wasabi might not be the best choice with a sweetish sushi like this. What to do? I am perverse.
Fresh mangoes are also diced and tossed with herbs in little tartlet shells, and I pick up a few of these. The miniature crostinis with fresh mangoes and herb on top of it is beautiful to look at.
Observe the beauty that is spread on toast squares – the dark and light skinned mangoes lusciously calls out to be tasted, and I give in to the temptation. Just then, three beautiful cakes are placed in front of us, and naturally, I gravitate towards the one which is topped with a generous drizzle of chocolate sauce.
Dear reader, at this point, I was pretty obnoxiously elbowing people aside to get a slice of this baby. And it delivered everything it promised and more – a soft, not too sweet chocolate chiffon cake, soaked lightly in syrup and layered with chocolate pastry cream, iced with fresh cream, topped with slices of ripe mangoes and chocolate sauce pouring down from all sides. After two slices, I waddled into the adjoining conference room where we were awaited by Mr. Pradip Chopra, who talked about the mangoes of Murshidabad, and the slow destruction of a beautiful cultural habitat of Bengal.
It is not just the variety of mangoes that were cultivated in Murshidabad. The tale goes back a long way to Murshid Quli Khan, who decided to shift himself from Dhaka to Murshidabad, and make it his seat. The nawabs ruled, and they were supported by one of the richest merchant families of the world. Jagat Seth, a descendant of the same merchant family, was present during the time of the fall of Siraj-Ud-Daullah (and was one of the co-conspirators who instigated the last Mughal of Bengal’s downfall), was known for his wealth and power. He contributed to creating a rich cultural fabric which Murshidabad still enjoys till date.
However, lack of maintenance and knowledge has reduced the charm of this beautiful, historical place considerably. While people know of Murshidabad, mostly, they think of the silk still produced, and the familiar Hazarduari. But there is so much more to the area! Mr. Pradip Chopra spoke animatedly about the beauty of Murshidabad, and the way it is trying to develop its tourism, and the Mango Haat showcased one of the charms of it which is now slowly dying. Out of the 200-odd species of mango plants that once grew there, only a few remains, and they too are dying out. The elusive Kohitur mangoes are now but a few trees, and there is growing concern about the extinction of a few others, which is indeed an alarming thought.
Disclaimer: Poorna Banerjee attended the Mango Haat Event as a guest of ITC Sonar.