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The bittersweet mangoes

My take on a childhood classic. Short fiction.

Hari Kumar was born with 11 fingers. Apart from that, everything else was significantly less remarkable about Hari. He was born on the thirtieth Rabi harvest of independent India, to late Biharilal and Lata Kumar, both plantation workers in Uttar Pradesh. The village doctor had told his parents not to worry about the congenital condition. The extra thumb would hinder some everyday tasks like writing, but otherwise it was probably lucky. The son of a plantation worker wasn't going to be doing a lot of writing anyways.

The village pundits. The village pundits were very happy to break all the good news.

“Aha! Mercury and Venus are on their mount. He shall feel guilty when he shouldn’t. Saturn is retrograde in Capricorn. Very Auspicious! This kid will be very lucky, Biharilal. Lucky, Healthy, and wealthy. Red will be lucky for him. He shall be richer than a Maharaja. Goddess Luxmi herself resides in his hands. ” said the Pundit dreamily while extending his hands for Dakshina. Hari’s father obliged with a green hundred rupee note.


Thirty-six years later, a red Mercedes zoomed past, and the warm dust and loo of June slapped Hari’s face as he yanked the accelerator of his rickety scooter. The scooter gave a resigned grunt like a government employee at lunch hour and jerked forward.

Hari had completed his schooling at the village government school and had moved to Delhi in search of greener pastures. After a diploma, he had taken up vocational training for repairing air conditioners and started working for a small firm called Luxmi Appliances, dealing in electricals. He had worked at the firm for seventeen years now. His everyday work revolved around making mundane visits to rich households facing troubles with their ACs and the sort.

A servicing here, a socket fitting there. Hari managed to scrape just enough for him, his EMIs, and his eight-year-old to get by. He was a widower now. His wife Manjari had faced complications during his son Arjun’s delivery and had died of a seizure following childbirth.

I am late to pick up Arjun again, he thought and accelerated. Just as he took a right from the roundabout a long-faced man in Khakhis jumped in front of his scooter frantically signaling him to stop.


Ah! not the police again, Hari thought to himself.

“Hanji, where is your helmet ustaad?”

“Sirjee, I have it, right here ! please forgive me this time. I just forgot to wear it in a hurry. My kid...”

“Hurry? You’re not supposed to be speeding on the road. Especially if you are on a two-wheeler like this” he said looking around cautiously, ”Show me your papers” he said, with one hand on the scooter.

Hari had been in this situation before and perfectly understood the policeman’s intentions. He even recognised the cop from a similar incident earlier. He put a hand in his pocket and took out his wallet.

“Are you trying to bribe a policeman?” said the Hawaldaar, frowning at his wallet.

“No.. No Sir this is just ” taking out his last two hundred rupee notes leaving a lonely tenner in his wallet. “This is all I have. Please let me go this time. I’ll take care from now on.” Hari crumpled the notes in his fist and handed it to the policeman discreetly.

“Hmph.. Chalo. Now on your way. And wear the helmet.”

“Behenchod” Hari muttered under his breath as he yanked the accelerator feeling a little guilty. He was almost there.

Hari earned just enough to send Arjun to a private school. He parked his scooter near the clinic adjacent to the school building. Though his son was too young to tell the difference, Hari felt out of place waiting for his son amongst all the other parents who came in cars. In fact, he felt out of place in all places except his work and home.

He saw his son and waved.

“Sorry kid I am late again! How was school today ?”

“ We flew kites ! And we had swimming for two periods”

“Really ? Did you study something as well?”

“No.. we are all preparing for the annual day. All the teachers are busy.”

“Hmm” muttered Hari wondering what the kids did in school all day.

On their way home, they made their monthly stop at the lottery vendor.

“One ticket for the State Bumper Lottery please, Dinaram!” called out Hari, putting on his helmet.

He sifted through the tickets to find a nice looking ticket. He had seen tickets like these countless times in his life.

State Monthly Bumper Lottery

Prize Money One Lakh Rupees*

Second Prize Fifty Thousand Rupees*

Third Prize Ten Thousand Rupees*

Assured Winnings*

*Terms and conditions apply

“ Seven Double Nine Double Seven.. Three Two Three, Hmm .. This looks okay” muttered Hari flipping the ticket around, as his scooter let out disapproving noises. He was never too good with numbers.

Arjun looked on as his father verified the ticket’s authenticity.

“Arre Hari ji, only the best for you. Have you forgotten how you won 500 rupees from the Diwali Bumper ticket you bought from me !”

“Hmm… Sometimes I feel I don’t win the lottery because I buy tickets from you Dina Ram”, Hari taunted handing him the last note in his wallet.


At home, Hari flipped the tenth omelet of the week as his son sat doing his homework on the 4 seater dining table. Before sitting down for dinner, Hari placed the lottery ticket in the temple drawer. He lit an incense stick and slid a table mat under Arjun’s plate. His son was a messy eater.

“What story will you tell me today Papa?” said Arjun with a yawn.

“Goldie.. Goldilocks and the three bears?” was the first one Hari could think of

“No. I’ve heard that one.” said Arjun flatly

“ Err.. let me think.. The Hare and the Tortoise? Take your food Arjun” he added, thinking hard about the stories he knew well.

“Slowww and steady wins the race. How many times are you going to tell me the same story, Papa”

“Okay, wait let me see” said Hari flipping through the pages of the picture storybook on the table.

He stopped at a familiar one “Here. Lovely.” He said, “We’ll read the Monkey and the Crocodile today.”

Later that night Hari switched on the bedlamp and turned to face Arjun. “Okay. Close your eyes.”

Once upon a time, there was a crocodile near a mighty river

“What is mighty?”

“Very big” replied Hari and hurried on

One day the crocodile was very hungry. After a long day of failed hunting, he went and sat on the river bank.

“Bank? Did he have money there?”

“No, River bank means the edge of the river. Don’t keep interrupting me if you want to hear the story.”

“Okay Okay Sorry...”

On the river bank, he met a monkey sitting on a mango tree.‘Dear monkey’ said the crocodile ’Can I please have some of what you are eating I am very hungry! ’

Hari knew the story from his childhood so he stopped reading it verbatim and started his own rendition.

‘Oh here of course’ replied the monkey, throwing three mangoes at him. The crocodile ate mangoes for the first time in his life and was very impressed with the sweet fruit. This continued for weeks and soon they became the best of friends.

One day the crocodile said ‘Oh dear monkey friend. I would love to take some of these fruits home for my wife. Can you please pluck me some delicious mangoes?’

‘Yes of course dear friend. Here are some juicy mangoes and apples I plucked in the morning. You can have them all.

The crocodile took them home. The crocodile’s wife was also very impressed with the mangoes

“Papa can we have mangoes tomorrow?” said Arjun, now thinking about mangoes. He had seen the school guard eating mangoes .

“I’ll get mangoes for you tomorrow. Remind me after school. Close your eyes and listen to this story for now.” said Hari reopening the storybook

The crocodile’s wife was also very impressed with the mangoes. So she wondered aloud, ‘if the monkey eats these sweet fruits all day, how sweet would he be? And how sweet would his heart be?

I’d like to have the monkey’s heart for dinner tomorrow !’ she declared to her husband.

Arjun gasped looking at the picture of the crocodiles.

‘Close your eyes!’

‘What happened after that Papa?’

After much thought, finally, the crocodile resigned to his wife’s demands and decided to bring his monkey friend to his wife to eat.

Arjun gasped again and Hari ignored him.

The next morning the crocodile met the monkey and said to him, ‘My wife really loved the mangoes and the apples you sent. She wants to say thanks and invite you to have lunch with us. She is cooking fish and banana chips for you ! ’ The monkey was de.. delighted and agreed. He plucked some more fruits and jumped on the crocodile’s back like usual.. With the monkey on his back, the crocodile dipped itself deep into the river. ‘ Oh, dear crocodile friend! You will drown me! Please don’t take me into the water! I can't breathe underwater as you can’

Arjun grunted faintly at his dad’s impersonation of the monkey and turned to lay on his stomach. That was how both of them slept best.

‘Please help. I am going to drown. What are you doing!’

Hari continued his squeaky monkey impersonation

The crocodile replied ‘ My dear monkey, I must tell you the truth. My wife has a longing for meat, and she wants to eat a monkey's heart today.. I am sorry. We are going to eat you for dinner ‘

Arjun did not react and Hari went on.

Hearing this the monkey was in shock, but he immediately had an idea!

‘ Oh crocodile! Haven’t you heard the saying,

In the jungle, swinging with glee

A monkey's heart is in the fig tree

Why would I keep my heart with me? If you could take me back to the river bank, I’ll get up to the fig tree and get you my big and delicious heart. If you want to eat me, eat me properly.’

He thought for a bit. Scared of his wife’s anger, the crocodile agreed. ‘Okay, thank you dear monkey, you are a dear friend.’ and swam him to the edge near the fig tree.

The monkey hopped off his back and declared ‘Oh foolish crocodile! How do you expect an animal to live without his heart ! You are foolish and greedy! Now go back to your wife and never come to me again for fruits! ’

Hari looked over at Arjun. He was deep in his dreams, with his mouth open as wide as a crocodile. Hari smiled to himself and looked back at the storybook. He took a minute flipping through the pages and looking at the illustrations and then turned off the bedlamp. He was tired from a long day. It was time to sleep.


Later that month, Hari sat alone at the lunch table at his work. He had just come back late after making 3 consecutive appointments. His lunchbox came from a tiffin service nearby. Their food was usually edible except that the gravies were too watery.

Hari pored over the newspaper spread out in front of him but he wasn’t reading it for the news.

He found the winning numbers on the familiar bottom left of the third page in a red box

State Bumper.- Winning Numbers

He read on..

“ Seven… Double Nine Double Seven.. Two Three Three! Oh, My God! Oh My !” He gasped. He had won the lottery! He had finally won!

He fished his pocket to double check with his ticket, but he had left it in the temple drawer at home. Now all he had to do was wait until the 15th. Oh God. He thought. He thanked all the Gods and Goddesses he could think of. How was he going to wait? All his childhood his parents kept telling him that he was going to be a rich rich man. Maybe they were right, after all.

I should pay off the loans and keep the rest in a fixed deposit, he thought. The interest every month alone should be five hundred! He was having a good day!

On his way, he stopped at the fruit hawker and purchased mangoes with all the money he had. He was going to have a lakh rupees on the 15th. Before turning the ignition of his scooter, he looked at his watch. He was on time to pick up Arjun from school for a change. He found him as soon as he reached the clinic.

“Son, guess what! I have finally won the lottery!“ He said having someone to finally break the good news to.

“Is that why you bought so many mangoes,” Arjun said looking at the mangoes happily, more interested in the fruits.

“Can you please also buy me kites? I need them tomorrow,” he said and jumped on the scooter deep in thought. Hari didn't see the need to reply to him.

All his way home he was thinking about the things the money could buy him and forgot to wear his helmet again.

As he took a right from Nyaya Marg, a long-faced man in Khakhis jumped in front of his scooter holding up one hand.

Ah not again Hari thought to himself.

“Hanji, where is your helmet ustaad?”

“Sirjee, I have it, Right here !” pointing to the helmet hung on the rear view mirror.

“Wow, This is Z-Class security. For your rearview mirror. Is this for display?” said the policeman sarcastically ”Show me your papers” he added, looking around, with one hand on the scooter.

Hari knew what was coming up next. He put a hand in his pocket and took out his wallet and realized it was empty. Sometimes he could swear he had a hole in his wallet.

“Sir I just bought these mangoes with all the money I had. I really don’t have any money “ said Hari with earnesty.

“What kind of man goes around with no money? There’s an ATM nea....”

Arjun interjected the policeman and came to his father’s rescue swiftly.

“My Papa has just won the lottery! He has a lot of money!”

Hari glanced back at his son who was riding pillion for a second and immediately regretted telling him..

A..actually, I have just won the lottery sir! Would you believe it?” said Hari

“Is that so? Well in that case Congratulations! Hmph! Celebrations are in order.” said the policeman heartily.

“Yes sir, definitely. It is all yours! Let me collect the winnings on the 15th. I see you here every day. I will come back and give you a crisp 500 rupee note” he said, with the confidence of a man with a lakh rupees in his bank account.

The long-faced policeman thought for a second.

“Five Hundred? How much are you winning in the bumper?”

“Sirjee .. Fifty Thousand.” said Hari modestly, feeling a tinge of guilt at his lie.

“Fifty Thousand !! I will take Twenty-five thousand at least!”

But sir two hundred is your rate for not wearing a helmet!

“Ok I’ll take twenty thousand! Not a rupee less. Don’t forget I can impound this scooter right now. I am sure you don't have papers for this.”

Sirjee Ten Thousand. Done Deal.” said Hari with earnesty and extended his hand. He was a great salesman.

“I would have taken you along to the ATM and given you some money if my son wasn't with me. Plus it is the month-end and I am in a tight spot.” he added. Both men shook hands and stood in the June sun thinking.

Hawaldar Ghadiyal Singh pondered about all the things he could do with the 10,000 rupees. A gajra and a necklace for his wife, no.. a washing machine would be better for the house, or maybe an AC. But the summers were almost over.. A bottle of scotch would be nice too...

Arjun wondered how the month end could have any impact on the money his father had...

I would still have Ninety thousand after paying the policeman Hari thought. Still a lot of money. The banker had told him that he could earn a lot with compounding interest anyways. Right then a devilish thought crossed his mind. What if he didnt come back at all. The Hawaldaar had nothing on him. He would never find him in a city like Delhi. He immediately felt a tinge of guilt at the thought. It was probably visible on his face.

“What if you don’t come back?” the Hawaldar said , as if reading Hari’s mind

“Arre sir, I come here everyday at this time, My son studies in Carmel Convent here.You can have my license till the 15th if you want.That’s all I have. I will come to you and collect it later.” He immediately kicked himself for saying this and hoped the Hawaldar doesn't actually ask for it.

The Hawaldar thought for a bit, tapping the helmet.

“N.. No. Why would I not trust a big man such as yourself. Okay then. I will be waiting for you here on the 15th.Same time. 2 PM. Enjoy your day” He said happily.

“Okay.. Okay.. I’ll be on my way then.” Hari read his name-tag and turned the ignition on, half knowing that he will never see the long-faced Ghadiyal Singh again. Feeling a little guilty about the entire ordeal, he handed him three mangoes and said thanks for letting him go. He reached home, still thinking if lying was morally right. The summer loo and dust slapped him on his face.

The monkey did it too, Hari told himself at last to appease his guilt.

Hari Kumar never took a right from Nyaya Marg again in his life. Hawaldaar Ghadiyal Singh never saw Hari Kumar again. But at least the mangoes were sweet.

The end


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