Indian author Amulya Malladi’s novel The Mango Season
(2003) is set over the course of a few days in southern India. The story follows Priya Rao, a twenty-seven-year-old Indian woman who ventures back to her homeland during the customary summertime mango season. But she has a major dilemma. Having lived in the United States for the past seven years, Priya is terrified to tell her traditional Brahmin family the one secret she’s kept from them all this time: she’s engaged to an American man. Navigating through a whirlwind of ancient customs and rituals, deep-rooted prejudices, familiar caste systems, local culinary recipes, and the full panoply of Indian tradition, Priya must summon the courage to tell her family the truth. Exploring themes of family, identity, nostalgia, marriage, and national, cultural, and culinary tradition, The Mango Season
is Malladi’s second novel following the acclaimed 2002 release of A Breath of Fresh Air
Narrated in the first person, the novel begins as protagonist Priya Rao voices her trepidation about returning home to Hyderabad, India. Priya is a twenty-seven-year-old IT professional who has lived in the United States for the past seven years and worked in Silicon Valley the past three. Priya’s parents—her mother, Radha (Ma) and her father, Nana—adhere to a conservative and traditional Telugu Brahmin caste system; they believe in arranged marriage.
Upon sending Priya off to study computer science at Texas A&M University when she was twenty years old, her parents laid out a handful of strict ground rules to abide by: do not eat beef, do not go out too much, save as much money for dowry as possible, and above all else, never marry a foreigner. Having met and fallen in love with an American man named Nick Collins, whom she currently lives with in San Francisco, Priya is mortified to return home to tell her family she has disobeyed their commands. Fearing disownment and disavowal, Priya opts to keep her wedding engagement to Nick a secret from her family for as long as she possibly can.
Arriving in Hyderabad, Priya is immediately struck by the overwhelming cultural differences between her homeland and America. Priya has forgotten about the abject filth, intense summertime heat, and chaotic environs she grew up in. India seems so uncomfortably foreign to her now. Yet, despite her sense of alienation, Priya has returned to her grandparents’ house to partake in the rich tradition of Mango Season, which coincides with the hottest time of the year, as well as wedding and monsoon season.
Mango Season is a ritual where Indian women gather, harvest mangos, gossip, laugh, plan for weddings, and labor over the grueling process of preparing the mango pickle, a summery Indian delicacy Priya grew up eating. For Priya and her brother, Nate, eating mangoes as children was synonymous with happiness. Following each chapter of the novel, a regional Indian mango recipe is shared. Examples include Avakai (South Indian Mango Pickle), Mango Pappu (lentils), Rava ladoo (sweet balls), and Aloo Bajji (fried potato). A large portion of the narrative is devoted to describing the vivid sensorial role of food in the Brahmin culture.
In between the customary mango-pickling, Priya struggles to get along with her estranged family. Hewing to a strict Brahmin caste background, Priya’s parents wonder why, at twenty-seven, she has yet to find a suitable Indian husband. They fear their daughter is close to being too old to find an appropriate spouse. Priya is forced into a “pelli-chupulu,” a bride-seeing ceremony. For this, Radha relentlessly courts potential suitors for Priya to meet while she’s in town, constantly arranging introductions with “good looking” Indian boys. Ma continues to disparage the way of life of foreigners as well, making it even more difficult for Priya to tell her family about Nick. Priya knows she must confess her long-held secret, despite the heartbreak it’s sure to cause her family.
Priya becomes further enraged by her aunt Lata’s declaration of being pregnant for the third time. Lata hopes to have a baby boy after delivering two baby daughters in the past. Priya’s thatha (grandfather) wants a pure-blooded Brahmin boy to continue the family lineage. Priya is infuriated by her family’s incessant talk of marriage. In particular, her family drones on about her uncle Anand’s marriage to a woman named Neelima. Neelima hails from another Indian state, which makes Priya’s family suspicious of their marriage. They believe Anand has been tricked into marrying for love rather than tradition. Priya feels more at home in the U.S. than she does in Hyderabad.
Priya’s anxieties heighten when Nick stops returning her emails from stateside. Priya fears Nick no longer wants to be with her due to her family’s prejudicial views. Priya is further challenged when her parents introduce her to a fetching Indian suitor named Adarsh Sarma. Priya’s parents wish for their daughter to wed Adarsh, and excitement escalates over the idea of setting up a double wedding for Priya and her aunt Sowmya. Aunt Sowmya is less enthused about the prospect, having participated in sixty-four bride-seeing ceremonies in her life without getting married. But despite finding Adarsh physically attractive, Priya’s love for Nick remains too strong. Nick reestablishes his email communication and reinforces his undying love for Priya.
In the end, Priya can no longer keep her long-held secret from her family, finally confessing that she is engaged to marry an American man. Absolutely devastated at first, Nana is the first to accept Priya’s choice. Priya’s family slowly comes around to shedding their prejudicial biases and provincial traditions, thereby accepting Priya’s unorthodox decision. In a twisty revelation on the final page of the novel, Priya confesses that Nick isn’t white, but is an African American man.
Amulya Malladi has written seven novels. Her latest book, The Copenhagen Affair
, was published in 2017.