Lalita was the oldest girl in our class. She was 12. The rest of us were just 10, in Primary 4. Not sure where she lived before she got to Singapore. Her family must have had connections because you couldn’t just get into this elitist all-girls private Christian school without knowing someone. In any case, unlike me, she spoke English brilliantly like all the other girls whose fathers were Western-educated doctors and the like. Lalita was sophisticated and worldly, so it was a delightful surprise to find myself and a few other girls invited over to her house for tea.
Hamed the chauffeur dropped me off in front of her house not far from where we lived. I noticed it was behind the Angulia Mosque, right off Orchard Road, Singapore’s prime luxury hotel and shopping district. I remembered my father Abah talking about some of the prominent Arab and Malay men he would run into when he’d go to Angulia Mosque for Friday prayers.
Lalita’s parents were not home that day, so that was a relief. We were pretty much left to our own devices. What fun! Thankfully, the maids left us alone too. She invited us out to the little garden out front where there was a solitary mango tree. It wasn’t mango season just yet but Lalita had other ideas. She proceeded to pluck the unripe mangoes from the tree with the help of a stick. She got my full attention. Plucking green, unripe mangoes before their time? Sacrilegious and unheard of in my house.
To get ripe mangoes, my mother Umi and I would get up early in the morning, while the air was still cool and misty, to scour the grounds in our own garden for any ripe ones that fell during the night. My mother had shared with me her appreciation for the beauty and taste of a good, ripe mango. She had taught me the names of the different mango species and how to identify them from their shapes and smells.
She was proud of our mango tree but it was nothing like the mango tree beyond our fence, the one that got away. That was the mango tree she had to give up to her sister, my aunt Khalati Steytah, when her brothers insisted that they exchange houses. Khalati Steyta had five children and needed the extra rooms that Umi‘s house had. Umi had only three children at that time — I was not born into this world yet at that time.
So Umi had to give up her house and the Quaynee Mango with the fragrant distinctive aroma and its round, firm shape with the little tilt in its tail. Ours were thinner and longer, and, unlike the quaynee, turned wrinkly and yellow when ripe. And it wasn’t a Quaynee. Our early morning forays had been surreptitiously taken. Any quaynees that fell on our side of the fence were ours for the taking. Khalati Steyta never knew of our early morning jaunts. Those fallen mangoes from our morning search-and-rescues took on a sweeter taste that only Umi and I shared.
Lalita had another no-no for me: she brought out knives from the kitchen and proceeded to use them to show us how to make her special mango recipe. Umi had always kept me away from sharp knives and from any cooking that went on in the kitchen which was her domain with the maid. Yet another taboo Lalita was introducing to us. I was scared but a little excited with such freedoms I was experiencing all in this one afternoon.
We used the knives to peel the unripe mangoes and sliced the hard, green flesh into bite-sized pieces as Lalita had done. Then she sliced up some fresh, hot chili peppers and crushed them up in a bowl with a spoon, along with some dark, sweet soya sauce mixed with sugar. She invited us to dip the mango pieces in the sauce. I took a bite out of mine — the mango was hard and sour but mixed with the hot, sweet and earthy dark soya sauce, it was heavenly. I was hooked! Soon, the girls began to feel the heat of the chilis and panted from the burning in their mouths. They begged for some cool water to wash it down — this only made the fire worse. We were definitely going down a dangerous path and Lalita was leading the pack.
That was when Lalita sprung “the secret” on us.
“Something is going to happen to all you girls and you would never imagine it in your wildest dreams,” she said. We looked at each other and had no clue what she was talking about. We pressed her for details.
“You won’t believe me, I swear it, but it’s true,” she paused for dramatic effect. “You are going to bleed — from THERE!” she said.
I heard every word she said and I knew she had finally gone bonkers. She had reached her limit with me. I could go for eating unripe mangoes — with hot, sweet soya sauce even — but to expect us to think that we were going to bleed out from our normal, healthy bodies? Preposterous. Absurd. Totally ridiculous.
Just then, Hamed showed up to take me home and I said my thank yous and goodbyes. All I could think of was, “That, Lalita. You never know what she’s going to come up with next, but that thing she said? Incredible. Did she really think we were that gullible?” I chalked it off to a Lalita-crazy idea and forgot all about it, preferring to relish my new green mango recipe.
Two years later, I thought I was sick and in trouble when I started to “bleed”, waited a whole day to see if it would stop, and it didn’t. In my panic, I reached out to Umi and she saved the day. I had forgotten all about Lalita and her preposterous story she told us that afternoon eating green mangoes and chili sauce.