Kamila Shamsie

May 2003

Mulberry Absences


     When you grow up among mangos it's hard to have any regard for the mulberry.

     I speak from experience, of course. For the first twenty years of my life I don't think I ever stopped to consider a mulberry for any longer than the time needed to transport it from plate to palate, and in its absence I certainly never missed it the way I miss mangos when summer is over. Ah, mangos! whose magical ability it is to blend the Holy Trinity of taste, texture and smell into an experience that can only be heightened by the messiness incurred in the devouring. Seriously now -- if we are ever to be friends you must know: no ardent mango lover eats mangos. We guzzle, gormandize and gorge on mangos. We wolf down, stuff our faces on, gobble up mangos. We linger over, relish every bite of, just about wallow in mangos. We learn new languages in the —dare I say it —fruitless search for words to adequately describe what exactly it is we do to mangos, and they to us.

     But you see what I mean. Mangos overtake mulberries completely, even in the writing of a mulberry story. Hardly surprising that for twenty years the mango consumed the fruit- conscious part of my brain, with occasional allowances for pomegranates. Even now, I can't remember what made year twenty-one of my life so different; I only know that one day in 1994, while home in Karachi for the summer holidays, I looked across the dining table at my sister and said, "What's happened to the mulberry crops?We haven't seen, let alone eaten, mulberries in years. "She regarded me in silence for a moment, the way she does when I say something particularly stupid, and said, "Nothing's happened to the mulberry crops. I ate mulberries this year. You're just not around during the mulberry season. "

     Oh, treachery of mulberries. That a fruit so seemingly innocuous should be the instrument by which the illusion of four years is shattered!Prior to this moment, I’d had no trouble convincing myself that though I was at college in America, the fact that I returned home for four months of the year meant I was not really missing out on life back home. After all, I was home for at least parts of: the crabbing season, the beach season, the monsoon season, the wedding season; home for pomegranates, pears, oranges, apples, chikoos, lychees, watermelons, melons and, yes, mangos. Home for everything, I had thought, except the Cricket World Cup, and while this was a big exception I took it as The Symbolic Exception which rolled around once every few years, and to which I would be able to point in later years to remind myself, "Yes, I was in America for a time. "

     Everything was so simple before the mulberries, but after. . . What could I do but become obsessed? I stayed awake all night trying to remember what else I had forgotten. I raced through cookbooks, family albums, old diaries, in search of the once-familiar made unfamiliar by absence. I spent a whole week interrogating people about October at home —and got nothing more than the shrugged off description "it's like September becoming November".

     At some point it occurred to me that reacquainting myself with the mulberry would be the only sane way of reclaiming those eight lost months of the year. I started with food magazines; but while there was plenty of space given to berries of the straw- and black- variety, I couldn't find a single mul- in two years of back issues. I did find an entire issue devoted to avocado, and this incensed me immeasurably. What has the avocado ever done to deserve such attention except flaunt its own blandness?

     Encyclopedias were my next stop, but I only paused there long enough to see that there were no pictorial accompaniments to the entry "Mulberry", though in the course of flipping to "M" I had seen pictorial accompaniments to: Brazil Nut, fan tracery, Ivory-Billed Woodpecker and Jesus Christ. You see why I moved quickly on.

     I came at last to the dictionary, and lo and behold! in the parenthetical etymology for mulberry I read: Middle English merberie, mulberie, fr. Middle French moure, from Latin morum —and finally —from Greek moron. "

     Moron indeed, I chided myself. A mulberry was never a mulberry to you when you ate it. It was always its Urdu self; always shaitoot.

     Shaitoot, I say out loud.

     The word drips — ripe and purple —from my tongue.

About the Author

Kamila Shamsie was born and grew up in Karachi, and has an MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amerst. She is the author of three novels, In the City by the Sea, Salt and Saffron and Kartography. She is the recipient of a fellowship from the Arts Council of England, has been shortlisted for the John Llewleyn Rhys/Mail on Sunday Award, won the Prime Minister's Award for Literature in Pakistan, and been chosen as part of 'Orange Futures' - a promotional event by the founders of the Orange Prize for Fiction which nominated '21 writers for the 21st century'. She teaches creative writing at Hamilton College, NY.

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