Years back along with our newborn child we moved to Naigaon, a newly laid housing colony raised on reclaimed marshy land, a stone’s throw from a sleepy koliwada (fishing hamlet), locally identified as Naigaon koliwada. In fact if you’re visiting the neighbourhood of Vasai or Bassein Road (that’s name of the railway station) you just can’t ask for directions to the koliwada; for there are half a dozen koliwadas here. You need to be specific. Which one.
A distant Mumbai suburb on the Western railway corridor, sparsely populated Naigoan is nestled alongside the Vasai creek of Arabian Sea. It was here that I was initially introduced to the famed Vasai kela, generally known as Elaichi or Velchi. Not larger than a human finger, rounder and thicker, the Velchi commands a good price in Mumbai and its suburbs. Sweet as a candy, the skin of Velchi though much thinner than other plantain varieties blackens early despite fruit retaining its freshness. If you’ve eaten a Velchi it’s likely that you will be spoilt, and never want to settle for other banana varieties.
‘I have been eating a Velchi after dinner for years now,’ says friend Marcus Dabre, trade unionist, environmentalist and editor of Vasai Times. ‘You know earlier I used to buy a dozen for Rs five but now have to shell out Rs 50 for a dozen. I can’t do without the Velchi.’
‘Do you know that Velchi has medicinal varieties?’ I ask Dabre. ‘It’s said that a Velchi a day taken along its skin can control one’s blood pressure.’
‘I’m not aware of that,’ answers 70 plus Dabre adding ‘May be that’s the reason I’m still so active.’
In Bihar Velchi is known as Chinia, says Sunil Sharma of Vaishali (Uttar Pradesh), an old time friend, a former journalist and presently a farmer.
Three decades back Velchi was grown abundantly in Vasai farms but regular blights having ruined the harvests the local farmers have abandoned it. With farming becoming less lucrative than holding a job in Mumbai corporate offices, and with housing colonies sprouting up on erstwhile farms Velchi has almost vanished from Vasai. Bananas coming from Tamil Nadu are presently sold as Velchi in Mumbai.
Fascinated by the sweetness of Velchi I’ve been wanting to grow them in my farm since long. After having failed to lay my hands on a Velchi sapling in and around Badlapur and Kalyan, I called up my friend Dabre for help.
‘You mean you will carry the sapling in the bus from Vasai to your home. No Hiraman that is really difficult,’ says Dabre. ‘Let me see what I can do.’
While at home I hardly look at my mobile phone and generally keep it on silent mode. Late in the day I casually checked my mobile and to consternation found four missed calls from Dabre.
I hesitantly called back and sensed the anger on the other side: ‘You won’t even know when I die. SMS your address to this number.’ Dabre hung up.
By evening there were four saplings delivered at my door. I jumped with joy exclaiming: ‘Velchi at last.’
Its even nearly two weeks now, the Velchis have taken roots. at least that’s the impression I got. The leaves are green and flourishing.