Going Bananas

How does it feel being called a ‘tinpot dictator’ of a banana republic?  I’ve been called one.

In the 70s and 80s ‘tin-pot dictator’ was a commonest term  used by the newspapers to describe sort of individuals who imagined themselves as being an international statesman and/or military genius, and conducted himself in a manner inconsistent with his actual (diminished) prestige outside his small realm of absolute power. They embroiled their country in military escapades outside their borders. Idi Amin of Uganda and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe are good examples.

Though the word ‘Banana Republic’ first appeared in O Henry’s short stories collection, Cabbages and Kings, published in 1904; it was in the mid 50s that it came to mean a country in which foreign enterprises pushed the government around, like it happened in Honduras and Guatemala.

banana skyIn 2013 The Economist reported: “By the end of the 19th century, Americans had grown sick of trying to grow fruit in their own chilly country. It was sweeter and cheaper by far to import it instead from the warmer climes of Central America, where bananas and other fruit grow quickly. Giants such as the United Fruit Company—an ancestor of Chiquita—moved in and built roads, ports and railways in return for land. In 1911 the Cuyamel Fruit Company, another American firm (which was later bought by United), supplied the weapons for a coup against the government of Honduras, and prospered under the newly installed president. In 1954 America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed a coup against the government of Guatemala, which had threatened the interests of United.”

Bananas have been around in South Asia for ages but archeologists are of the opinion that it was first domesticated in the Kuk valley of New Guinea around 8,000 BCE (Before Common Era). But it is probably not the cradle from which all other domesticated species sprang.

All commercially-grown bananas share the ancestry with Chiquita bananas even the Grand Naine variety growing in my farm. And yes, I don’t find it offensive being called a tinpot dictator of a banana republic. First, I don’t suffer from the delusion of being an international statesman and/or military genius and second (albeit sadly) my ‘banana republic’ is a mere 40ft by 30ft wide!

Grown in 135 nations worldwide, the word ‘Banana’ comes from Wolof, the language of the Lebus, the most widely spoken language in Senegal. The word passed into English via Spanish or Portuguese sailors.

Nearer home the Bangla word for banana is kola. It often follows the name of a cultivar. I have grown up on stories told by my father, who grew up in a village named Debipur in Howrah district of West Bengal of Martaman Kola, a highly fragrant variety of banana, now widely grown in the north and western areas of Bangladesh. Also called Malbhog Kola, it is grown in pockets of North Bengal, like Siliguri. Then there is Kantahli Kola (flavour reminiscent of jackfruit) and preferred for treatment of dysentery, Bichi Kola which has soft seeds. Kacha Kola’s fruit is rich in iron and the inflorescence has a good anti-diabetic effect.  Or Chini Champa or Champa, a cultivar similar to Elaichi or Velchi, grown in Vasai, which is fairly resistant to pests and is tallest among  banana trees.

Bird nest in banana

India is home to wide variety of indigenous bananas—the the famous ones being Basrai Dwarf, Malaivazhai, Sirumalai, Bombay Green,  Chevvazhai, French Plantain, Kadali, Karupuravalli, Shrimanti,  Rasthali, Nendran, Poovan, Ney Poovan, Monthan, Udhayam, Pachanadan and Lal Kela,  Among these Poovan is the only widely dispersed variety and found in  Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Sikkim, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andaman and Nicobar Islands,  Interestingly, Poovan bears bunches weighing 20-24 kg each having 150 – 300 fingers and is distinguished from other cultivars by its pink pigmentation.

……

It’s been a year since I planted suckers of the Grand Naine tissue culture variety in July last on my farm plot which had earlier witnessed turmeric and tur on its body politic but on which now stands my banana republic—a thick banana grove of 200 plus banana plants of various age. Most bananas worldwide are produced as a result of asexual reproduction – meaning they aren’t grown from seeds. As new plants are propagated from shoots at the stem of established banana plants from the initial 160 plants I have a grove of around 200.

Increasingly farmers are preferring tissue culture plants as they mature faster at nine months instead of the usual one year, the fruits and trees grow a minimum of one and half times bigger than those propagated from suckers, the quality of the fruit is better and the starting planting material is free of bunchy top virus, a common virus which affects banana plants.

My purpose in having a banana grove has been three fold: to have a good amount of organic biomass, to create a micro environment and lastly commerce. Last week I sold two bunches, each weighing 18 kgs @ Rs 12 per kg. In July the rates were abysmal: Rs 8 a kg.

banana bunch

In its 11-month life banana yields a sizeable number of leaves. I have not kept a count but I am told it’s between 10 to 20 leaves. Imagine the volume of biomass the grove’s three year life time will achieve!

Banana is rich in moisture which you can see once a mature banana stem is felled. In the beginning months I used to flood the grove every fourth day which has now come down to once-a-week, thanks to the rotting leaves and stems on the ground. Lately, the soil around has become sponge-like with so much mulch around.

velchi banana

Though majority of the plant tissue culture biotech companies in India are engaged in the production of different varieties of Banana seedlings, the Grande Naine occupies the major share. Robusta, Williams, Jahaji, Amritsagar, Red banana, Hill banana (Virupakshi), Elakki and Malbhog from Assam are also grown using tissue culture techniques.

Introduced to India from Israel a decade back, Grand  Naine, true to its French name which means “large dwarf”, is of medium height and produces bunches that is almost three-fourths its size with each having over 200 fruits. Unlike the Robusta, Grand Naine bananas have a better shelf. While the former tend to drop from the bunch in two to three days after ripening, the latter stay intact on the bunch for more than two weeks after ripening, maintaining their peculiar aroma and taste. It is this quality of the Grand Naine which has made them appealing to farmers, markets and consumers. And it’s very likely that within a decade or so Grand Naine will be the only banana variety around.

TAIL PIECE: If you’re one of those who swear by the Musacae family or is a banana junkie do visit the ‘international’ banana market at Darang Guri in Goalpara district of Assam. Here every day bananas from three neighbouring countries, namely Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh arrive to be sold along with those grown in India.

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2 thoughts on “Going Bananas

  1. Vineel Bhurke

    Banana surely is one of the most fascinating crops – due to their biodiversity, responsiveness in tissue culture systems and ease of growing as a homestead plant. Please do check out “Banana Research Station, Kannara” which is part of Kerala Agricultural University. There are more than 200 varieties of banana there.
    The picture of bird’s nest is very beautiful. Few years back, I had followed the birth and growth of young ones in a Bulbul’s nest on a banana plant and had written a marathi poem on the same. Just being with the Banana plants is a very fulfilling experience. Thank you !!

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