Vinod Sahadevan Nair has over 400 varieties of bananas at his farm in Parassala, Thiruvananthapuram

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Farms like Vinod’s, home to 400 types of bananas, are crucial as the world braces for a destructive fungus attacking the ubiquitous Cavendish and banana monocultures.

Farms like Vinod’s, home to 400 types of bananas, are crucial as the world braces for a destructive fungus attacking the ubiquitous Cavendish and banana monocultures.

Vazha Chettan, aka Vinod Sahadevan Nair, is an angry man. As he walks through lush slush fields of different kinds of plantains, the names of the bananas he grows roll out of his tongue – Matti, Pisang Jaribuyam, Ayiramka Poovan, Pidimonthan, Gothiya, Jahanji, Ney vazha, Lambi, Lady finger, Beeji kela, Blue Java… Vinod’s farm in the countryside of Parassala, nearly 35 km from Thiruvananthapuram, is a star among banana growers in India for having more than 400 kinds of bananas, which Vinod painstakingly collected all over India and abroad.

The Cavendish, currently the most popular banana in the world, however, does not have priority in its list. Even though agro-scientists worry whether the Cavendish will follow the path of the Michel Gros, who fell out of favor when large swathes of Miche Gros banana fields died due to fungal attack in the 1950s, Vinod is more concerned about the diminishing diversity of native varieties in India, especially Kerala.

A banana called Thiruvananthapuram is grown in Vinod Sahadevan Nair's farm in Parassala, Thiruvananthapuam

A banana called Thiruvananthapuram is grown in Vinod Sahadevan Nair’s farm in Parassala, Thiruvananthapuam | Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

“Several native banana varieties of Kerala which were readily available no longer exist or are in danger of extinction. Matti was once the banana of Thiruvananthapuram. It was the choice of the royal family of ancient Travancore and the free lands Taxes have been allocated to cultivate Matti. Now it is difficult to find even a bunch of them. Most of what is available is from Tamil Nadu,” he says.

He continues, “In Kerala, peyanka is widely used for cooking. Fifty or even 25 years ago, it was common to see this in almost every backyard. It is always in high demand but we depend on Tamil Nadu to supply us with this staple.

Vinod Sahadevan Nair with a bunch of Ayiramka Poovan, grown on his banana farm in Parassala, Thiruvananthapuram

Vinod Sahadevan Nair with a bunch of Ayiramka Poovan, grown on his banana farm in Parassala, Thiruvananthapuram | Photo credit: special arrangement

Enraged by bureaucrats and farmers, who he feels aren’t doing enough to conserve native bananas, he keeps as many as he can on his farm. The green-fingered physics graduate decided to turn into a full-time farmer, after his mother died when he gave up his job and chose to reside in Parassala.

He is in his element once he trudges through his fields. Some plantains tower over us, with leaves like large elephant ears swaying in the wind, others are dwarf varieties, bearing fruit that can be picked by a child. But for the height of the plants and the bunches carried in some of them, all other plantains look the same to my untrained eye. However, Vinod identifies each as a loving parent with a large family.

What’s in a name?

Tapping the broad leaf of one of them, he said, “This is Bhim Kol from Assam, it’s the tallest plantain in India. This one, with a bouquet resembling an elephant’s trunk, is called Ayiramka Poovan. It carries nearly 1,000 bananas and has a great flavor. Now this, from Bengal, is called Champa. This foreigner from Cuba is also called Cuba. Pisang raja comes from the Philippines and Lady finger from Australia,” he explains, stroking the leaves of some, cutting the undergrowth around others and closely examining the fruit diet of a few.

Different kinds of bananas for sale in a roadside shop in Thiruvananthapuram

Different sorts of bananas for sale in a roadside shop in Thiruvananthapuram | Photo credit: Sreejith R Kumar

The banana grows well in places with abundant rainfall and sufficient sunshine, “which includes most of India, Africa, the Caribbean islands, Southeast Asia and the Latin America”.

The deep south of Kerala has always been a center of banana cultivation. Wanting to know more about bananas, he approached an office in the Horticulture Department. “Their indifferent attitude pushed me to learn all about bananas on my own. Research institutes and agricultural institutes in other states, including the National Research Center for Bananas (NRCB), have, however, proved helpful,” he recalls.

When he lost Chingan, a native banana, his search for a banana helped him come across many kinds of bananas that had become rare in Kerala. “I was able to find suckers from Muttapoovan, Karinkadali, Ottamungali and so on. Suckers are banana shoots that rise from the ground, usually near the parent plant.

Thrissur Agricultural High School Research Unit has suckers of various kinds but they told Vinod these were not for sale. “That’s how I started harvesting bananas in India and abroad. I have traveled extensively to all banana growing states such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur etc. I contacted farmers and banana growers and they were very helpful.

Blue Java is grown in Vinod Sahadevan Nair's farm in Parassala, Thiruvananthapuam

Blue Java is grown in Vinod Sahadevan Nair’s farm in Parassala, Thiruvananthapuam | Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Vinod has set aside part of his farm for Nendran’s commercial farming, which is used for making banana pancakes and cooking. The rest is for the few he collects. “I sell the suckers to those who like to grow bananas. More than that, I enjoy trading offshoots with collectors and farmers like me,” he says.

His son Abaneesh, an engineer, is passionate about agriculture and is an active farmer like his father.

“If it weren’t for the bananas, I wouldn’t have traveled so much or even attracted so much attention from people in high places,” admits Vinod.

It earned a spot in The Limca Book of Records for having the most banana varieties. He was also honored by the NRCB.

Her dream is to create a banana village as a tourist attraction and show people the wide range of bananas that exist in the world. “If the government gives me land or someone supports me, I’m ready to do all the work,” he says with a smile.

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