Cabbages & Kings: Go bananas

“I lent a man some money
He repaid me with a curse
The borrower is guilty of ingratitude
And I, who expected otherwise,
Probably, guilty of worse…”
From Paapey Tu Pope Hein by Bachchoo

The vultures ate my grandmother. This was after she was dead. I was eight years old and some elders in the family must have decided that, being a boy, I was old enough to be told the facts of life — or at least of death and disposal. I walked, wearing my white, bowed rather than buttoned, muslin Parsi shirt, behind the funeral procession of men following the body — past Golibar Maidan, the Indian Army’s shooting ranges in Pune, to the Towers of Silence.

The vultures gathered atop the stone tower and in the trees around. The ceremony, as I remember it, was fairly simple. The body-carriers detached themselves from the procession and were the only ones sanctioned to climb the spiralling steps to the tower’s entrance.

My uncle explained the procedure to me. Granny’s body would be left on the metal grill at the top of the tower and would be exposed to the sky and air by tearing the cloth shroud so that the vultures could devour her flesh. My uncle imagined he was assisting me into mature realisations about customs, traditions and the human condition. The description became the fuel of future nightmares, but my elders thought it better to explain the details of “sky-burial” than to leave me with a mystery and questions as to where granny had gone.

A philosophy was appended to its description. This was a way of not polluting the earth as buried bodies would and not polluting the air as the smoke and ashes of cremated bodies would. It was a way of passing into nature. The word “ecological” was-n’t in vogue at the time. But then a decade or more ago the vulture population of India began to dwindle. In the 1980s, it was estimated that there were 80 million vultures of several types in the subcontinent. Through the ’90s, their numbers dwindled significantly and the cause of this decline and near disappearance wasn’t discovered till 2003. The culprit was the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac which had been fed to cattle (and, of course, to Parsis with swelling complaints!). Vultures then absorbed it through eating dead cows and died because it affected their livers.

It was only when the species became endangered in this way that the vulture-culture came to my attention through articles which argued that vultures, far from being demons of the sky, were indispensable to the environment. The governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan reacted by banning the administration of Diclofenac to cattle and finding an effective replacement drug.

Even though I am a Parsi, I am not an automatic supporter of sky burial and can see that the continued use of Diclofenac by Parsis can continue to pose a threat to the vulture population. There are undoubtedly very many more cattle corpses than Parsi ones for vultures to feed on, but still one can appreciate the irony of one endangered species endangering another.

I don’t intend to sound like an ardent balance-of-ecology advocate. Apart from a few viruses and bandicoots I, in a passive way, want all species to survive and prosper. But now in one case and on behalf of one “species”, this passivity has turned to active evangelism.
This is the case of the threatened banana.

Even with the myriad concerns that grace the news of our beleaguered and sad planet, I have been alarmed this last week by reports of the banana being under danger of extinction. I read an essay by a banana historian which enlightened me as to several facts.

Did you know that bananas are botanically classified as berries? Or that there are over a thousand extant varieties of banana? Or that bananas have been mentioned in Buddhist documents dating back to 400 BC? Or that Alexander tasted his first banana when he defeated the Persian satrap Porus in India? All of these are no more than entertaining facts. What is a matter of concern is that one dominant species of banana, the main worldwide variety, was wiped out in the 1950s by a fungoid infection in its roots known as the Panama Disease.

This fungus wiped out the entire crop of bananas in the Americas. It spared India. The fungus, which is resistant to fungicides is extremely virulent and can spread, according to the banana historian, at an alarming pace even through contact with the sole of a shoe transported on an unwitting foot from one continent to another.

The fungus has now attacked hundreds of hectares of banana plantations in Pakistan and Lebanon and threatens to spread further. India is today the largest banana producing country in the world and with the initiative to export bananas to China and to West Asia could command a trading value of $1.2 billion a year.

I expect the banana farmers, traders and horticultural specialists are alive to the threat. The international banana historians are of the opinion that the only way to safeguard against the dreaded Panama Disease is to genetically modify the banana strains to be resistant to it while retaining texture and flavour. This isn’t scientifically impossible, even though it hasn’t yet been achieved. The danger inherent in this direction is that some monopolistic international company will find the genetic solution, patent the discovery and as some international agri-combines have done in the case of grain, control the world’s banana crops. To avert the danger the research has to be undertaken by India’s scientific establishment. Perhaps it’s already being done and I am speaking out of turn.

I am firmly of the opinion, as every farmer, handcart trader, Indian consumer, cornflakes eater, banoffee fan and monkey should be, that bananas belong, as do fresh air and water, to every living creature that appreciates or lives off them. Here I stand, I can do no other!

( Source : farrukh dhondy )
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