It is rather late in the day to talk of mangoes but since the rains are still playing hide and seek, mangoes are the one thing that make the hot, sweaty and dusty Gujarat summers bearable. Mangoes are especially dear to the Gujjubhai where the ‘ras ni vadki’ in the lunch thali with parwali rotli is a staple through the season. So much so that ready-to-eat mango ras is a rage throughout the state and has developed into a thriving industry operating from March to June every year.
Whereas the Alphonso or Hafus continues to be at the top-of-the-Mango-charts in western India, what every Gujarati waits for is the long, green Kesar mango from the coastal areas of Saurashtra that begins to make an appearance in late April. But these early mangoes are force-ripened (there’s an evil-smelling newspaper wrapped packet of carbide powder nestling amongst the hard, green, unripe fruits) and often taste dull and dreary as they slowly yellow.
The real Kesar hits the markets in late May and are at their best through June since they are the ones that have begun to ripen on the trees at the time of plucking and sorting. It is believed that this mango takes its name from the deep orange-saffronish hue of its ripened flesh, even while its outer skin remains a crisp green. In fact, on the Junagadh-Rajkot highway, the Geeta Lodge dhaba is a must-stop. Here you can get pure Kesar mango ras throughout the year!
My husband’s cousin is married to Vijay Kodiatar whose ancestral Kesar mango orchards are in Talala, the heart of mango land, near Junagadh on the border of the Gir Forest. Half a century back, his father, Rabari Karsanbhai Alabhai was already cultivating mangoes near Veraval, where he also grew sitaphal, ramphal, hanumanphal, jackfruit, coconut and arecanut. In 1950 he moved to Talala, where he began cultivating the Kesar, believed to be the result of a successful graft of the legendary Hafus with a sturdy local variety by one Saleybhai from Mangrol.
The resultant fruit, known for some strange reason as Saleybhai ni amli, was presented by him to the then Nawab of Junagadh. The Nawab was so thrilled with the fruit that he offered grafted saplings for 25 paise a piece to farmers in an effort to promote and popularize its cultivation. Rabari Karsanbhai bought 150 saplings in the first go and his orchard in Talala soon covered over 30 acres with more than a 1000 Kesar trees.
In 1962, mangoes from this orchard bagged the second prize at the All India Mango Show in Chennai, where he received the prize at the hands of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Now, his son, Vijay, a post-graduate in agro sciences, holds 550 trees in the ambawadi along with his younger brother and mother, successfully managing the mango estate.
“The best quality Kesar only reaches the markets of Rajkot and then Porbandar,” he says. “The people here demand the best and are willing to pay the price for it. The second and third qualities go to Ahmedabad, Surat and Vadodara. Some trucks manage to make their way to Jaipur, and of course to Mumbai, where the large population of Gujaratis from Saurashtra lap them up immediately, often at the most exorbitant prices.”
This may seem strange in the days of refrigerated transport of fresh farm produce, but almost all Kesar cultivators agree that Kesar marketing is a very challenging proposition. Firstly, the mangoes come to the market rather late in the season when numerous cheaper varieties are already available and best quality Hafus from Devgadh and Ratnagiri have already satiated the mango gourmets.
Secondly, Kesar does not tolerate artificial ripening easily. Kesar cartons in standard 10 kg unripe fruit packs, available all over Gujarat till about the middle of May are where the traders make the most money, cashing in on people’s craze to consume the mango early. But this is never the real thing.
Thirdly, when the natural ripening sets in, the fruit suddenly shifts into the fast lane and ripens so quickly that if not consumed within a week at the most, it begins to rot. This is the hardest time for the mango farmer, who then has to offload his crop in a distress auction or the ‘haraji’ where the merchants naturally have the upper hand.
Purvi Mehta-Bhatt, agro-biotechnologist and ex-CEO, Science Ashram, Vadodara, agrees. The Science Ashram has conducted capacity development programmes for mango farmers in the Junagadh district. They have found that the post-harvest loss in Kesar mango ranges from 28 to 44% which in extreme cases is a loss of half the harvested yield.
“This is just too high for any farmer to absorb and survive. But this is exactly where agri technology can play a significant role. The delayed ripening technology is already proven and successfully commercialized in the USA for tomatoes, where by introducing the ripening inhibiting gene into the fruit its shelf-life is considerably extended. In Kesar mangoes, this period can be 20-28 days, giving farmers that critical breathing time to harvest the crop, reach it to the markets and get a good return on the labour they have put in throughout the year.”
Over the last few years Kesar mangoes from Kachchh are giving the Junagadhi Kesar a run for its money. According to Dr. Muni Mehta, ex-Vice Chancellor, Gujarat Agricultural University, and currently Chairperson, KADEC (Kachchh Agri Development Consortia), the Kachchi Kesar is a much superior fruit in quality, taste, size and texture than its Junagadhi counterpart. “I must say that the Kachchh mango orchards are much better managed for optimum productivity. Recently I took a team of Israeli agro-technologists there and when they visited the Vikramsingh ni Wadi just outside Bhuj, their considered opinion was they had not seen anything like this in Israel and coming from the Israelis, that is a great compliment indeed.”
Most of the Kachchi Kesar is exported and locally finds its way to markets in Delhi, Jaipur and Mumbai. “This mango is so much in demand,” he continues “that merchants tell these farmers to load the trucks first and put whatever figure they want on a blank cheque! Horticulture is now very big in Kachchh and vast fields that traditionally grew bajra and cotton are steadily making way for mango, amla, and date orchards. This scenario has speeded up especially in the post-earthquake years.”
Unfortunately, in Junagadh district, the exact opposite is happening – farmers are chopping off age-old Kesar trees to make way for crops that can assure better returns. “We need to find a way to process the fruit as pulp or slices and can it near the orchards themselves,” explains Vijay Kodiatar. “Pouch-packing and freezing of the pulp can save many a debt-ridden farmer from distress sales to unscrupulous traders.” He is planning to bring together orchard-owners in his neighbourhood to put up a co-operative packing and canning facility at Talala.
“There is so little mango research being done in this country. We urgently need to work towards preserving the germ plasm of the original Junagadhi Kesar,” remarks Purvi Mehta-Bhatt. “Or like so many other farm products, we will lose out on the Kesar also.”