Unexpectedly Amazing In Kerala

Shaji has a prized collection of more than 200 varieties of tubers. Photograph: Shaji NM

In our Kerala days we visited Wayanad many times, but I would remember if I had met Shaji. We would have sought his advice to expand on the agricultural initiatives at the properties we developed and managed.  Monika Mondal’s story ‘The tuber man of Kerala’ on a quest to champion India’s rare and indigenous crops brings back memories of unassuming neighbors doing unexpectedly amazing things:

Shaji NM has devoted his life to collecting and farming tubers such as yam, cassava and taro, and promoting them across the country

Shaji NM has spent the past two decades travelling across India to collect rare indigenous tubers. Photograph: Shaji NM

Known as “the tuber man of Kerala”, Shaji NM has travelled throughout India over the past two decades, sometimes inspecting bushes in tribal villages, at other times studying the ground of forests closer to home among the green hills of Wayanad in Kerala. His one purpose, and what earned him his title, is to collect rare indigenous varieties of tuber crops.

“People call me crazy, but it’s for the love of tubers that I do what I do,” says Shaji. “I have developed an emotional relationship with the tuber. When we did not have anything to eat, we had tubers.”

Shaji’s 8,000 sq metre (2 acre) farm boasts a wide array of tubers, some on the verge of extinction and some that produce record-sized fruits. Better-known varieties such as yams, sweet potato, cassava, taro and Chinese potato also thrive there. Like many Keralites, Shaji’s personal favourite is the dioscorea – he grows about 60 varieties on his farm – and he particularly loves white yams.

At times, word of mouth helps him locate rare tubers, with Facebook and WhatsApp groups also updating him on potential discoveries. When he finds a new variety, he says: “I consult the elders and farmers of the various tribal villages, and we try to name the tuber something closest to the tribal name.”

As well as earning him his nickname, Shaji’s work in conserving and popularising the tuber has been recognised with a number of awards at state and national level, including an India biodiversity award for the conservation of domesticated species in 2021…

Read the whole story here.

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