Nineteenth-century India was not an easy place to live in. There were major famines brought on every few years by drought-induced crop failures. Millions died from starvation or disease – or, in many cases, both.

In the northern and central hinterland, thousands fell victim to a crippling disease, a form of paraplegia called lathyrism that paralysed their legs. In village after village, there could be seen shambling men, some stumbling along on bamboo crutches and some reduced to crawling. The culprit for the malady was said to be a seemingly innocuous food item – a semi-wild vetch popular among the poor called khesari or teora dal.

Colonial documents since the early 1800s had described outbreaks of lathyrism (the term was coined in 1874 by the Neapolitan physician Arnoldo Cantani) in northern and central India. In his account of an outbreak in Allahabad district, Dr James Irving, a civil surgeon, found the disease in areas where people were in the habit of eating khesari, or grass pea, every day. A consensus had emerged that the dal was to blame.

Irving found it “remarkable that thousands of people, who know that a particular grain may render them lame, yet continue to use it for food.… Are there no means of inducing the people to give up the use of the poisonous food?”

Nazi experiment

Grass pea’s connection with lathyrism had been suspected for millennia. In India, many believe that Kalayakhanj, a disease mentioned in the ancient text Sushruta Samhita and characterised by trembling of legs and loosening of joints, is nothing but lathyrism. Some scholars even posit that the kalaya in Kalayakhanj refers to khesari, one of the oldest legumes in the subcontinent.

A direct connection between lathyrism and khesari, or triputa kalaya, was first made in the 16th century in the Sanskrit text Bhavaprakasa. “Triputa pulse is sweet, bitter and astringent; very dry, destroyer of pitta and sleshma, savoury, constipating and cold,” Bhavaprakasa says. “But it causes a man to become lame and cripple; and it irritates the nerves.” Marxist economist Ashok Mitra proposes in his essay Manush Kyano Khanja Hoy that the word khesari is a corruption of khanjakari – meaning, that which deforms.

“A verse in the Shukraniti-sara, a part of the Dharmashastras, recommends feeding an enemy a mix of cottage cheese, honey or jaggery and the garbhapatra or carpel of triputa kalaya, in order to bring them harm,” said food chronicler Sayantani Mahapatra. “This hints at the pulse’s maiming toxicity.”

A confirmation of the toxicity of Lathyrus Sativus came in 1942, when the Nazis, who were aware of its reputation, forced a heavy diet of grass peas on Romanian Jewish inmates at the Vapniarka concentration camp in Ukraine. The diet left 1,200-odd inmates crippled, although it would be another two decades before scientists identified the exact neurotoxin that caused the effect – Beta-N-Oxalyl-amino-l-alanine.

Credit: Shailesh Andrade/Reuters

By the mid-20th century, Indian scientists and epidemiologists too were perhaps convinced that khesari, when consumed in large quantities for a prolonged period, could cause lathyrism. Based on their recommendation, the Indian government banned the sale and storage of khesari under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act in 1961.

“The ban was followed by massive campaigns across India to warn people of its toxicity,” writes Kanchan Srivastava in Mongabay. Individual states followed up on the central ban with bans of their own, starting with Uttar Pradesh. An allowance was made, however, for cultivation of the pulse because of its use as animal fodder.

Culinary staple

The central ban was successful, leading to a reduction in both the consumption and cultivation. It was a result very different from what Maharajah of Rewa had achieved in 1907 when he banned the pulse in his region, which was prone to lathyrism epidemics. His ban had no effect, so deeply was khesari embedded in the culture and the cuisine.

How popular it was at the time can be inferred from a 1922 article titled An Investigation into the Causation of Lathyrism in Man, which was published by Major Hugh W Acton in the Indian Medical Gazette. Acton was a professor of pathology and bacteriology in Calcutta’s School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, who explored in his article the many ways in which khesari was eaten in central India. One common preparation required it be ground into flour or sattu, which was moistened with water and perked up with salt and chillies. Another asked for it to be split and sundried, before being cooked into a pea soup with onions and spices. A third required it to be ground into a paste, made into cakes and deep-fried.

Author Kaminikumar Ray, in the book Loukik Shabdakosh, describes how a poor housewife in Bengal could whip up an entire meal from protein-rich khesari and greens. Among the options she had were a bitter stew or shukto made with khesari and the medicinal nishinda pata; a tart amble or runny relish made with khesari and tamarind; khesari cooked into a dal and ground into a paste to make deep-fried fritters; and khesari cooked into a simple khichdi with foraged greens, such as the stalk of shaluk phool.

Khesari was also a source of sustenance for the Indian indentured labourers who arrived in Mauritius in the 18th century. An anti-indenture folksong popular among Bhojpuri labourers went:

Angaje rahal bhaiya, Angaje rahal bhaiya!
Ek mahinva mein panch go rupayiya ho
Khaike mota chaur, rahal khube lal
Koko ke tel aur khesari ka daal!

Remain enslaved brother, remain enslaved brother/
In one month there be rupees five,/
We’ll eat fat (coarse) rice and live with glee/
Oil from coconut and grass pea!

Bonded labour

“Khesari is the poor man’s pulse, a cheap source of good protein for those who can afford little,” said Dr Vijaynath Mishra. “It is not only cheap but requires less fuel to cook.” Mishra is the head of neurology at the Institute of Medical Science in Banaras Hindu University. He is among a clutch of researchers who have for decades challenged the conventional wisdom on lathyrism. “Under regular socio-economic conditions, when grass pea is part of a balanced diet, fortified with other dietary essentials, neurolathyrism is virtually non-existent,” he argued.

Mishra was part of a study conducted by the Banaras Hindu University that examined over 9,000 participants in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh. A vast majority of the participants depended on lathyrus as a major source of food and yet the study found no incidence of lathyrism or primary walking difficulty among them, except for three cases of post-stroke paralysis. “The mere consumption of khesari doesn’t necessarily cause lathyrism,” Mishra said. “Historically, lathyrism outbreaks only took place under conditions of famine and acute scarcity, following droughts and other natural calamities.”

Credit: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

It is not hard to see Mishra’s point. Khesari is a sturdy, climate-resilient crop that grows abundantly, much like grass, with little labour or expenditure. During periods of drought, when there was little water to irrigate, farmers relied heavily on khesari and, because it is cheaper, it made up a significant part of the poor’s diet.

Another tragic reason why khesari affected the poor, particularly landless labourers, was the exploitative bonded labour system prevalent in the country. Under this system, which persisted for decades even after independence, landowners would pay labourers wages in food, not in cash. Sometimes this wage would take the form of cheap, coarse khesari. And at other times, the form of gajra or birra, a mix of wheat, chana and khesari.

This essentially meant that peasants, stripped of buying capacity, depended entirely on the khesari or khesari-laden mixed grains for sustenance. In normal times, the labourers could still separate the khesari from the gajra and eat it as dal along with other grains. But in times of scarcity, they often sold the remaining grains, eating just the khesari.

Most of these bonded labourers were not just the country’s poorest but also belonged to the lowest rungs of the Hindu caste hierarchy. As Acton notes in his article, “All these cases, with the exception of two poor Brahmin beggars, were of the lowest Sudra class, ‘Teli, Kachi, Koals, etc., and practically everyone of them had been bondmen (luquaars).” Once the labourers contracted lathyrism and could no longer plough the land, they were turned out by their masters. All they could do then was beg or break stones. “Many of them migrate to the larger cities, Patna, Benares, Bombay and Calcutta, and form a large percentage of the beggar population,” Acton wrote.

The reason this population consisted of men and not women was patriarchy. Women didn’t get affected from lathyrism as much as men because, even in times of scarcity, men had a bigger claim on food. Simply because women ate very little they were relatively safe.

It is not that the men, or for that matter the women, were unaware of khesari’s ill effects. The popular belief in its ability to induce paralysis long predated scientific research on the subject. In Mughal era texts such as Ain-i-Akbari, khesari had been described as unwholesome. A more stinging criticism came from a popular couplet in northern India, recorded by Lt Col McCombie Young in 1927: The black pea with its yellow flower/From eating it comes trouble in the legs/Flapping top-knot and swaying hips/behold the ill effects of eating matra. Yet, in the absence of another cheap pulse, the poor had little choice. Between starvation and permanent handicap, they chose the latter.

Lack of consensus

Mishra avers that things have changed. In 2016, fifty-five years after the government imposed a ban on khesari, the Indian Council of Medical Research suggested lifting it. “The ban on khesari was a rash move in the first place, the research dubious,” argued Mishra. “What it essentially did was put the poor khesari farmer at the mercy of traders who bought the pulse at dirt-cheap prices and used it as an adulterant in more expensive pulses and besan.” In 2018, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, a governmental body, released three new varieties of kesari dal for general cultivation. “The current varieties of lathyrus sativus I have encountered have negligible amount of toxins and are safe for consumption,” Mishra said.

Not everyone is as convinced as Mishra. Several sceptical researchers believe that the 2016 suggestion to lift the khesari ban altogether was a dangerous move: while covering up the soaring prices of pulses, it exposed the poor to a toxic food item.

One scientist certain of the possible danger posed by keshari is Alok Dhawan, the former director of the Indian Institute of Toxicological Research in Lucknow. Dhawan told Srivastava in 2019: “It is a fact that lathyrus beyond a certain dose is toxic. If we approve this pulse, it will be very difficult to make consumers, who are mostly villagers, aware that they should eat the legume, say, less than 50 grams.”

Perhaps more research will one day settle the scientific debate once and for all. Until then, the story of khesari will remain a cautionary tale, a reminder of the gross oppression of the poor at the hands of the rich.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.