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A grain of India in the tortilla
How a little-known Maharashtrian revolutionary altered the course of Mexican cuisine.
Maize is as central to Mexican cuisine as rice or wheat is to cuisines elsewhere in the world. The reverence for the staple food would be obvious from the Maya word for it: 'kana' which means 'our mother'. Archaeologists have established that the technique of making the maize-based tortillas - the nearest equivalent of our chappatis - had been developed as early as 1500 BC. It features in many shapes and sizes, and with several kinds of fillings, in every Mexican meal of the rich and poor alike.
One individual who made a seminal contribution to the cultivation of maize finds no mention in historical accounts of Mexican culinary traditions. He was an Indian named Pandurang Khankhoje, a Maharashtrian Brahmin, who had settled down in Mexico after a long spell of nationalist revolutionary activities. Born in 1896 in a village near Wardha, Khankhoje, inspired by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, formed a revolutionary group when he was still a teenager. That brought him under the scanner of the colonial authorities. They frustrated his efforts to acquire a formal military training in order to engage in an armed rebellion against British rule.
It is Tilak who encouraged him to seek that training abroad. The penniless 20-yearold left India in 1906, travelled to Japan where he taught English to Chinese revolutionaries at the behest of no less a person than Dr Sun Yat-sen, the undisputed leader at that time of the movement for national emancipation, before proceeding to San Francisco. Bereft of money and valid papers, he did odd jobs, worked at a military academy, acquired a degree in agriculture and, in 1913, became a founder-member of the Ghadhar Party which fought for India's freedom. He headed the party's military wing.
To establish contact with fellow Indian revolutionaries, Khankhoje embarked on a long, adventure-filled journey that took him to Turkey, Iran, Berlin and Moscow. In Berlin he became a close associate of Virendranath Chattopadhaya (' Chatto' ), brother of Sarojini Naidu, who led a highly-motivated group of Indian freedom fighters. And in Moscow he met Lenin, along with MN Roy, a meeting he would cherish to the end of his life. He recalled in particular the Soviet leader's concerns about the diet and calorie requirements of all kinds of workers.
Thanks to the friendship he had forged with Mexican revolutionaries in America - they now held important positions in the revolutionary government - he found refuge in Mexico where he was assigned to do research at the National School of Agriculture. The research resulted in the cultivation of a richer variety of maize - it had only grains and no kernel and it was better resistant to frost and drought - and of a bean plant that did not ever wither and die. Overnight it transformed the life of the Mexican peasantry.
For his efforts, Khankhoje was granted Mexican citizenship and he soon became the toast of the country's scientific and cultural elite then in the throes of unprecedented creative fervour. He was drawn into the inner circle of the great mural artist, Diego Rivera, and his artist-wife, Frida Kahlo. She excelled in serving traditional Mexican dishes: tortillas filled with cooked shrimp, onion, serano and chillies;a black bean soup consisting of onions, cloves, garlic and dried oregano;black mole made with three varieties of chillies, half a dozen spices, almonds, shelled peanuts and raisins - a Khankhoje favourite since it came closest to the taste of an Indian curry.
He returned to India after Independence, met Nehru and Rajendra Prasad to discuss agriculture-related problems, tried to use his experience to better the lot of Indian farmers but failed, and went back to Mexico. In 1955 he came home for good and died, alone and unsung, twelve years later at the age of 81.
But he lives on as the main figure of Diego Rivera's huge mural that adorns the Education Secretariat. He is shown distributing bread to a family at a table. Art historians saw this as the Christian allegory of the Last Supper or as Christ's miracle of the multiplication of loaves. The legend of Pandurang Khankhoje, chronicled by his daughter, Savitri Sawhney, endures in Mexico where his name is forever associated with the country's staple food.
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