One day Akbar invited Birbal for lunch. One of the dishes served was brinjal, called ‘baigan’ in Hindustani. Akbar liked the preparation and said as much. Birbal not only agreed but also praised the vegetable to high heavens, talking about its great qualities and about its ancient roots in Indian lore.
Several days later Birbal was again invited for another meal with the emperor and this time too brinjal was on the menu. Akbar did not like the preparation and said that the baigan was an affront to finer sensibilities. Birbal promptly agreed and added that it had no taste of its own, had the consistency and colour of mud, and destroyed anything that it was cooked with. Akbar remembered the fulsome praise Birbal had heaped upon the vegetable just a few days earlier and reminded him. Birbal bowed and said, “My lord, I am beholden to you, not to the brinjal.”
And now, the lowly brinjal has overcome attempts to interfere with its genetic make-up. We can, at least for the time being, continue to enjoy or dislike the veggie as we have done for centuries.
Brinjal — or the eggplant, as its white variety is called — has been cultivated in India for a long time. Botanists tell us that the vegetable is endemic to the subcontinent and has spread all over the world from here. That’s probably why we have so many varieties of the vegetable cultivated and cooked in India.
According to researchers working in the area, the word brinjal is a corruption of the Sanskrit ‘vatingan’, which became ‘baigan’ in Khari Boli and Hindustani, turned to ‘badingaan’ in Persian, ‘al badinjaan’ in Arabic, ‘berenjena’ in Spanish, ‘aubergine’ in French and then brinjal in English.
It travelled the land route via Persia to Arabia, as also the sea route. The Arabs took it to Spain. Then the Portuguese and the Spanish introduced brinjal, sugarcane and banana to South America, from where these crops travelled to North America.
Is it not a little strange that we are now debating whether to allow the last receiver of this vegetable to decide which variety of brinjal to cultivate and how?
Sohail Hashmi is a historian and conservationist.
The views expressed by the author are personal.