Indian Licorice - Black-eyed beads of death

The red-and-black seeds frequently used in the indoor games of my childhood, I learned recently, are deadly poisonous. Introducing the pretty and dangerous Rosary Pea or Indian Licorice. Now chew on that!

Back when I was a kid visiting my grandparents, dinner would generally be over by 7 pm. The lack of a television at their place meant that we had to spend time together, playing indoor games seated on the cold, red-oxide coated cement floor. Usually, it was a game called "ottayo-irattayo" (roughly translated, it means "Odd or even").

Granddad had a box full of  lovely red-and-black seeds (known in Malayalam as kunnikkuru), which he would distribute equally among the players. The game was to grab random handfuls and make the opponent guess if the count was even or odd. A correct guess corroborated after counting the seeds, would be rewarded with the entire handful being "won" and added to the guesser's pile, and a wrong guess would mean surrendering the same number of seeds to the opponent. The game goes on till one player is out of seeds and becomes a pauper. 

Granddad warned me the first day he taught me the game that at no cost should I eat the seeds or even put them in my mouth. I would vomit blood and die if it was ingested, he warned. Even though I didn't believe it completely (my grandparents carried on about a lot of superstitious beliefs) I was never tempted to chew on one after hearing that.

Even or odd? 
Another memory of this seed is tied to the famous Guruvayur temple in Thrissur, Kerala. Inside the temple premises is a wide-brimmed vessel filled with these seeds. They are there for an interesting ritual: Kids are to grab a handful and drop it back in - this was believed to make them more mischievous. I was really disappointed that they made me drop the colorful seeds back into the vessel; I would have loved to carry some home!

A pod that has already burst open
About 25 years later, I came upon a creeper at Polachira wetlands (near Thiruvananthapuram) that carried a pod that was just splitting open. From within peered five or six of those red peas. I came home immediately and tried to read up on the seed. I realized it was the seed of a creeper called Abrus precatorius, otherwise called the Rosary Pea or Indian Licorice. And my Granddad's warning of toxicity was spot on. The seeds contain a toxin called abrin, which is very harmful to humans even in very small quantities -- it can stop protein synthesis at a cellular level and cause death within 3-5 days. Incredibly, despite its toxicity, it was very popular among children of my generation who played games like ottayo-irattayo. The current XBOX generation would probably never get to even see one.

A small vine, already carrying numerous seeds
Compared to my grandparents' superstitions (among them -- whistling at night invites snakes, and owls hooting at night are harbingers of death), this one turned out to be a piece of local wisdom. I wonder how many more would be proven true with reading and experience. 

Text and photos: Sandeep Somasekharan