By way of explanation, my supervisor showed me his bag, where an onion sat shriveling in one corner. He made his point further by requesting a laborer to allow me a peek at the folds of his turban — sure enough, tucked within was a red onion.
Legends have grown around the pungent bulb. Shivaji, the fearsome Maratha warrior who took on the might of the Mughals, was reputed to eat a lean diet of unleavened bread with raw onions, as opposed to the effete Mughals, who gorged on twice-cooked onion dishes.
To add to the woes of the Mughals, a holy man, Baba Buddha, when served a simple meal by the wife of a Sikh guru, smashed the onion and predicted that her son would one day similarly crush the tyranny of the empire. Obviously, the humble vegetable is an underdog’s ally.
For the runaway price of onions today, the government has blamed heavy unseasonal rains, but poor agricultural productivity, lack of adequate infrastructure for storage and transport, and deficient government investment are equally to blame.
So what is the average Indian to do? Use cabbage and radish as substitute. And protest. Effigies of the agriculture minister have been burnt. Opposition leaders adorned with onion garlands have held rallies.
A novel protest had Santa Claus handing out onions on Christmas eve. Meanwhile, enterprising businessmen are giving free onions with the purchase of televisions, cars, motorcycles and tires.
Rising onion prices have historically felled governments. In 1980, Indira Gandhi ousted the ruling government by appearing at election rallies with strings of onions. The message was clear: If you can’t manage the price of onions, how do you manage the country? A recent poll showed that the Congress Party would lose its parliamentary majority were an election to be held now.
The government is scrambling to bring the price of onions down. It has banned export of onions, turned to Pakistan for imports, and the prime minister has held cabinet meetings on the issue. Pakistan complied briefly before turning hostile, and now India is threatening in turn to halt cement exports.
It was always understood that you could knock next door for a bowl of sugar, some salt, an onion. With the current price of the vegetable, that would be akin to asking the neighbor for their family jewels. No wonder Pakistan is not responding.
We need to keep the peace in our neighborhoods. In the interest of social cohesiveness, and its own survival, the government needs to fix the onion price pronto.
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a writer for the South China Morning Post and author of “The Long Walk Home.”