I don't know where I got this story – it was certainly not part of Hans Anderson’s fairy tales or A sop's fables. When I read the story growing up, it seemed a silly piece of imagination by the writer but today he/she seems to have been very prescient and the story worth its weight in gold.
It was about a young man who meets a well-travelled voyager who recounts his visit to a country that grows no onions. This young man sees in that an opportunity for business and travels to that kingdom with a cartful of onions. The king is wary of the bulbous, smelly, tear-inducing vegetable but gradually gets tempted by the young man's stories of the fantastic taste and flavour of food cooked with those onions. He asks the young man to cook a few dishes and he and his courtiers are blown out of their mind at the flavour and taste of the dishes he has made with the onions.
He rewards the man with bagsful of gold for introducing his kingdom’s palate to the culinary wonders of the onion.
Now a very rich man, the youth recounts his experience to a merchant back in his own country and says, “Actually, I could have done a better job of the food if I had had some garlic to add to the flavour. But they don’t have garlic in that kingdom either and they did not know what they were missing in the food I had cooked for them. Else they may have rewarded me better.”
The merchant seizes upon that idea and makes his way to that kingdom with sacksful of garlic. He persuades the king to allow him to use garlic along with their new-found onions in the food he would cook for them and the young man is proved right – the kingdom did not know what it was missing without garlic in their food. But now the king and his courtiers are in a real dilemma - how to reward the merchant for introducing them to this wonderful herb that had left them wanting more and more of it in their food.
Gold certainly seems too little and by far not enough to compensate the merchant with. They put their heads together and come up with a brilliant idea – they get the farmers to harvest all their newly planted onion crop and send the very disappointed merchant off with cartloads of the vegetable which they think is more than its weight in gold – after all no amount of gold could compensate for what they would be missing until the next harvest!
I was reminded of that story when Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman contemptuosly dismissed the concern of consumers and farmers over the rising prices of onions due to a shortfall in production, in Parliament last week. “I do not eat onions. I come from a family which does not consume much onions or garlic,” she said.
My first thought was that like the king and his courtiers she then really does not know what she is missing in her food. But now that statement is largely being interpreted as not just lack of concern for the shooting prices of the crop – I don’t eat onions, so I don’t care, she seemed to suggest though she may strictly not have meant it so.
But it is the second part of her statement that has received more flak – there was a seeming class/caste distinction to her family not eating onions and it instantly led to memes declaring people were asking her about the cost and not the caste of onions!
Along with the statement of minister of state for health and family welfare Ashwini Choubey who said he had never tasted onions because he was vegetarian, the entire contempt for the people and ignorance of ministers in the Modi government has gone beyond laughs and ridicule towards a class/caste/communal narrative that sets them apart from the rest of the country to whom onions are a kitchen staple and at times an indispensable item on their plates.
Sitharaman was clearly underlining her Brahminical status and implying puritanism in her culinary habits that set her apart from others who ate onions and thus were less pure or orthodox.
Choubey's likening of a vegetable to a non-vegetarian product even more obviously pointed towards particular communities who eat meat which is necessarily cooked with onions and therefore not just distinguished himself from Muslims and Christians but also a vast section of Dalits and other Hindus who not just eat meat but the poorer among them often have nothing but onions and chillies to go with their rice or rotis in order to assuage their hunger.
The chillies force them into gulping more water with their food that fills up their stomachs and thus negates the need for more accompaniment with the rice or rotis (forget dal whose prices also have been shooting beyond affordable proportions).
Meanwhile, farmers who are now planting a fresh crop are once again faced with the prospect of losses as the government resorts to panic import of onions from Egypt and Turkey – the flood of onions in the market is sure to drive down prices for consumers but have the effect of impoverishing the farmers who may have expended their all to sow more and are unlikely to recover even costs in the face of cheap imports. Clearly, Sitharaman's lack of onions in her food has rendered her incapable of understanding not just the culinary advantages of the crop but also the economics of its production.
Onions typically take three to six months to mature and their failure can be anticipated within twenty days of the planting when the green, tender onions either do not mature well or turn blackish. The government should have monitored the excess rainfall that destroyed the crop this year. Now it should have calibrated its imports with the crop cycle so as to ensure the farmers did not suffer due to a glut of the crop in the market.
And quite apart from the economics, perhaps Sitharaman should also pay attention to the nutritious value of the onion which is rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins and zero in fat content, prevents blood sugar, improves bone health and has also been linked to reduction in risk of cancer. Perhaps that is why the poor depend on it as a staple so much for clearly the alternatives are no option.
The least the government can do is ensure this commonplace crop does not go out of their reach. Or else they might go out of power. For onions have that effect on voters.