PC’s onion jibe offers food for thought on economic health

By Shobhaa De

I  want to eat and drink whatever P Chidambaram was having as a part of his Tihar Jail diet for 106 days. It seems to have done wonders to the man. Think about it – he is actually cracking a smile! Being nice to ornery folks. Distributing hugs freely (restricted to male colleagues, please note). And firing on all cylinders! Next you know, he may share a meal with Nirmala Sitharaman. He will, of course, get his own tiffin box for the lunch date with the finance minister.


His well-trained cooks at the posh Jor Bagh mansion will lovingly pack his favourite chicken curry and rice, with plenty of onions in the curry, while Ms Sithraraman may disdainfully wrinkle up her nose and stick to simple ‘sapad’ (strictly no onions for ma’am). They may discuss avocados, since Chids has raised questions over her food preferences (avocados, chalega; onions, illey). It seems Madam and her parivaar shun the bulb, which forms a staple in most desi khaana. On the other hand, avocado (botanically described as a large berry) is pretty new to Indian palates, and only made it to restaurant menus a decade or so ago.

Most people are confused how to pronounce ‘avocado’ and avoid ordering it. Bhajjiwalas in Mumbai call the fruit ‘phoren ka peru’. Avocados are ridiculously expensive as well, given that the berry is tasteless mush when ripe, and one is misled by the size, since the stone inside is huge. The avocado is still considered ‘exotic’ in India, and given its high price, it is also labelled an ‘elite’ fruit. Which is why, it makes perfect sense for the notoriously snobbish P Chidambaram to taunt Ms Sithraman using the avocado reference. It is such a classic ‘Khan Market Gang’ putdown! Because, where else but in the most glamourous market in India would you find so many creative variations of the avocado on restaurant menus? Touche, Chids! That was pretty clever. In one stroke, it said it all. It highlighted class and lifestyle differences, while underlining the minister’s insensitivity to an issue that has hit nearly every Indian home with the prices of onions fluctuating between Rs 120 and Rs 160 per kilo. Oh dear, tough times ahead for our FM who experts say needs a crash course in basic economics. Same chaps who wanted to give her tutorials on defence matters when the lady was handling that portfolio.

Are onion prices controlled by Sharad Pawar?

Some say, onion prices are controlled by Sharad Pawar, at least in Maharashtra. Onions play a huge role during elections. Pawar watchers have conducted studies monitoring the rise and fall of onion prices and linking the findings to Pawar’s political fortunes. When he senses a crisis, he hikes up the price to show the government in power in terrible light. As soon as he renegotiates his terms with those who matter, onion prices crash! This has been a pattern for decades. Well, going by the fact that the neighbourhood vegetable vendor is not reducing his price, and street snacks are substituting white radish in place of onions, it is safe to say that Pawar is still at it — a few more deals and key cabinet positions obviously need to be figured out with Uddhav Thackeray before onion prices come down. Till then, we will just have to enjoy Maharashtra’s popular dish ‘Kandey Pohey’ without kandey (onions).Forget onions and avocados for now, one can barely breathe in India’s polluted capital. Walking around Khan Market last week, I spoke to several store owners who looked despondent and broken saying business is down 60%. There was zero Xmas cheer and hardly any shoppers. The restaurants were doing okay — I looked hard and in vain for the ‘Khan Market Gang’ — the regulars who lunch (on pricey avocado salads and more). Not a single recognisable face could be spotted, much to my disappointment. A friend told me Delhi residents are lying so low they have practically disappeared into the undergrowth. “Nobody wants to be seen spending money,” a boutique owner confided. So, let’s get this straight — Dilliwallas have money but refuse to spend it. They also have mouths, but do not speak. Despite that, we keep getting a glowing picture of our future.It’s all going to be bright and beautiful we are told. Right now, the only visible glow is on P Chidambaram’s face. Was it just the jail diet? The jail discipline? The extra sleep on a hard mattress? An enforced detox? Abstinence from all things carnal? God knows. But it has given Tihar the best sort of celebrity endorsement possible, making it appear more like a luxury spa in Switzerland than a punishment cell for a former minister. It’s possible Chids was allowed avocados in place of onions while inside. Whatever. Jail certainly suits our newly lean and not so mean politician par excellence!

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.