Onions are among the biggest pleasures of life. They can also, in moments wrought in unpredictability, be a source of pain. Think of the tears which flow freely when onions are being peeled. We weep when we go through heartbreak. And heartbreak can come in a variety of forms. But with onions it is not heartbreak that draws out the tears from our eyes. Onions are God’s gift which gives us tears of joy. Look at it this way. The tears flow incessantly as a housewife peels all those onions and yet she does not complain, for she knows that these onions will enrich the food she is about to cook. Onions, then, are a mark of the sophistication an individual scales in culinary skills.
But, again, there are all the moments in our lives when onions make us weep without our having to peel them. Observe the kitchen markets in Bangladesh in these present times. Better yet, take a walk down to your local market, a place redolent of the beauty which comes of the fresh vegetables, rice, lentils, the many manifestations of meat and fish that are on offer. In our country, be it in the towns or in the villages, a market is always a symbol of joy. A haat has always been part of our heritage. You are there not only to associate with others who, like you, are out on an errand for food items their spouses and children mean to have at home on the day. It is an occasion when you develop an instant camaraderie with all these people, whose concerns are similar to yours. Rising prices are what you talk about. And then there are the pretty friendly arguments, indeed banter, you engage in with the sellers of the items.
But in a land where corruption seems to be seeping into every aspect of our lives through the misdemeanor of others, visiting a kitchen market can have a devastating effect on your health, physically as well as psychologically. Take the crude ways in which onion prices have been shooting up of late. The price range for this essential item of cooking is anywhere between a hundred and a hundred-and-thirty taka, perhaps more. That causes the tears to flow. And these are tears not of joy or sadness. They are a reflection of deep, justified anger on your part, indignation directed at a society which has become hostage to the predatory instincts of the unscrupulous and the corrupt. The proper term for them is ‘syndicate’; and the Almighty knows how many syndicates, straddling so many areas of life, we have operating in the country in these times.
The vegetable sellers in the market will tell you, with a dash of helplessness as also a twinkle of wickedness in the eye, that it is the fault of the syndicates which causes them to raise the price of onions. So what happens now? You are in sore need of those onions, which in essence means you have to cough up the money you thought you would spend on some other item, perhaps on some green leafy vegetables or a bunch of bananas for the children at home. None of your remonstrance with the seller will help, for those onions need to go into the rather empty bag you hold in your hand. You decide, even as those tears of anger well up in you, to buy a half kilo of the valuable product instead of the full kilo you thought you would go back home with.
No, you are not a broken man. But yet once again, thanks to those formidably priced onions, you are compelled to fall back on thoughts of how all of us good citizens are being taken for a ride by all those elements which have commandeered the country under the cover of a market economy. In a poor country, despite that burgeoning GDP, you wonder if capitalism is the panacea for our ills. All around you, it is a long march of robber barons you see going past you in triumphalist mode. Robber barons are not capitalists. They are thieves who purloin what belongs to the state. And we who struggle day in and day out to give our families food on the table and clothes on their backs are the state. We represent the state.
Yet that has hardly any bearing on the onion situation. Here we are, hoping for fried onions, beresta as we call it, to be sprinkled on the pulao we savour at home. There is the Pathan tribesman who needs nothing more than a tandoor roti and an onion to quench his hunger at lunch. When we are happy or when deep poverty lays us low, when we cannot afford food as we know it, we take a few dried chillies, some salt, a bit of mustard oil and an onion or two. We mix them, a substitute for curry, and have it with steaming rice. And we are happy.
Where do we go, now that onions are becoming elusive for us?