Of Onions and Tomatoes!
Columns, Over A Cup of Evening Tea

Of Onions and Tomatoes!

July 16, 2023

By Dr. K. Javeed Nayeem, MD

The Price of Onions’ is the name of a book by Ashok V. Desai, that I first read, exactly twenty years ago and which I have re-read a couple of times thereafter, just because I find it very interesting to go through the way everyday economics has been simplified by the author, in a very readable narrative.

In my typical way of being a little cautious while buying books about topics which I think I may not be able to digest, I bought this book only after leisurely reading a good many pages of it at random, while sitting in a corner of Ashok Book House that belonged to my friend and collegemate, Thakur Das and his brother Ashok. who were the two sons of J. Nanumal, one of the pioneers who started the stationery business in our city.

I was not the only person who used to take advantage of my friendship with Thakur. While I used to only browse leisurely before deciding whether to buy a particular book or not, there were a good many bibliophiles like me who used to do almost all their reading at that shop, without buying anything! And, Thakur and his brother Ashok, would never ever cast aside their courteous nature to discourage them.

Among such guests were some very notable names too, which are best left unmentioned here. The modus operandi of such free readers was to visit the shop in the evenings, when they would be free of their daily grind and after picking up a book, confine themselves with it to a corner, where they could read it undisturbed, for hours together. And, when it was closing time for the shop, they would carefully tuck it, very cleverly backwards, among the books, in a hard-to-reach place, where it would remain safe from prospective customers and leave the shop with the owner, only to return the next evening to resume their reading!

Now, if you think that this bookshop is worth a visit, to have a taste of the generosity of its owners, please refrain from going in search of it because it does not exist anymore. It was forced to shut down in the year 2016 when a portion of the Devaraja Market that housed it, collapsed and has shamefully remained in a state of ruin till the present day.

Coming back to the present, from where I should actually have begun my article for today, I am prompted to write it because of the prominence that a very humble vegetable of daily use like the tomato, is getting in the news. The tomato, just because of its highly perishable nature, seems to have become a vegetable capable of having some very temperamental effects, both on its growers and consumers.

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We can add to this the fact that its yield too is not something that is very predictable, because it can head both North or South quite temperamentally, for various reasons, like the vagaries of the weather, or the appetite and abundance of its pests! That is why we regularly see sharp and sometimes very distressing swings in its price which leaves both its growers and consumers in smiles or tears, depending on which side of the fence they happen to be, at any given point of time.

This is exactly the reason why we are now seeing the prices soaring sky high across the country when just a few weeks ago we saw tomato growers dumping their crop on the roadside, because playing the growing game was just not worth even the candle. It is a very sad sight that we see from time to time, with painful regularity, across our country, simply because we do not have adequate procurement and processing facilities for this highly perishable commodity, as things stand now.

Although the tomato is now being seen as a vegetable of uncertain fortunes, it is not something that has been a part of our lives, for very long. Being a native of South America it was no doubt an essential part of the local cuisine there for many centuries. But its excursion into the rest of the world was only a very recent occurrence, with the advance of colonialisation and it entered Indian kitchens only in the late sixteenth century. Despite this late entry the tomato has now become an essential ingredient in every dish we prepare in our homes and in almost every single thing that we eat in our daily lives. I wonder how we used to manage without it until very recently, when almost every lady of the house now says that she simply cannot do without it, irrespective of whether its price is high or low. So, high or low, when I come home from all my shopping trips now, the tomato is always in tow!

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When you look back a little, you can recall the days of the year 1998 when the skyrocketing prices of the onion, another humble but equally very essential vegetable, impacted the fate of the government in New Delhi. Sushma Swaraj’s loss became Sheila Dikshit’s gain, with the Congress coming to power and remaining there for three full terms. Arvinder Singh Lovely, the then twenty-nine-year-old Congress leader, even coined an election campaign jingle that went: “Bijli, paani, aaloo, pyaaz, Sirf sapnon mein aate hain aaaj.” (Power, water, potatoes and onions are available only in our dreams now).

Similarly, Indira Gandhi is said to have benefited in the elections when onion prices started shooting up under Charan Singh’s caretaker government in 1980. But this beneficial trend became a hurdle for her too, when the price of a kilogram of onions touched an unthinkable six rupees, making her government shed tears over uncut onions! Interestingly, when a Lok Dal MP, Rameshwaram Singh, entered the Parliament, wearing a garland of onions in protest against their rising prices, M. Hidayathulla, the Chairman of the House, is said to have asked him what he would wear in protest, if the price of shoes shot up! 

There is always the possibility that the now skyrocketing prices of tomatoes, if not contained, will have similar game-changing effects on present-day governments too. But let us hope that things will change for the better in the days to come when production and consumption will strike a happy balance. I’m saying this, not from the point of view of saving or toppling governments, but simply from the point of saving a few rupees with which I can buy another interesting book!

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