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Are onions our biggest problem?

  • Published at 12:03 am November 16th, 2019
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File photo of a seller packing onions Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

We cry about prices while murder, rape, torture, and natural disasters wreak havoc on the country

I never thought onions could be so important in a person’s life, like here in Bangladesh. Not only because they are a precious ingredient of our local cuisine, but also because of the diplomatic role they play in the geopolitical game of the region. 

International relations between neighbouring countries have gone down the drain for a handful of onions.

They are the ingredient par excellence of Bengali dishes; take them away and the dish becomes sloppy, lacking that typical pungent taste, so much so that even my granny refuses to buy Indian ones because she says they are too sweet! 

They are eaten raw, especially with fish, fried in batter together with lentils, boiled with a mixture of other vegetables, and an absolute must in the chicken curry and mutton rezala. 

As far as I know, at least two handfuls of onions, about 20, are needed for every kilo of meat, so I have been told. 

Everyone knows how much a kilo of onions costs, its price being checked every day like blood pressure and diabetes.

If it goes up too much, people take to the streets to protest, our onions make the headlines of the major newspapers of the country, economists study the trends, elaborate sophisticated theories, publish statistics and data to keep us informed. 

And yes, what would life be without onions? Or even worse, how would our ilishbhuna taste without the right amount of onions in it?

But why has the price of onions gone from Tk40 to as much as Tk220? Well, for once, our neighbour India, in order to keep the price of its onions in check, has blocked exports and Bangladesh, without Indian onions, fails to cover its domestic needs. 

We must only thank Modi, who is as much as an expert on economic affairs as I am on quantum physics, if our curry no longer tastes as good as before.

And it doesn’t really matter if in the meantime a second-year student from Buet is beaten to death by a group of activists of the student wing of the party now in power for making a post on his Facebook page. 

It doesn’t really matter if this has cracked open the secret about the so-called “torture rooms,” where student activists of the party in power beat, torture, and taunt freshmen, just because they did not greet them with due respect, or failed to move aside to let them pass.

The news about our friend-foe onions does not leave the front page of newspapers these days. And it doesn’t really matter if a madrasa student after having the courage to report to the police of being sexually assaulted by her school’s principal is burned alive. 

The news of the police raids in the retail markets appears on the front page of newspapers next to the news that the principal and his 15 accomplices have been sentenced to death. And yes, how can we live without a properly cooked chicken curry?

Who cares if Dhaka was hit by the Cyclone Bulbul when a kilo of onions costs as much as a broiler chicken?

For half of the population of Bangladesh, spending twice as much for the usual monthly supply of onions does not bring any major upset to their monthly bills, indeed they do not even notice it.

A third of the remaining half, ie the lower-middle-class complain, grumble, get angry at politicians and traders alike, but then we see them at the market buying onions. 

For the remaining two thirds -- the ultra-poor, perhaps yes, these games between governments and traders weigh hard on them and affect their purchasing power. 

But as someone very high up in the government once said about an unjustified increase in the price of rice: “Well, if rice costs too much, we will eat potatoes for a while.”  

Bianca Hassan is a freelance contributor.