Monday, December 20, 2010

Know Your Onions

Today, onions are going for 60-70 rupees/kg. I wrote this piece 12 years ago as my weekly column in the Mi-Day, when rains destroyed much of the onion crops. Looks history is a circle

Did you know that the onion belongs to the same family as the lily? Sort of distant cousins, I guess. Impossible, you think, that this aristocratic fragrant flower could be related to that rustic, rumbustious bulb. But the family resemblance is there, an unmistakable tendency to make one’s presence smelt.
With unseasonal rains having rotted away most of Maharashtra’s onion crop this year, the time has come, as the good Walrus would say, to pay a tribute to this smelly but illustrious member of the Genus Lilaceae which till now has been treated like so much kanda-batata
First, my favourite Son-of-the-Soil story. To show that while the flesh may have be born-‘n-brought up on pizza, the spirit is still pure pyaza. Many years ago, as I rode on a DTC bus, my face pressed to the window to get lungfuls of the balmy Delhi-ka-Dhool-aur-Dhooan-laden air, it started raining. Heavily. And all of us who’d shoved and pushed to sit by the windows, now tried to close them. But the windows, as all windows on public transport are wont to do, stayed firmly open. As I struggled with mine, a thin, black arm shot out from behind me, gave the window a short, sharp tug and slammed it shut. I whipped around to see a scrawny little R. K. Laxman version of “Jai Kissan” grinning happily at me. As I thanked him, he proudly told me that it was his daily diet of roti, raw onion and green chilies that made for such takat. Wah, I thought. The indomitable spirit of India. Kept alive by raw onion. And I believed him ‘‘cos I’d seen it in the movies. Hot noon-day sun glints off honest pasina on hero’s brow as he toils on Mere Desh ki Dharti. In sashays heroine, designer-dupatta-wrapped lunch-ki-potli nestled in curve of hip. Hero flashes hungry glance. (At lunch, silly.) Unwraps dupatta, smashes onion with pyaz-powered fist and proceeds to share roti and pyaz-bhari-baaten with soon-to-be-woti.
Fade out.

Every time a thing’s in danger of becoming extinct, expensive and exotic (as the onion soon may be), little known facts about it start to emerge. Which normally turns out that in 563 B. C., in the temple of Horn-i-Billi, the ancient Goat-God of Virility, the soon-to-be-out-of-circulation thing was used as an aphrodisiac. While they’ve yet to discover the onion’s aphrodisiacal qualities, did you know that the onion can cure acne, anemia, bee stings, bronchitis, colic, cough, influenza, insomnia, scorpion bites and warts? It’s also a remedy for stunted growth, (guess Napoleon’s and Mulayam’s mummies didn’t know that) and massaging raw onion paste can cure bleeding gums but there’s no mention of what it can do for halitosis. That’s the worrying part about theses kanda-cures. The raw onion bit. I mean, you may be able to sleep well at night, but it’ll probably be alone.
Did you know that a good way to bunk (school, office, date-with-Dracula) is to put a cut onion under your arm? Will make your body ape a fever. And even if it doesn’t, the ensuing stink will make your underarm the most lethal anti-personnel weapon to date. Can repel humans within a radius of 5 kms. Did you know that the onion was depicted in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs as far back as 3200 B. C.? Nothing like a reminder of good ol’ onion breath to keep those aajoo-bajoo ghosts from encroaching on your necropolis. Given the severe space crunch in these tombs. Old Tut’s for example, (Tutenkhaman to you) could barely accommodate 4 ivory-‘n-gold chariots, a jewel-encrusted throne, furniture, footwear and enough roti, kapda and back issues of the National Geographic to last the time it takes to journey from one birth to another. (A mite more than your average Transatlantic flight, nahi?)
And finally, did you know that there are entire cuisines cooked without a single onion? Like Jain pav-bhaji, Jain chow-mein, Jain pizza and even Jain no pyaza. And that a “voting slip” for a music channel’s Viewers’ Choice Award had allocated “election symbols” for each nominated “candidate”. And A. R. Rahman’s symbol was an onion. Does anyone know why?

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