The great columnist of the Washington Post, Art Buchwald was perhaps, also a clairvoyant man. A tongue-in-cheek piece by him written nearly thirty years ago, in the wake of rising prices in the U.S.A., describes his own foray into grocery shopping for his household with his wife. He has to pass an armed guard, show his I.D. and get this… wait for fruits to be taken out of a vault for perusal by buyers with a look-but-do-not-touch policy!!! In his signature style, Art gets his imagination, hyperbole and sarcasm to direct our attention towards ballooning inflation, rising prices and the falling value of the currency. He leaves the market after buying a bunch of bananas, the only fruit that he can afford, the bulging grocery bag having made a deep hole in his wallet
Buchwald was an eerily jovial Nostradamus predicting something that could very well come true. This week, a tragic news story on the crime page tells us just how close we could get to this scenario in India.
In the Uttar Pradesh state of India, trucks carrying onions are being routinely hijacked at gun-point, with the driver and cleaner being killed, to complete this unique heist. The reason for this terrible tragedy is the escalating price of onions in our country. Who knew that in Kaliyug, a time would come when armed guards would have to be contemplated for Sabji-Tarkari.
I wonder how many of us remember the 1974 release called Roti, Kapda, Makaan(food, clothing, shelter). A Hindi song in the film has the lines-“Pehle Mutthi mein paise lekar thaila bharkar shakkar late the; Ab thaile paise lete hain aur mutthi mein shakkar late hain.” Translated, this means-There was a time when we would carry the cash in our fist to buy a bagful of sugar, now we carry a bagful of money to buy a fistful of sugar!!! I remember how the cinema-hall had reverberated with applause and whistles when this profound couplet was screened.
Commercial films made earlier dished out masala scenes with the same panache as social messages which became the zingy side-dish, all in the same Thaali. Nowadays, most producers and directors are so preoccupied with transporting the escapist storyline to foreign locales, that they forget the Aate-dal ka bhav back home.
As the song suggests, the persons who are most affected are folks, who shopped for stuff at rock-bottom prices then and dish out a princeling’s ransom for the same commodities now. The other day, I took my mother out for a meal to Punjabi joint in Mumbai. Her diabetes ensured that she put aside the potatoes from her food, while her thrifty nature ensured that she did not waste the raw onions that she had served herself on her plate. “Those little slices alone cost at least five rupees”, she said, with a faraway look in her eyes, perhaps recollecting a time when she bought one kilo of onions with that amount.
For some Diwali shopping, I ventured into a huge store in Central Mumbai, where I must have been the sole shopper whose bill ran to three figures. People were buying cartons of stuff and I wondered if I had wandered into an alien world, where inflation did not exist and the report of a man being killed for onions was just a bad dream.
It did not take long for me to crash back to the real world. A few hundred yards away, out side the shop, a minor riot was taking place near a brightly lit podium, where subsz
subsidized groceries were to be distributed by a local political party. Hundreds of people had been waiting in a queue for hours to save money for their Diwali savouries and sweet making.
As I have begun to redraft this, there is news of another incident from (where else) Uttar Pradesh, where a cook/server was shot dead because an egg preparation was not served with enough onions in it. Another quick casualty of a system that would otherwise kill in degrees. The rest of us in India have, mercifully , no access to guns to express our ire at the inflation that is steadily deflating the joy in our lives. I shudder to think what the situation could be. Perhaps, serial killings at grocery markets checkouts ??