SOURCE: The Atlantic, March 31, 1999
Not long ago I found myself engaged in a feud with a restaurant manager in Kuilapalayam, a village in the south of India. Initially I thought the feud was petty, but later I realized it was the enactment of a national drama.
Recently India suffered from a terrible onion shortage. Onions are a staple of the Indian diet, and the rise in prices caused by the shortage led to riots in the north and cost several politicians their careers. Until my standoff with the manager, though, I had been watching the commotion from a distance. I could not have imagined that this seemingly remote social phenomenon would touch my own life.
My troubles began when I saw an ad in a local paper for a new food-delivery service. “Uphaar restaurant can comfort your needs at home,” the ad said (or something like that). Out here in the countryside, where the local provisions store closes at 5:30 p.m., and where getting to the nearest restaurant requires an encounter with fifteen kilometers of potholed roads and out-of-control lorries, I leaped at the chance to get dinner brought to me.
I called the restaurant and ordered chicken tikka, naan, and onion salad.
My food showed up within half an hour. The chicken was juicy and full of taste; the naan was crispy. I was impressed, but there was a problem: the onion salad, for which I had been charged, was missing. Still, I was so excited by the food and by the prompt service that I paid the delivery man without bothering to mention the missing salad. A new chapter appeared to be opening in my desolate life as a bachelor; at last, it seemed, I could retire my tiresome grilled-cheese sandwiches.
The morning after my feast I awoke to the initial rains of the winter monsoon. For days I had been watching the clouds — first gray and flaky, and then black and heavy — as they descended ever lower. Now, like an overfilled plastic bag, the sky had burst, and the rain was falling in furious torrents. I was stuck at home, and even more grateful for the new delivery service.
That evening, I phoned the restaurant and ordered the same dinner. Offhandedly, I asked the manager not to forget my onions. “Right sir,” he said. “No problem. One onion salad.”
The delivery man arrived on a sputtering moped. He had ridden through the rain, and was a bedraggled mess. He pulled out a stainless-steel container from a bag. Against all my expectations, the food was hot and dry. I began to feel the rush of excitement I had felt the day before, but soon I realized that the onions, for which I had once again been charged, were once again missing. “What is going on?” I asked the man.
“I don’t know anything,” he said. “I only took the food that my manager gave me. You have to phone him.”
“All right,” I said. “But I’m not going to pay.”
“Oh, no no no!” he said. “I don’t know anything. You must pay!”
“Listen,” I said. “I ordered onions and there are no onions. So why should I pay?”
“I don’t know anything,” the man said again, and shook himself like a wet puppy. “If you don’t pay, my manager will take the money from me.”
The man was dripping on my rug. I didn’t want to argue, so I paid him in full.
A few days later, with the skies still gray and the rain still falling, I called the restaurant. “Look,” I said to the manager. “You’ve charged me twice now for onions you haven’t delivered. What’s happening?”
“Oh, oh, I see,” the manager said, and then mumbled something I couldn’t hear amid the din of rain beating against the cashew trees outside my window.
“What do you mean ‘I see’?” I asked. “I want my onions.”
“Sorry sir, mistake sir,” the man said. “Next time, sir. One onion salad. Don’t be angry sir.”
A few nights later I gave the manager one more chance. Again, he failed to deliver my salad. So the next day I drove to the restaurant to confront the man in person.
I found him counting his money behind a desk. He was younger than I had expected, and was clean-shaven, with a pleasant face. But I had come intending to give him a dressing-down, and I wasn’t about to let him off the hook. When I introduced myself as the customer with three missing onion salads, a frightened flicker of recognition passed across his face. He rose abruptly from his chair.
“What the hell is going on?” I demanded. “Are you crazy or something? I’m going to complain to your owner!”
Rubbing his hands nervously over an incipient belly, the manager began to plead with me. “Sir,” he said, “do not scold me. What can I do? Do you know why I am not able to give you onions?” He stepped in front of his desk. “Sir, do you know the price of onions? If I give you an onion salad, I will have to charge you more than for the chicken. How can I do that?”
Then it dawned on me: this was what I had been reading about in the papers. This was the great onion shortage. Along with the rest of the country, the manager’s world had been turned upside down. When the price of onions more than tripled, people found themselves in a culinary limbo. Household budgets were suddenly insufficient; restaurants had to eliminate their onion garnishes and rewrite their menus. (Just a few weeks earlier, one of the country’s leading financial magazines had run a story on “Onion-Free Recipes.”)
What I had taken to be the manager’s inexplicable obstinacy, I realized, was in fact a pitiable confusion: caught up in the swirl, and too polite simply to refuse my order, the unfortunate manager hadn’t had time to adjust to a world in which an onion salad cost as much as a chicken. Instead, he had just continued billing me the old price, acting as if nothing had changed. It was a self-serving form of denial, for sure, but I found I could hardly begrudge the man. Suddenly, I felt a strange kinship with him.
“This government is too much,” I said. “The country is a mess.”
The manager agreed. “What can we do?” he said.
It takes a lot to bring a nation of nearly a billion together. I suppose the price of onions is as good an issue as any.