He served time in federal penitentiary in the US in the 1980s and had written a memoir about it in 2004. Now he has his own podcast, The Score: Bank Robber Diaries.
When I heard they were stealing bags of onions in Midnapore and leaving the cashbox untouched, that a truckload of onions had vanished somewhere between Nashik in Maharashtra and Gorakhpur in Gujarat, that 250kg of onions stacked outside a vegetable shop in Gujarat had vanished, I had to call Joe.
He started laughing, not because it was ridiculous, but because it all sounded so familiar. He said it reminded him of Fruit Man, whom he had met in prison. Fruit Man had started out by stealing fruit from the prison kitchen. In time he graduated to entire fried chickens. Fruit Man stole food and he made a good living doing it.
“The guys who made the most money in prison were those who smuggled food out of the kitchen," remembered Joe. “You would pay for a big baloney sandwich with cigarettes."
The theft of onions has become the subject of a thousand memes, like someone exchanging an iPhone for a bag of onions or comparisons between cricketer Virat Kohli and onions hitting the century mark. Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman is being trolled for caste snobbery because she said her no-onion, no-garlic household was not affected. Yet, during an earlier onion crisis, then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit too was pilloried when she said she felt the aam aadmi’s pain because she was having bhindi (okra) without onions at home. Clearly, there is no winning. Talking to Joe, however, I realized this is also a lesson in humility, proof that even the humble onion can have its day. Joe said that when he first went to prison, he already had one bank robbery under his belt. Then he met the others who were in prison. Someone had stolen razor blades and batteries from a supermarket, someone had been held for stealing cigarettes. They were called boosters. They would then sell these things to their drug dealers. One guy who was very skinny had a specialized boosting skill. He would go into a supermarket and smuggle out entire steaks under his jacket. He would sell them to buy heroin.
“I was robbing banks and these guys were robbing food. It didn’t compute."
He shouldn’t have been so surprised, he said. In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean comes out of prison after 19 years, five of them for stealing bread for his starving sister and her family. But Joe thought of food thieves as petty criminals while he considered himself a creature of a higher order, a bona-fide bank robber. At one point during a robbing spree, he even had his own nickname with the Feds—Beirut Bandit, though he was Latino.
But prison taught him a valuable lesson. “We could not use money in prison," he said. “We had to use other things as currency—chips, cookies, cigarettes." The mafia gangsters who held up trucks on the highway didn’t particularly care what they were carrying. They just knew they had goods that had value in a marketplace somewhere. If they found televisions inside, that was great. These days, if it’s onions, that’s probably fine as well.
For us as consumers, though, it feels like the sky is falling. We can understand spikes in petrol and gold prices. But when it hits potatoes and onions, it feels like a blow to the gut. When potato prices went through the roof in 2013, it felt like the end. I remember potatoes being sold at subsidized rates in my local bazaar in Kolkata with policemen standing guard. A biryani outlet put up notices saying, “Due to scarcity of potato we will sell biryani without potato." The proprietor of one fabled Kolkata biryani restaurant said they were contemplating something sacrilegious—dropping the potato and replacing it with an egg. Lucknow purists might think of it as divine retribution for sullying a biryani with potato in the first place but aloo shortage always hits us where it hurts.
An onion shortage is admittedly a little different. In the first place, there’s no onion in a Kolkata biryani so the biryani does not feel threatened. We don’t have onion-bhaja with our dal the way we have crispy jhuri-aloo bhaja. The potato is the stuffing of the Kolkata phuchka, the heart of a shingada and there is no dum in the aloo dum without it. Onions we can work around. There’s even a niramish mutton recipe, the famous “vegetarian" meat curry, dedicated to Goddess Kali herself and therefore cooked without onions or garlic. This week, the little pack of slivered onions and cucumber that accompanies the takeaway tandoori chicken was mostly shredded cabbage with a hint of onion.
But still it hurts. The last time onion prices shot through the roof, my local dosa outlet put a sticker on the menu. All onion items would cost ₹5 more than the marked price. We are not quite there yet. Last week, the onion uttapam was still the same price as the tomato and chilli uttapam, though some restaurants have taken the onion dosa off the menu in Bengaluru. But then last time around we had not heard of thieves stealing bags of onions and leaving cash untouched. Perhaps that was a lesson learnt from demonetization. Money might lose its value but food does not.
In Bengali, there was a time when we would say “aloo-peyaj" in dismissive tones. They were just the basic vegetables, hardly worth our respect. We oohed and aah-ed over piles of green broccoli or orange carrots. Nobody ever said, “Look at those onions!" Now we have learnt the hard way not to take them for granted. This October, I went to Pattadakal in northern Karnataka. The centuries-old temples of Pattadakal, with their friezes from the Ramayan, Mahabharat and Puranas, are exquisite. But the photographs that excited my family back home most were not of massive Nandi bulls or Ravana battling Jatayu or Vishnu’s avatars. They were of huge mounds of onions drying on the road to Pattadakal. That left them truly awestruck. Onion prices had crossed ₹80 a kg in Kolkata markets that week.
Northern Karnataka is onion country. It was October but the monsoon had not withdrawn yet. Rain during what should have been the time of harvest was wreaking havoc. As the sun came out, dragonflies started buzzing and men started shovelling the onions that had been covered with tarpaulin to protect them.
These days when I think about Pattadakal, the temples have fused in my memory, the Galganatha temple merging into the Papanatha merging into the Virupaksha. But I distinctly remember the onions. As the price of onions crosses a century at my local market in Kolkata, the memory of them on the road to Pattadakal shimmers like a tantalizing mirage in sepia, a memory of dopiazas past.
If nothing else, I have learnt to use every last bit of onion instead of tossing bits I didn’t need but was too lazy to conserve. I peel it extra carefully. I just found out, from a Lounge food piece last week, that onions peels, dried and blitzed, add an umami zing to salt. Our political pundits want to map the price of onions to the rise and fall of political parties during elections. Newspapers put “teary-eyed" in every onion story headline.
But there’s a simpler and more basic lesson to be learnt, one that befits a very basic vegetable.
“It proves everything has value," said Joe Loya. And sometimes the more basic it is, the more taken for granted, the greater the value. “Tomorrow it will be water," he warned. “That is what we will steal."
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.