Friday, March 7, 2008

Writer Hits Jackpot, Thanks to Finance Minister

An unconventional recognition for Vaikom Muhammed Basheer on his centenary year.

EMINENT WRITERS, especially those who are dead and abandoned by the readers in an age of television serials and cyber chat, are back in circulation: They are hot property in the annual budgets in India, where every budget presentation is a media event.

It is surprising this annual ceremony of presenting the coming year’s income and expenditure accounting, which could be as interesting as the annual company reports certified by a chartered accountant, gets the television TRP ratings that beat even the best reality show now available on the mini-screen. Perhaps, it has to do with the simple truth that the greatest music for mortals like us is the noise of a shower of coins. And on the occasion of budget presentation, we think of what it could bring us by way of tax concessions and other pecuniary benefits.

But the ministers presenting the budget are mindful about the importance of the day when they would be the cynosure of every eye, not only in the Assembly or Parliament hall but outside in almost every home where there is a TV set. They are acutely aware of the fact that on all other days of the year, they are generally a hated lot because they hold the purse-strings and finance ministers, all over the world, come as stingy scrooges as a rule.

That is why finance ministers take every precaution to appear as natty as a young girl going to her first ball, and poetry comes handy to a finance minister going to present the budget, like music to a youngster in love.

Harvard educated Palaniappan Chidambaram has presented five budgets in a row, the second one to do so in India after Dr Manmohan Singh, and all of them accompanied a couplet or two from his favorite Tamil poets like Thiru Valluvar. Thiru Valluvar is a great sage, but he was never known outside Tamilakam and now look, he has become a household name even in the northern cow belt!

This week it was the turn of our own Beypore Sultan, whose centenary year this is. Kerala Finance Minister Dr T M Thomas Isaac got hold of Vaikom Muhammed Basheer and his novel, Pathummayude Aadu, to explain his budget proposals and his financial constraints. He said like the writer who was facing a huge and expectant crowd at his family house on a rare visit home, making all kinds of demands on his wallet, he too was faced with plenty of demands and an emaciated treasury. The small household of Basheer and Pathumma in Thalayolapparamba is a microcosm of the entire state of Kerala, he said, and assured, like Basheer to his family members, that things would be fine next time. Just wait and watch!

That indeed was a master stroke. The story of Pathumma and her goat is well known and the tale is such a hit with readers that the book has run into several reprints. It describes the scene in the household when Basheer, after a brief spell in an asylum, returns home for some rest and recuperation. There he encounters the coups and counter-coups of his mother and sisters, brothers and their children and distant relatives and the non-human members of the household like cocks and hens and others, among them the she-goat that Pathumma nursed so lovingly like a child, has a prime place. The goat is central to the dreams of Pathumma for a great and happy life, and she makes the greatest coup of all, by devouring Basheer’s newly published book that he had kept like a treasure deep in his box.

The Opposition says Dr Isaac’s budget reminds them of another Basheer character, Ettukali Mammoonju, who claims fatherhood of every child born in the village. The only problem with him is that he is impotent.

Let that be. But one thing is certain: The Kerala Finance Minister has hit upon an idea that really enthused cartoonists because today’s morning newspapers are awash with Basheer and his goat.

Now I am waiting for the next budget, not because what it might hold for me but because I am curious to know who would be the next writer to hit the jackpot.

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