[This won me a joint first place on a Shakespeare and Company theme. I have made minor clarificatory changes.]
The Pasta Affair
(originally written in Bangalore on 26 March, 2006)
The Opposition Leader hurried into the House. The budget was going to be presented today. It was one day in his otherwise indifferent parliamentary career that he could not afford to miss – for it would give him the stick to beat the government with for the next year. If his party beat it well, they would win the election.
The budget turned out to be lacklustre. The Finance Minister had made no dramatic gestures, which could be relabelled as Himalayan blunders. Instead he claimed that the economy was in shape enough not to want fiscal histrionics anymore. The Opposition Leader went to the canteen to have his masala dosa in dejection. That election was going to be tough now.
"So Mr. Shetty, your minister has made pasta cheaper, eh! You should be reducing prices! No such luck for us North Indians.” Joked an MP to the canteen clerk.
“What can you expect from a South Indian FM?” commented another MP.
“What has north-south got to do with it? It is just economics!” retorted a young southern MP. This was his first time as an MP, and in his enthusiasm he had actually read the budget document.
The Opposition Leader sensed a fight – an issue. He tuned his ears to catch the banter, as it developed into a potential national crisis.
“Economics my foot. Why did he not make chapatti atta cheaper? This is all to favour his nephew who has a dosa-batter company. And why pasta? That is just sycophancy to his remote-controlling ‘Supreme Leader’. Huh!”
“Stuff and nonsense” retorted the defender. “Atta is already not taxed, and anyway it is not prepared food. Idli-dosa batter, noodles and pasta are. They are very popular with our countrymen. You guys make ready-to-eat chapattis and sell them in packets, and the concessions will be extended to you.”
Th Opposition Leader sat back.. He had got his stick.
The pasta crisis mushroomed into a huge cloud over the government. No amount of defence would work. Either the ‘Supreme Leader’ resign, or the concession be rolled back. The opposition took to the streets. A Boycott Campaign was called. Packets of pasta were burnt in public boycott. Chapattis were distributed to the poor, and mass Swadeshi chapatti-making rallies were held. Morchas and dharnas cried “Pasta, Go Back” everywhere.
The ‘Supreme Leader’ wasn’t amused. She called a press-conference, shed some perfunctory tears, and resigned her posts.
“I shall go to the people’s court! They would decide whether the ruling party or the opposition is right.” she thundered.
Meanwhile, the tax concessions to ready-made foods was removed from the budget.
As the year wore on, the issue faded in the light of other theatrical occurrences. Elections were nearing, and the public’s attention had to be engaged into believing in the current government’s merits or lack of them. L’affaire pasta was forgotten.
It was forgotten by the politicians only. The public, for once, did not.
Working women had been thrilled by the concession. It meant a lot to them. One needn’t come home and have to cook things from scratch. No grinding, pounding, kneading, frying, boiling or baking. Pick up something from the friendly neighbourhood shop, come home and microwave. In the era of televised globalisation, husbands and children alike were demanding pasta, noodles and many such things, instead of the humdrum sambhar or dal-bhath.
The only thing that had prevented them from already doing so was the cost. Readymade items had cost quite a bit, and the home economy was still in favour of manual cooking. Had the concession not been withdrawn, a working woman would have been able to save both time and money. The potential uses of that were many – getting some leisure, attending to children’s studies, or getting some time with the hubby.
The Working Women’s Forum highlighted these losses in public meetings. The country’s middle classes were awakened. They organised meetings and demanded that the concession be restored. They took to the streets. Packets of readymade pasta were distributed to the poor. Chapattis were decried as symbols of women’s slavery and burnt in effigy.
The chapatti-phile Opposition Leader countered, “It is the food of the poor.”
“There are more middle-class than poor in our growing economy!” responded the pasta-philes.
The Opposition Leader lost his seat in what came to be called the ‘chapatti-pasta election’. The tax concession was reintroduced. Middle-class working women everywhere celebrated their new power in the ruling dispensation.
“The voice of the people is the voice of God!” gloated the ‘Supreme Leader’.