Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Budget

It was the beginning of the winter of 1939. That day of the year again, 1st of September, the annual day. The town square buzzed with an increased anticipation as last year there hadn't been any need for the ritual. The town square was actually a circle. It was an open amphitheatre with a statue in the middle. There were ten tiers of seating available around the statue. Some families had gathered even before the sun rose and had grabbed the front seats. Some had come early to secure seats in the tenth tier. It was all about the family beliefs and what people thought would give them the best chance. It was 1 PM. There were still two hours for the ritual to begin but most of the seats had been taken.
1st September was birthdate of the little unknown island in the North Pacific Ocean, Leonard, named after its discoverer, John Leonard. John was a British. Somewhere in late eighteen century as a British navy captain he set on a voyage that would be his last and ultimately lead to the discovery of the island. It was the most beautiful place he had ever seen in his life. He had first set his eyes on the island in the night. The moon was half lit but even then the flowers of all colours blossomed. It was as if they were not reflecting the light from the sky but had light of their own. The greenery was heavenly. It seemed like a carnival in a desert. They decided to stay there for a few days.
Leonard and his crew however never came back. There was something devilish in the air. The idea of abandoning all contact with their families and rest of the world suddenly seemed exciting to all. The island was to be their new home. The crew consisted of nine men and three ladies. Leonard became the leader of the island unanimously and married Lisa, the most beautiful lass amongst the three females. The two remaining girls, Pepa, a sixteen year old, and Anita, a girl of India origin, married four men each thus laying the foundation of Leonard.
Life was easy in the beginning. The only compromise that they thought they had to make was to turn vegetarians. There were unfortunately no animals on the island. Most of the days were spent leisurely. They would roam along the shore line during the day and walk away from it towards the dense trees in the night. The men collected vegetables, fruits during the day and kept the ladies busy in the night. They could complete one full circle of the island along the shore line in less than three days. After they had scanned most of the island they picked the spot to build three houses. It all seemed very simple, then came the winter. The days were fine but the temperatures would drop steeply in the night. They hadn't made a lot of progress in building the houses. The twelve of them would all huddle together in a little shack in front of fire in the night. 
Anita's eldest husband was the first one to die. Another one had caught severe cold. The ship was a wreck. They had all decided to live on the edge, dreaming a life far away from the world that imagined that their ship had sunk. They all doubted now if they would survive. They lost Pepa and three men that winter. They worked hard through the summer building the houses and storing enough food for the next winter. Two new members were added to the island's population when Lisa and Anita gave birth to a girl and a boy before the winter, a winter they were slightly better prepared for. One of the new born died that winter. The bitter winter remained a challenge but the civilization never looked back. Leonard got his statue made and established it in town square in 1809. The annual day ritual was started in 1917 by Leonard the V.
It was time. Every single family in Leonard, eighty nine of them, were present. Oblivious to the world that was about to engage in a massive war, one thousand and ten Leonardians, that's what they called themselves, were inside the amphitheatre. The tension was palpable. There were twelve babies, less than a year old. Three old sick men, unable to walk, but still there. You couldn't afford to miss this event.
"Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to the annual day celebrations. It is the day when we together define the budget of our nation. It is that day of the year when we prepare for the winter. Since the birth of our nation the goal of our forefathers was to ensure that we survive on our own. No one gets to know that we exist, we don't depend upon anyone. All of you understand the constitution and know how it plays out." Leonard the VI started the proceedings. He was a tall handsome man with sharp features and long hair. People said that he looked exactly like the original Leonard.
"My finance minister tells me that all families have already registered and designated their family's picker. The first step is to ensure that everyone is here."
The finance minister, an old short man stepped in front. He had a smile on his face that he couldn't wipe off.
"Welcome all. This is a formality. I'm sure all of us are here but we must go through this procedure. Like the ritual goes, the whole family needs to stand up when I announce the family name. Then one by one I announce your first names and you raise your hand. Hold your kid in your lap if you have got one. Point to him or her when I announce the name. The picker of the family needs to keep standing after all names have been announced and verified. The rest of the family sits down."
After a brief moment of silence the minister pulled out a sheet of paper. The ritual had begun.
The Adams, a family of eight stood up. An old man and his wife. Two sons and a daughter. The eldest son's wife and their two daughters. One by one the minister shouted out their names and they raised their hands. The young ones were old enough to raise their hands when their name was announced. The two girls had been part of the event before. The younger son, Paul, the family's picker, was left standing after all eight names had been announced.
The names were announced in a rapid succession. It usually took half an hour to go through the entire population.
The Smith was a family of six. Old Bill and his wife Emma, two sons and their wives. Only five people stood up though when the name was announced. They were seated in the last tier.
"Where is Bill? Ask him to stand up please." asked the minister.
"I'm sorry sir. He couldn't make it. It's not his fault. You know he is a hard man. He decided to go to the fields this morning to get some peaches for our lunch. He fell from the tree and broke his leg." responded Emma. The tension in her voice was loud and clear. There was a hush-hush in the crowd.
"If we had tried to drag him, none of us would have made it here." shouted Emma. The hoo-ha in the crowd grew further.
"Silent." shouted the minister.
"Look Emma, Bill is a friend. However today it's all about Leonard and its sovereignty. I'm sorry. Add his name to the list."
"It's not right. You need to understand the situation. It's most unfortunate."
The minister quickly announced all the Smiths.
"Since Bill is not here, who is going to be the family's picker?"
"We can go and drag him here sir. Just give us a couple of hours." Emma cried.
"Don't fool around with the nation. Who is your picker?"
The eldest son Joel Smith raised his hand. "I'll be the one."
He soothed his crying mother and asked her to sit down. The verification continued.
After they had verified that everybody but Bill Smith was in the amphitheatre the minister moved towards the statue. He had a bowl in his hand. He placed the bowl at the feet of the statue.
"One by one now, starting from my left in the lowest tier, clockwise, and then moving up the tier, I request the family's picker to move forward and pick a chit from this bowl. After you have picked the chit, hand it over to me."
Peter Martin was the first in line. He stepped forward with sweaty palms.
"Be quick." the minister howled.
Peter put his hand in the bowl. He shuffled the chits. He had most of them in his hand. He let loose of the chits one by one until he was left with only one. Is it the one? He took a deep breath and picked it out. He handed it to the minister.
The minister opened it up. A blank. The Martins heaved a sigh of relief. "I told you getting the first seat always works." cheered Peter's father.
One by one the picker came forward, their family holding onto their breaths.
As the pickers drew blanks, the tension in the families sitting in upper tiers grew. Baikunth Kumar was the twenty seventh picker to move forward. He picked a chit and stood there with his hand in the bowl momentarily. In the last second, he changed his mind and let that chit go. He moved his hand around in the bowl again, picked another one and handed to the minister. The minister opened it up.
"Picker" it read.
The Kumars didn't understand how to react. They had reason to be happy as well as sad. Baikunth looked towards his family. He walked back towards them maintaining his calm. The ten family members huddled around him.
"Baikunth Kumar is added to the list."
"Next picker please. We have business to continue."
When Nick Pearl moved forward, there were still twenty three chits remaining in the bowl. He had volunteered to be the picker for his family. He rushed towards the bowl as his father had asked him to and grabbed a chit. He kissed it before he handed it over to the minster.
"Family" the chit read.
The entire amphitheatre was filled with murmurs. Nick fell on his knees and started to cry.
"Something is wrong. That is not the chit I was going to pick up. You need to give me another chance."
People had already surrounded the Pearls paying their sympathies.
"Hold on people. Stay wherever you are. Pearls are a family of seven. We still need to account for one more. We have to start the procedure once again to get to thousand." the minister announced.
"Can I say something sir?" Steffi stepped forward from the crowd. She was holding onto two babies.
"What is it about?"
"As you know I gave birth to twins this year. If not for these twins, we would have achieved thousand. The rice crop has been good this year. It’s just one more baby. Let’s call it a day."
There was unanimous support for her. "Let’s call it a day." was heard around the amphitheatre. Leonard the VI had been observing the drama unfold in front on him sitting on his throne. He got up in a flash and screamed. "A tradition is a tradition. No compromises. Go back to your seat lady."
He was right. A ritual was a ritual. As Leonard the island grew, there came a breaking point in their economy when the crop on the island was not enough for every habitant. It was estimated that the island could only feed one thousand people during the winter. The budget list was the only way.  
There was a sudden silence. In a moment, the pickers were standing again. The Kumars had declared Meena Kumar as their new picker. The Pearls were out of the draw so they remained seated.
Peter Martin was first to draw again.
Sophia Victor who had drawn a blank the last time was not lucky this time around.
As soon as the chit was announced, everyone in the amphitheatre, apart from Kumars, Pearls, and Victors started to cheer. There were eleven Victors on the island. Leonard probably won't need the ceremony next year.
The budget list was ready. A list of twenty people. It was the longest list ever in the last twenty three years. Most of the island remained at the town square that night. They sang songs, drank beer and danced that night. Some couples who left early were planning their babies.
The budget list had ensured like previous winters that there would be plenty of food that winter, and warmth. Lastly, Leonardians no longer needed to be vegetarians.