Prof M A Oommen is one of the finest and most radical economic thinkers Kerala had ever produced. So it was only natural for him to cross paths, at times even cross swords, with the State's most powerful political leaders.
Prof Oommen's recently released autobiography, 'Ormappadikal' (Memory's Stairs), has a delightful chapter on legendary Kerala leaders he had come across along the path of his sterling career. Prof Oommen had a Marxian bend but Congress leaders too had gained considerably from his insight.
When Prof Oommen first met K Karunakaran, in 1967, he was the opposition leader, and 'the Leader' did not even own a car. But his deputy leader, Kallooppara MLA George Thomas, owned a couple of cars. “At a time when owning even a single car was a luxury, George Thomas had two,” Prof Oommen writes.
Since he used to write Assembly speeches for George Thomas, Prof Oommen was allowed to use one of the cars to pick his daughter from school and also for long distance travel. “Even the Leader, who did not possess a car then, occasionally used this car,” Prof Oommen writes.
Those were simpler, innocent times. One day, while Prof Oommen was travelling with George Thomas, the car was stopped by a traffic policeman and, finding that it did not have the requisite documents, was taken to the police station. “When Thomas sought to invoke his privilege saying he was an MLA, the police inspector told him it was then all the more important for him to be more responsible,” Prof Oommen writes.
Karunakaran, who was then the opposition leader, got the car released the next day but only after paying the penalty. “Just imagine the situation now. Leave alone a minor traffic inspector, even a top police officer wouldn't dare to block the way of an MLA. Then, the traffic inspector did not lose his job or, better still, no one tried to oust him from his job,” Prof Oommen says.
Kerala's last hope
But even in those times politicians loved to sound pompous. Prof Oommen remembers how George Thomas took Theodore Schultz's seminal work 'Transforming Traditional Agriculture' from his shelf and on the very next day stood up in the Assembly with Schultz's book in hand and declared that Kerala had no hope until agriculture minister M N Govindan Nair read this book. “That very evening Thomas returned the book without having read even a word of it,” Prof Oommen writes.
An ex-CM's room
He first saw C Achutha Menon face to face while he was drinking soda from a shop in Thrissur. It was 1976 or 1977, the fag end of Achutha Menon's second term as chief minister. “Some one touched me softly. I turned and saw Achutha Menon right in front of me. With him was his agriculture minister V V Raghavan. Two great souls untouched by the blemish of corruption,” is how Prof Oommen describes the first meeting.
It was after Achutha Menon retired from active politics that Oommen used to visit the former chief minister's house in Thrissur. Achutha Menon was a huge admirer of Prof Oommen's syllabus reform.
“His room was shorn of all grandeur. The mattress and pillow were neatly folded on the cot. The only decoration was a decent collection of books,” Prof Oommen writes. “He generally keeps a grave face but he would burst out laughing like a kid when he hears simple jokes,” he adds.
EMS and Christian marriage
Equally spartan was the life of yet another Communist chief minister, E M S Namboodirippad. He recalls the day he went to invite EMS to the marriage of his youngest son, Reny, at his house in Thiruvananthapuram.
“It was a small house near Gandhari Amman Kovil. There was a set of old steel chairs on the verandah. On one was a young female journalist who had come to write down his daily piece for the Deshabhimani. His wife (Arya Antharjanam) asked me to be seated in one of the chairs. EMS was sound asleep with a translated copy of 'Das Capital' on his chest. After a while his wife got impatient, went inside and patted hard on her husband's legs muttering 'what kind of a sleep is this',” Prof Oommen writes.
E M S got up with a jolt and Oommen was called inside. He told him the reason for his visit. The great man looked stiffly at the economist and said: “You want to take a Communist to a Christian marriage. I won't come.” Oommen did not give up. “You don't have to come for the marriage. Just be at the reception at Sree Moolam Club,” he said. EMS relented.
After the reception, the legendary economist K N Raj had an interesting observation. “It was greatly amusing to watch EMS having mutton Biriyani,” he told Oommen.
An 'ignobel' incident
It is with a sense of bewilderment that he talks about E K Nayanar. His most vivid memories about Nayanar revolves around the visit of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen to Kerala in 2000 for the National Conference on Education in Kerala’s Development.
The Chief Minister delivered the presidential address at the inaugural function where the Nobel laureate was the chief guest. “I wrote the Chief Minister's speech. He read it out without taking out a single word. But the very next day his article appeared in the Deshabhimani with the heading 'Amartyaye avahelikkunna Oommen' (Oommen insults Amartya). It is still not clear why he wrote such an article. Perhaps he would have been offended by my criticism of Kerala's education system in the book that I wrote about Amartya Sen,” Prof Oommen writes. He also says that CPM leader M A Baby called up to apologise for Nayanar's article.
Chandy's photographic memory
Prof Oommen sounds both impressed and a bit disappointed with Oommen Chandy. His first meeting with Chandy was in 1991, few days before Chandy was to present his first budget. The day before the Budget presentation, a top police official and Oommen's student P J Alexander visited his house and insisted that he visit the finance minister at his room in Mascot Hotel (Kerala Tourism Development Corporation's luxury hotel).
(If Thomas Isaac has the habit of retiring to the government bungalow in the coastal village of Vizhinjam to prepare his budgets, Chandy used to do his budget work from a room in the government's luxury hotel.)
“I went to Chandy's room. He gave me the speech to read. What was shown to me I did not find impressive. I told him that the speech should throb with the pulse of Kerala economy. He agreed,” Prof Oommen writes. He took a day and a night to rewrite the speech, which was read in full by Chandy.
Chandy also called Prof Oommen for help to take on the opposition during the budget discussion in the Assembly. Since he was away, he knew of the finance minister's call very late. There was no time for a detailed discussion.
“When I reached Puthuppally House, the finance minister was in the verandah about to leave for the Assembly. He gave me a note containing a list of opposition charges. Standing there, I replied to each of the charges. While giving my opinion I also remember using the word 'U-turn'. Oommen Chandy was all ears. Inside the Assembly, he effectively countered the opposition charges. Most of what I told him in a hurry was in his reply. In one of the next day's newspaper, a headline had the word 'U-turn' in it,” Prof Oommen writes.
He says he had spoken about Chandy's amazing memory to former union minister Jairam Ramesh while releasing a book on Chandy.
However, Prof Oommen was rattled by the decision to trifurcate the local self government department during Oommen Chandy's next term as Chief Minister in 2011. He managed to meet Chandy and explain why the decision would hurt grassroots democracy.
Chandy heard all that Oommen had to say but, unlike in 1991 when he reproduced from memory all the complicated economics that Oommen had told him, dumped them in some unused corner of his brain.