When E P Unny’s daily comic strip ‘Scales’ appeared in The Financial Express in 2005, it literally inaugurated the genre of business comic strip in the country*. By then, boundaries between the news content of financial and the general newspapers had already blurred thanks to the economic liberalisation policies initiated by the Narasimha Rao government of the early 1990s. Driven by the realisation that changes in political and economic spheres reflected and influenced each other more than ever before, the pink papers had started to report more politics and the general ones, more economics. In 1993, Unny himself was hired by the Economic Times as a news cartoonist, a first in the fifty odd year history of the paper. While these developments and that Unny was then the chief political cartoonist of the group’s flagship newspaper The Indian Express may have contributed to the introduction of the comic strip, what makes this event significant in the history of Indian comics is that the editorial team of a financial paper had recognized the potential of a comic strip to explicate the nuances of a resurgent economy. More importantly, they had invited an Indian cartoonist to create an Indian comic strip when they could have gone and purchased syndicated business comic strips like ‘Dilbert’ and ‘Alex’ that were available in the market if they were looking to add a splash of humour to the pages or fill available space. In retrospect, their decision was spot on, not only because Unny had been one news cartoonist who had been consistently alluding to the forces of market in his political cartoons but also because in the two years that he ran the strip, he created a comic strip that was uniquely Indian, charting the follies, foibles and paradigmatic shifts in the economic practices of the nation.
Unlike corporate offices and men in suits that are the staple elements of all financial strips, ‘Scales’ featured the team of a snake and snake charmer going about town, executing business ideas in their attempt to earn a fortune. The snake in his machinations, charm and intellect resembles his biblical counterpart and makes the snake charmer dance to his tunes than the other way around. The strip is virtually a record of the rapid technological innovations in the realm of personal and business communications and the seamless adoption of the same by the Indian middle class. Here we see how email communications become the norm, how PCO s are rendered redundant by mobile phones, how everything needs to be presented in power point and how one has to start thinking in quarters than annual. Unny’s deviation from the norm was deliberate and designed to serve a purpose.
“I wanted to do a post Dilbert comic strip; for that was the defining comic as far as financial comics go. I wanted to take my characters outside, to experience a wider world, out of the office environs, since how business is done in our country is completely different from how it is conducted in the West”.
So, you see the snake moving from business to business just like the new Indian business man who had started to move out of the familiar scene of family business, expanding his horizons. The smooth talking snake goes on trying to extract the early bird advantage in an array of trades, experimenting, dispensing wisdom and sometimes conning unsuspecting investors out of their earnings. He tries out every business opportunity from entertainment to relationship advisor to wellness guru anticipating the growth in these leisure economy sectors that arrives with a certain increment in the per capita income of the population. The strip went on to become such an integral part of the newspaper page that the snake and his handler were once taken out of the square frame to comment on the union budget.
The strip, which Unny had promised to run for a year went on for another before pressures of producing it for five days a week on top of his daily news cartoons caught up with him. The strip folded and Unny returned to the world of political cartoons. But he considers the days he spent on the strip a wonderful learning curve and hopes to return to it sometime in future.
Scales not only entertained the financial readers for two years but also underscored the point that Indian newspaper editors ought to look around and unearth these gems than randomly pick comic strips of some American syndication rack. Who knows, maybe one day, some Western newspaper might pick the strip up if Unny chooses to return to it, as the World economics turn more Asia centric.
* Blinkers Off by Salam was already appearing in Economic Times, but was a single panel gag cartoon, not a comic strip.