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You Said It. We Loved It

A tribute to R.K. Laxman, arguably the greatest ever Indian cartoonist.

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If the abiding relevance of a creator’s work across time — that unkind demolisher of trendy reputations —could serve as a measure of artistic achievement and lasting greatness, Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman, who breathed his last in a Pune hospital last month at the ripe age of 93, has found a permanent place in the pantheon of that rare set of distinguished compatriots whose excellence in their field of human endeavor places them on the world map.

After the sudden stroke in 2006 which paralyzed his left side and the illness which hindered his daily output (it had continued uninterrupted for close to five decades, save a couple of Emergency years in the mid-1970s), the Times of India editors decided surreptitiously to unearth R.K.Laxman’s old You-Said-It pocket-cartoons and republish them in the usual front-page slot. Remarkably, except for a few with a discerning eye who noticed the scraggly finish of his post-stroke draftsmanship and those who recalled enjoying those same cartoons in an earlier era, the rest of the readership viewed them simply as freshly drawn cartoons and therefore consumed them without complaint as part of their daily dose of the Laxman magic. That the palm-off went undetected tells you of the historical sweep of the master’s cartooning prowess, of its enviable capacity to connect seamlessly with a generation — even generations — of readers who weren’t even born when he’d first doodled those gems.

Of course, given that the man seemed genetically programmed to puncture inflated egos rather than to contribute to any kind of image-making, Laxman himself would probably have attributed this phenomenon to the fact that little has changed and that, if anything, life has in fact gotten worse for the average Indian citizen — his very own Common Man. That “man” was Laxman’s own alter ego: acutely observant (like him) but profoundly silent (unlike him), preferring to train a bemused eye at the truly ridiculous and laughable goings-on in a country where an assembly line of callous and exploitative politicians down the years since Independence have left the masses to pretty much fend for themselves against price-rice, scarcity of commodities, corruption, unemployment, potholes, and a deteriorating law-and-order situation.

In that sense, Laxman’s Common Man was a veritable witness to the passage of an emergent nation’s history and an unwitting chronicler of its turbulent times over the last half century. His creator’s genius lay in telling us simply and directly what every development in our larger social and political life meant to the man-on-the street in his struggle to grapple with his everyday task of staying alive. And in making even the most complex and inscrutable issue accessible to the reader — to the point of humorous interpretation.

If newspaper journalism (meaning daily news reportage) is, as is often called, “the first draft of history” then we must readily grant that the typical Laxman cartoon gave it a biting, satirical edge that spoke most eloquently from between the lines of that draft. His best political cartoons, compiled as a coffee-table book called Fifty Years of Independence through the eyes of R.K. Laxman, collectively trump any written account of that period with its unique and unrelentingly withering perspective on India’s polity. One marvels at how much more a few deft strokes of the brush accompanied by a couple of terse sentences can convey, compared to reams of text-based analysis.

In achieving this, he was peerless. The late Mario Miranda, a gifted illustrator and occasional cartoonist who worked for the popular magazines Filmfare, Femina and Illustrated Weekly of India published by the same Bennett Coleman media group that boasts of the Times of India daily newspaper as its flagship, was speaking for his fraternity when he once remarked in a private conversation: “There is no question that Laxman is number one. The only question really is, do we begin ranking the rest of the country’s cartoonists at number eight or number nine?”

Who would Laxman thank for this pre-eminent position? You’d think it would be his cartooning idol David Low, the legendary cartoonist from the Evening Standard, London, whose drawing style ostensibly inspired Laxman. Low’s influence can be faintly discerned in the Laxman lines, and there is little doubt that the Brit’s physical humor impressed the then Indian acolyte.

But it was clear from his interviews and public statements that Laxman was highly indebted to the very butt of his barbs — the quintessential Indian politician — for being his life-long professional Muse. “If our politicians stop their blah-blah and get down to serious work,” he once said, “I will have to retire and go away.” Thankfully, that never happened in his lifetime, and does not look remotely possible in the near future as well. His only regret late in his career was that the recent crop of Indian politicians — with the exception of Bihar’s Lalu Prasad Yadav and Tamil Nadu’s J. Jayalalithaa — lacked distinctive facial features. “These days they all more or less look the same,” he groused.

Like all caricaturists though, Laxman’s ultimate dread was the challenge of making the good-looking politician look funny. But when it came to caricaturing Rajiv Gandhi and his equally handsome grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, Laxman resorted to the wily expedient of showing them bald, without their Gandhi caps. It was widely known that Rajiv, during his entire tenure as India’s Prime Minister, wriggled out of a firm decision on many urgent issues with the standard I-will-look-into-the-matter reply. He found his come-uppance in Laxman. When Laxman was introduced to him at a function and he complained albeit light-heartedly that the cartoonist was over-emphasizing the receding hair-line in his drawings, the response he got was — you guessed it — “I will look into the matter”!

For an irascible genius who could so easily floor a prime minister at a public function, his own colleagues ranked perhaps just a notch higher than minced meat. When I relocated back to India from the United States in 1991 and proceeded to meet old friends at the Times building in Mumbai soon after I landed, I should have been prepared for Laxman, the perennial contrarian. In the midst of the bonhomie — friends telling me how happy they were to see me back — Laxman sought me out, sized me up a disdainful look, and said, “I’m really disappointed with you.” He then launched into a spirited speech (for anybody within hearing distance) about the charms of living in a developed country like USA, ending — rather predictably — with the Laxmanism that the only professional who could flourish in India was a political cartoonist.

Before I let the reader catch the impression that I was once on back-slapping terms with Laxman, I must admit that my interactions with the cartooning legend were few and far between. As a non-descript junior reporter and copy-editor with the Times group in the mid and late 1970s, I had occasion to observe first-hand the genius at work — and play — in large part because my department happened to be a short walk from Laxman’s cabin.

In larger part, because that department was blessed with one of the few “direct telephones” on the entire floor. The others had to be satisfied with intercom lines connected with the main telephone board. So coveted was a direct phone connection in those days that the instrument was kept securely locked, with the key in the possession of a dour head-of-department who took a lot of convincing that an urgent call was warranted. For his part, Laxman had refused a direct line in his own cabin on the ground that he did not want to be disturbed by incoming calls. Which meant that whenever he had to make his very private calls (he obviously didn’t trust the board operator’s integrity), the great Laxman appeared mendicant-like at the HOD’s desk, looking for the key. And when the HOD was away, the key — ostensibly in the safe-keep of one of his juniors — would mysteriously get misplaced and the rest of us on cue would feign earnest efforts to locate it in one of the desk drawers. Once, utterly exasperated by the long wait, Laxman castigated us for keeping “everything under lock and key.” He then looked up at the heavens and asked: “Can someone tell me if this is an office or a prison?”

This however was small recompense or retribution for the pranks that Laxman himself played on others. Accosted by a stranger in the office corridor who asked him for “Mr. R.K. Laxman’s office,” Laxman — who hated receiving unscheduled visitors — gave him elaborate directions to the other end of the building, which he dutifully followed and landed next to a toilet. Among his many quirks (see sidebar) was his refusal to use the elevator, but instead walk up the stairs to reach his third-floor office. Speculation abounded on the reason: was it a short physical work-out to rid himself of a hangover, or was it a convenient way to avoid the ritual of exchanging early-morning pleasantries with anyone he detested, but with whom he found himself captive in the cramped elevator? It was no secret that he loved his drink; but the more you knew Laxman the man, the more you’d be inclined to believe it was the latter.

By far the most memorable and unmistakable takeway for me from my years at the Times with Laxman in full flow a few feet away on the same floor, was the realization that excellence does not come easy, that great art never flows spontaneously out of the god-given, ever-brimming barrel of creativity, that the best of us have to sweat and fret in order to achieve greatness. Laxman did that, scurrying to the teleprinter for the latest news — and ideas — whenever he hit a blank wall in his cartooning. As his deadline approached, you could see that tension in his clenched jaw, his creased brow and all — and he never hid that from anybody. For us, then on the lowest rung of the journalism ladder, it was a lesson in hard work as well as the source of some comfort. After all, we were not the only ones who agonized over le mot juste (the right word).

Which is why it was an agony of another sort seeing a physically diminished Laxman’s last published cartoon of his Common Man marching to Mars, a commemoration of India’s successful space mission. But disregard the weak drawing and note the jaunty gait. That’s precisely how, I believe, R.K.Laxman’s feisty spirit walked toward his own Maker on Republic Day.

You Don't Say

• His application to enroll as a student in Bombay’s J.J. School of Art was rejected on the ground that he “lacked talent.” Years later, the same school honored him.

• His hand drawing a cartoon of actress Lalita Pawar appears in a shot in the Guru Dutt film Mr & Mrs 55.

• He created the Asian Paints mascot, Gattu: a Dennis-the-Menace lookalike, complete with an unruly mop of hair and a brush dripping paint.

• He held a summer job during his student days in Chennai, working as an animator at Gemini Studios.

• A younger brother of the celebrated writer R.K. Nararyan, he not only illustrated Narayan’s writings but also wrote his own stuff: The Distorted Mirror contained Laxman’s collected works, notably his essays and travel articles; two novels (The Hotel Riviera and The Messenger); a short-story collection Servants of India; and an autobiography The Tunnel of Time.

• He loved driving a black Ambassador car. When Hindustan Motors once delivered a white one, he threw such a tantrum that the company promptly had it repainted.

• He loved sketching crows. He considered them “beautiful and intelligent: do you know recent studies have shown they can count to seven?”

• Two bronze life-size statues of R.K. Laxman’s “common man” adorn the cities of Pune and Mumbai — the former at the Symbiosis Institute of which he was a director, and the latter appropriately on a sidewalk near the Worli seafront.

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Books | Life | February2015

Image gallery

Actors Divyendu Sharma and Aditi Sharma during the promotion of film Ekkees Toppon Ki Salaami paid a tribute to R. K. Laxman’s Common Man Statue on Mumbai’s Worli Sea Face. A stroke in 2006 paralyzed R.K. Laxman’s left side, but didn’t stop his cartoon character.

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