By: Shiv Visvanathan
I came to R.K. Laxman indirectly. My childhood world was the world of R.K. Narayan, his elder brother. Narayan had created the wonderful world of Malgudi. Not only was Malgudi a magic world, Narayan has created my favourite childhood character Swami, who was my double.
The second thing I loved as a child were crows. Crows to me were the geniuses of the avian world. A crow exuded intelligence; he was a living fable. No wonder, Aesop could not do without him. Crows had the black satiny elegance that made them look like academic dons. A congregation of crows always reminded me of academics in convocation gowns. I loved their intelligence and what I sensed was a rascally sense of humour. I felt parrots were pompous, pigeons disgusting and peacocks officious, but crows were the true citizens of nature, at home anywhere and everywhere.
For me, only one man could draw crows, capture their sense of life, their everydayness, their humour, their ability to adjust anywhere and sustain an everyday enthusiasm for life. He was Narayan’s brother, Laxman. Laxman came to me doubly blessed, as the illustrator of crows and as the brother of R.K. Narayan.
The real history of Laxman begins at The Times of India, when the common man was born. No cartoon character was as helpless and vulnerable as the common man. The only rival would be Charlie Brown. The common man looked at the world in silence. The only thing that spoke was his spindly body, which often folded like a chair in moments of drama. His wife was a harridan, in control of the world. For one, silence was a substitute for speech, as he looked at the bewildering order of the world; for the other, gossip and speech ordered the world. They were a brilliant pair. One was as garrulous as a fish wife and the other, endearing in his silence.
Yet, the common man was survivor, commentator, spectator to the world called India, where every citizen and every politician was a potential caricature.
Laxman’s creativity was phenomenal. It had to be so. A whole nation waited every day for his comments. One went to work or to school feeling that if the common man could survive the world, its travails and eccentricities, any citizen could. In that sense, Laxman’s common man was an Indian rendering of the New Testament: Blessed are the meek, they shall inherit the earth. The little munshi-like mouse of a man, with his unforgettable coat and apology for a moustache, probably had the biggest fan following in India.
Laxman had no sense of bite or acid. O.V. Vijayan was sharper as a political cartoonist and more deeply critical. Keshav was quirky and Sudhir Dar of the Hindustan Times often triggered the nonsensical giggle. Laxman was gentle. Indeed, his cartoon even humanised the person who, in real life, looked like a caricature. I am thinking of Indira Gandhi in particular. Her patrician parrot’s beak of a nose and trademark hair made her look like a formidable and loveably intolerable aunt who ran a nation. His cartoons made each of them loveable and everyday, and yet improbable. I think he loved each of his creations, endowed each with his own loveable gentleness, such that no one felt hurt because of his work. One felt grateful that one had come alive once more under his magical hands.
There was a simplicity to the man and yet, there was nothing simplistic about him. The cartoon reduces a character to its eccentric fundamentals, literally reinvents him so that he feels reborn.
Laxman, to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, had the genius to “err on the other side of simplicity”. I read in a book, the title of which I forget, about the UN Secretary General U Thant. A cartoonist who loved to dub his characters had called a politician, his ferocity, a globetrotting athlete, his velocity, a smart journalist, his precocity, but when it came to U. Thant, he called him his simplicity. The common man had a touch of U. Thant, a Buddhist sense of waiting quietly for the world to unfold.
His admirers today often call Laxman a political cartoonist. I always feel that the label was inapt and a misnomer. For a Nehruvian like me, Shankar’s Weekly was replete with political cartoons. Vijayan was political; Laxman just looked at the world and its idiosyncrasies. Indeed, he socialised and humanised the political, endowing it with humour, and other life-giving qualities. He could make the powerful appear quietly silly and thus convey truth to power. Also, the common man’s wife conveyed a greater sense of politics and the political than most politicians did. To coin a word, he robbed politics of its “seriousity”, gave it an everydayness. He could have turned Jawaharlal Neheru’s rose into a cactus and Nehru would have loved him no less. I think every subject of his became an instant fan and collector. Instead of banning the cartoon as in recent times, the subject wanted to be the proud possessor of it. Even Laxman’s gangsters, who usually appeared at budget time, had a loveable quality, like a pair of silly Beagle Boys.
Laxman’s politics emerged in a deeper, subtler, more philosophical or ethical way. The iconic common man and his stature conveyed the artlessness and helplessness of citizenship, of watching the world loyally like a spectator, even if half its moves puzzled you. The common man never got bored; he always seemed awed and surprised, as if he was discovering the world every day.
Laxman’s impishness came out best in his treatment of science. He turned scientists into boys, little inventors happy with the largesse of the state. Science in his eyes became a quixotic world where scientists remained as puzzled as citizens. In looking at the urban world, he was a particularly subtle commentator. I remember one of his cartoons where a relieved citizen walks happily out of a traffic jam saying, “I’ve solved the parking problem. I just sold my car.”
Laxman’s cartoons were everyday miniatures of genius, each producing a laugh. The archive of these drawings made him one of the great commentators of urban life. In that sense, Laxman, cartoonist extraordinaire, was one of the greatest philosophical figures of modern life. For him, the cartoon had to be life-giving, so that life in India could be liveable.
The writer is a social scientist.