Who is the Common Man in R.K. Laxman’s cartoons? Dhoti clad, moustachioed, tuft of hair sticking out at the back, he marches mournfully through time, bespectacled witness of politics, governments and other absurdities. This Common Man didn’t even have a name. Perhaps he was a pensioner who religiously read the papers and then discussed the news at the chai shop every evening. Or the local sage, consulted for the last say in all matters. But Laxman’s beloved character evokes a community life that probably never existed, rather like R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi. For where did he come from? Laxman sometimes drew caricatures of Tamilians and Bengalis to keep him company. But over the decades they fell away, leaving the Common Man in a featureless Everywhere.
What he did have was an illustrious line of ancestors, going back centuries and travelling continents. In democracies, the common man became a powerful idea with the election campaign of US President Andrew Jackson in 1828. “Old Hickory”, as Jackson was called, was the sturdy man from the New West who defeated the aristocratic dispensation of John Quincy Adams. Britain had John Bull, the Englishman who weathered wars and elections with the same stoic fortitude. In India, cartoonists for English papers borrowed John Bull before Laxman came along. With Laxman’s Common Man, modern democratic ideas found an Indian voice that was firmly of the people and for the people. Soon, a sea of common men were speaking from the pocket cartoons of Indian dailies. Shankar’s version was a turbaned north Indian farmer, while Kutty often customised his skinny, bemused common man in Malayali or Bengali garb. Ahmed drew Chandu, the rotund and caustic chowkidar.
Unlike his British and American kin, the Indian common man has continued to defy the template of a national character. Comic, tragic, angry, humorous, ignorant, wise, he can be whatever you want him to be — which probably explains his popularity with political parties. But in his plurality, he is perhaps most Indian.