Monday, October 24, 2011

RK Laxman: Happy birthday to an uncommon man

“For half a century, the Times of India has thoughtfully provided an antidote to all the bad news brimming on its front pages. It’s a sketch, a single box, inked by RK Laxman, the country’s sharpest cartoonist and political satirist. Each morning, Laxman’s frazzled character, known as the Common Man, confronts India’s latest heartbreak with a kind of wry resignation. Meek, doddering and with a moustache that bristles like an electrocuted mongoose, he’s a witness to everything: scheming politicians, rapacious bureaucrats and gossiping housewives. What’s common about this character is that like most Indians, he sees his country being forced through endless indignities by its leaders and yet doesn’t even whimper in protest,” said Time magazine, reviewing a collection of Laxman’s cartoons.

Through his editorial cartoons, Laxman has, for decades, been holding up a mirror to society. Unlike many editors, Laxman has been steadfast and resolute in criticism through his cartoons. Former editor of The Times of India, Dileep Padgaonkar said of Laxman, “No editor of the The Times of India would control Laxman. I tried a couple of times to tell him that he might wish to change a word or two in his captions. And he’d fly into a rage! So, I don’t think he would ever, ever would have stood for any pressure from his editor. And I doubt very much — and certainly not during my tenure as editor — I never came across a single instance where there were pressures,” ibnlive reported.

In a conversation with CNBC-TV18′s Anuradha SenGupta, Laxman rejected any suggestion that he wanted to bring about change through his work:

Anuradha SenGupta: As a political satirist, as a political cartoonist, do you see yourself as a moral crusader?

R K Laxman: No, no. No such lessons on anything. I don’t make my cartoons so the people may learn. I have no such – that’s bad.

Anuradha SenGupta: Why do you say that?

R K Laxman: It is not my business. To make people laugh and understand the ridiculousness of the situation, that’s all, nothing more than that. Then you become a moralist. Then it is not a cartoon, it is a poster.”

While Laxman did not see himself as a crusader, in many ways, it was Laxman who drew the attention of readers of The Times of India to issues such as corruption in politics, the neglect of the poor, the class system, financial mismanagement and bungling by the government, and so on. To regular readers, and to his loyal fans, Laxman was a crusader, even if he didn’t see himself as one.

If the politicians had seen him as a crusader — and feared the reach of his influence — Anna Hazare might not be needed today.

Today, as he celebrates his 90th birthday, those who worked (indeed, work) with him at The Times of India will respect his privacy. Though he doesn’t attend office, his corner room on the second floor of the Times of India’s office on DN Road is still ‘his’.

He might have created the common man, but there could be nobody more uncommon that Laxman. For years, as his colleagues started buying the new cars of the post-reform era, Laxman would drive to work in a black Ambassador, feeling no need for change. At office, his only demand was that he be left in peace as he went about his business — conceptualising, drawing and then writing a couple of lines to drive a point home.

But he must know that he is uncommon. Senior executives of the Times of India carry a business card that proudly features the common man; one cannot pass the Worli Seaface without confronting a bronze statue of the Common Man; joggers and walkers get themselves photographed with the iconic cartoon character as if he was a celebrity.

He is, as is his creator.

For fans like me, one cannot imagine the Times of India without a cartoon by him.

There are millions like me.

We know you are a private person. All we can do is to wish you on your birthday.