Sharp cartoons reflect India’s foibles
His career has outlasted more than a dozen governments. The Mr. Magoo-like face of his most beloved character has been immortalized on a postage stamp and adopted as the official symbol of one of India’s low-cost airlines. Many of his fans have started their day with him for longer than they have with their husbands or wives.
R.K. Laxman is India’s premier newspaper cartoonist, a celebrated satirist and keen political and social observer who has been drawing his trademark panels for the Times of India for 60 years, many of them featuring the permanently bemused Common Man, his most famous creation and a national icon.
His longevity has given him a ringside seat on India’s twists and turns, its triumphs and tragedies since independence from Britain in 1947. A collection of his work reads like a history book, a graphic chronicle of an unruly nation struggling to govern itself and embrace modernity amid poverty, corruption and religious strife.
Laxman’s unsparing look at life in India and his instantly recognizable style, all bold lines and subtle shading, have made him the country’s “finest journalist” for much of his career, in the opinion of Dileep Padgaonkar, former editor of the Times of India.
“In a few strokes of the pen and one caption,” Padgaonkar said, “he’d encapsulate the particular mood at that time finer than any of these analyses you’d read in the paper.”
Now 84, Laxman still sits down at his desk every morning to create the cartoons that skewer the country’s leaders, and sometimes the led. He continues to offer up his take on the absurdities and quiddities of life in the world’s most populous democracy, though some say the sharp eye and wit have dimmed. His single-panel cartoon, “You Said It,” runs six days a week, featuring one of the country’s most recognized signatures, with its Zorro-like slash through the “x.”
“If I don’t do it, I won’t survive,” he declared in an interview at his home here in western India. “It’s a habit.”
A stroke a few years ago impaired movement on his left side. (Fortunately, he draws with his right hand.) His hair is thinning on top, and he squints from behind a pair of thick glasses. Like pets that begin to look like their owners, he bears a growing resemblance to the bewhiskered, bespectacled Common Man, a character in a rumpled checked shirt with neither a name nor a voice.
Since he sprang from the mind and pen of his creator half a century ago, the Common Man has become Laxman’s vehicle for expressing the bewilderment, long suffering and resignation of those he has described as “the mute millions of India.”
For decades, Laxman has excelled and delighted in needling India’s ruling elite, who have promised much but delivered little, leaving a desperately needy populace as hungry and deprived as ever.
In 1969, after U.S. astronauts landed on the moon, Laxman depicted the Common Man being introduced to NASA scientists as the perfect candidate for life on the moon. “This is our man! He can survive without water, food, light, air, shelter.”
Years later, when India still lacked reliable telecommunications, an office worker in a Laxman cartoon protests to another that “of course” his phone works: “It worked on May 4th, June 21st and again on the 2nd of this month.”
Particularly in the first few decades of his career, Laxman’s acerbic observations and the Common Man’s ever-befuddled expression served as much-needed correctives to the lofty but empty rhetoric of pompous officials.
“At a time when India hadn’t opened up in the way it has now . . . Laxman’s point of view was very important,” Padgaonkar said.
But the irreverent artist who gleefully pricks the egos of politicians can be critical of his fellow ordinary Indians just as well.
He once remarked that crows, which have fascinated him throughout his life, lined up to jump into a puddle with more order and discipline than seen in any Indian bus queue. One of his cartoons took aim at the propensity for public urination among many Indian men, with an observer expressing surprise that India had any problem with depleting water tables.
As a child, Laxman spent hours sitting on a bench and sketching the activity around him in the southern Indian city of Mysore. He had difficulty at school with math problems asking him to divide 15 mangoes among three people, but he could draw a mango, a leaf, a tiger with precision and panache.
One of his teachers noted his talent and encouraged him. Another shook with anger when he caught the boy caricaturing him with bug eyes and buck teeth.
In one of history’s ironies, Laxman was turned down for admission to an art school in Mumbai, then known as Bombay. But submissions to newspapers and magazines and his illustrations for books written by his brother R.K. Narayan, who went on to become one of India’s greatest authors of the 20th century, helped build his reputation.
He began cartooning in Bombay, for the Free Press Journal, soon after his university graduation, but quickly switched to the Times of India, a partnership that has endured for more than 60 years. The English-language paper has a daily circulation of 3.5 million.
The puckish humor that got Laxman in trouble as a child has occasionally landed him in hot water as an adult.
He was once hauled into court for a cartoon that poked fun at nationalist rioters who were burning cars and buses in Bombay.
“In the cartoon, someone tries to set fire to a motorcycle, but he can’t even light the matchstick. A bystander says, ‘What sort of patriot are you? You can’t even burn a small motorcycle,’ ” Laxman once told an interviewer. He was acquitted of causing offense, but “some people got angry and rushed to my trial to throw acid on my face.”
In recent years, Laxman’s greatest challenge has probably been to stay relevant and fresh for a new generation of Indians, many of whom look to satellite TV, the Internet and films for entertainment and social comment, not the cartoons that used to be staples of Indian newspapers.
“The art of cartooning has subsided considerably in the Indian press in the last 10 years,” Padgaonkar said. “Alas, in the Indian press, there’s such little irony and humor. Some are busy celebrating ‘India shining,’ some are focused on India whining, and neither in the shining bit or the whining bit is there much room for satire and irony.”
Also, critics say that many of Laxman’s favorite themes and tropes are stuck in time, relics of an India before the 1991 market-oriented reforms that unleashed an explosion of economic activity.
Laxman’s targets -- the sclerotic bureaucracy, the lack of visible progress, the tragedy of unfulfilled potential -- are still issues here, but no longer the whole story. His characters complain about potholes in the roads just as they did decades ago. (To be fair, many Indian roads remain atrocious.)
“You Said It” rarely addresses globalization or advances in technology, both of which have been instrumental in India’s economic boom. Laxman himself despises cellphones, doesn’t watch television and shrugs off the Internet, attitudes imposed on his sometime alter-ego, the Common Man.
Thumbing a nose at the march of time is perhaps fitting for a man whose career has defied it and who refuses to keep a diary or wear a watch. Laxman’s autobiography is virtually devoid of dates and years, because he can’t be bothered with them.
The only time factor he seems to pay much attention to is his daily deadline. Here in the comfortable apartment he shares with his wife, Kamala, whose calm demeanor tempers her husband’s sometimes crotchety personality, he works in silence from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., combing the papers for ideas, then whipping up a cartoon for the Times of India courier to collect at 2 p.m.
He takes ideas from no one -- “not even my granddaughter,” whom he adores. Despite suggestions from some readers, Laxman is adamant that the Common Man will never be more than a spectator. Why fiddle with the essence of a character who has been his unfailing companion and a fixture on the media landscape for half a century?
“Does the moon change?” Laxman asked airily. “Does the sun change?”
You said it.