My day started well. This morning my newspaper informed me that May 5 is being celebrated as World Cartoonists Day! That brought a smile to my face even before I turned to the daily cartoon strips in my newspapers…something I do before I read the headlines. Faced with the continuous ‘breaking news’ of a world gone mad and bad in every which way, the cartoons remind me that, depending on what lens you use to see the world, there can still be something to laugh about!
Quite by coincidence, I recently read the autobiography of R.K. Lakshman, India’s best known cartoonist, illustrator, and tongue-in-cheek commentator on life and times. Lakshman was an essential part of my growing up and growing older, as it was for at least two generations of Indians. Lakshman’s You Said It! daily cartoon provided a glimpse into the world through the eyes of the silent spectator, the Common Man.
Reading his autobiography The Tunnel of Time provided a peep into Lakshman—the man himself, as he rambled through memories of places, people and events with humour, wit and yes, some irreverence! Since the time he can remember he wanted to be an artist. “An artist is what I wanted to be…I decided that I would pass my examinations but I never attempted to get high marks….My parents and elders were a great help, for they never took it seriously when one of the sons got pitiably low marks or even failed!”
As the youngest of 6 sons (one of whom was the famous author R.K. Narayan) and 2 daughters Lakshman grew up in a big household; he was left to himself all day, happily spending his time playing or drawing. So much so, that his parents did not realise that it was time that he was sent to school until a visiting uncle noticed him at home when all other children of his age were at school. He was promptly taken to the nearby municipal school—kicking and crying! From where the young Lakshman promptly ran away, and resumed play, until some months later another visitor took him back to the school. And there he stayed; as he says, “I moved year after year, class after class,” all the time filling the margins of his notebooks with sketches and doodles. The same continued through college days until he graduated with a BA degree; and immediately moved to Madras to try and get a job in one of the newspapers while his elders “as usual generously cheered me on my way into the world.”
As we continue to travel through the tunnel of time with the budding and determined cartoonist we learn about attempts and adventures as he makes his way into the world as an aspiring cartoonist, until he eventually became a cartoonist for the Times of India, and there he remained for the next five decades!
For all of us who imagine that a cartoonist just has a Eureka moment and with a few swift strokes produces a cartoon, it was indeed revealing to learn what it really took to put the Common Man on the front page every morning without fail. “I would be at the drawing board in the office exactly at 8.30 in the morning, reading and concentrating on news items, political analyses, editorial commentaries, opinions, spending the time tormenting myself, waiting hopelessly for the muse of satire to oblige me with an idea for next day’s cartoon before the deadline. When the idea did at last dawn, the rest of the work was comparatively easy. It was like shooting a movie—choosing a suitable setting, selecting the characters, compressing the script into a brief caption. By then I would have put in six hours of continuous work. Mentally and physically exhausted I would go home. But the sense of fulfilment and creative satisfaction would be immense.”
R.K. Lakshman shares delightful anecdotes about his travels and his many interesting friends, his close encounters with the powers that be, and the highs and lows of chronicling the facts and foibles of every aspect of social and political life. The Tunnel of Time is a treat of a read.