Monday, October 24, 2011

The uncommon man turns 90

It was an emotional moment for R K Laxman. As the small congregation of family, friends and fans at his Pune apartment launched into a cheery chant of Happy Birthday To You and his granddaughter fed him a piece of his favourite Black Forest cake, the grand old man of Indian cartooning broke into sobs. He recovered his composure soon enough, but the tears were never too far away as the function held to celebrate his ninetieth birthday proceeded and speaker after speaker extolled him and his genius.

In a rather apposite twist to the usual celebratory mode, Kailash Bhingare, the organiser of the event, had got seven cartoonists -Vikas Sabnis, S D Fadnis, Mangesh Tendulkar, Vijay Paradkar, Sanjay Mistri, Charuhas Pandit and Ravi Paranjpe-to draw cartoons of Laxman, which were then presented to him. Among the speakers, who included Laxman's wife Kamala and daughter-in law Usha, was Ram Jethmalani, who referred to himself (some might say appropriately) as a "sinner with a balance sheet full of debits" . "The only credit I have is that I have known Laxman for decades," he quipped amid laughter. "And one new credit I have notched up is that I am present at his ninetieth birthday function."

Laxman sat through the proceedings , now calm, now tearyeyed . A frail shadow of his former self, there were, however, glimmers of the old persona when he peered curiously at the television channel mikes lined up on the table and once touched his forehead in a moment of exasperation. One almost expected him to expostulate , 'What is this nonsense, I say!', a Laxman-ism regularly applied to very many situations in the days when he was a revered and slightly feared figure in the Times of India. But speech is impossible for him now-his second major stroke in June last year robbed him of it, and he has been unable to communicate verbally with anyone except his wife. Mrs Laxman, very emotional on this day herself, says that he does "talk" to her "but not before others" .

But whatever his health setbacks , Laxman has forged ahead with uncommon courage. After his first stroke in 2003 which paralysed his left side, he resumed drawing in a day and his daily cartoon for this paper within a couple of months. The stroke he had last June was far more severe, but he has been drawing even after that, as a sketchbook full of ink drawings testifies. The once inimitable brushstrokes are, of course, weaker , but three of his favourite subjects-crows , Ganpatis and the Common Man-make their presence felt even today.

His most favourite subjectpoliticians-seem to be missing from the sketchbook, but Laxman is still hooked to their shenanigans and goes through the newspaper every day, says Mrs Laxman. Now that he no longer draws cartoons , how does he react to the absurd theatre of Indian politics? "With a slap on the forehead," says Mrs Laxman wryly. "A gesture is worth a thousand words."

Laxman's cartoons, needless to say, are sorely missed. The man who held readers in thrall for over six decades with his piquant wit and inimitable brushstrokes, was fondly remembered during a recent cataclysm in Indian politics. "During Anna Hazare's fast and his stand-off with the government, we got hundreds of calls from people ," says Mrs Laxman. "All of them had one thing to say: 'How we wish you were still cartooning!' "

That's a sentiment most of us share. Happy ninetieth birthday, Mr Laxman.


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