I still remember the day I got a peek into the office of the legendary cartoonist, R K Laxman at the Times of India building in Mumbai. The year was 1975 and I had come to meet Khushwant Singh, the famous author and the then firebrand Editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India in connection with an article I was writing for the magazine. The door to Laxman’s office was ajar. No one was sitting at the huge colonial-style mahogany table. Out of curiosity I asked his personal assistant when he was expected and if I could get an appointment with him. I was told Laxman did not come in every day, although he sent in his cartoons daily. Laxman’s illustrious career with The Times of India spanned over 50 years. And the kind of freedom it gave him probably suited his artistic temperament.
It was many decades later that I finally got to meet Laxman, in 2000, when he was invited by the Rotary Club of Pune Riverside as the speaker for that week.
I was a club member then. In his scintillating 20-minute talk, Laxman spoke of how he had created the famous dhoti-clad, balding, reticent Common Man, with the perpetually incredulous look on his face as he observed the antics of free India’s politicians. Apparently, he had first drawn characters representing different States, but he then decided to stick to just one character who would speak for all Indians. That character, earlier known as Babuji, eventually became the Common Man.
Later that evening, a grand dinner was hosted in his honour by eminent Pune industrialist and Rotarian Nitin Desai. Everybody was excited about the chance to spend time with the celebrated cartoonist. Laxman came with his wife, Kamala, the author of the popular Tenali Rama stories.
A whiteboard had been placed in the wide veranda. Laxman stood beside it, marker in hand. All of us waited eagerly for him to begin. Laxman began sketching from the top of the board. Within seconds, without once lifting his hand from the board, he had drawn Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lalu Prasad Yadav and finally the iconic Common Man, holding a placard saying, ‘Thank you for inviting me’. His work reminded me of the craftsmen who carved the Kailash Temple from a single stone, starting at the top. Everyone burst into applause. Someone took a photograph of the drawing. After a tete-a-tete, it was dinner time. We filled up our plates and drifted towards the chairs arranged in small clusters on the dimly-lit lawn. Laxman was sitting with two Rotarians. I introduced myself as a former English professor who had worked on the work of his brother R K Narayan, among others, for my PhD. He used to illustrate his brother’s books. We talked for an hour, or rather we listened as he spoke. He was at his witty best.
Among the stories he recounted was one about a new domestic help he and Kamala had hired. A party had been planned and a number of guests, including Bombay’s Police Commissioner, had been invited. As the guests started walking in, Kamala discovered that the new help had disappeared.
“He had overheard us saying that the Commissioner was coming,” said Laxman, laughing. “The fellow had a criminal past, we learnt later, and didn’t want to get into trouble with the police!” The man features among the 10 hilariously idiosyncratic people Laxman wrote about in Servants of India.
Sometime later, chancing upon one of his essays in which he wrote of his art teacher in school who had discovered his artistic talent, I called Laxman’s assistant for permission to include it in a collection of tributes I was planning on favourite teachers. Laxman readily agreed. Now, his piece, titled ‘The perfect leaf’ is part of my book, You Moved My Life: Heartwarming Stories of Teachers Who Mentored and Taught Us to Dream. Laxman finally settled in Pune, and it was here that he passed away on January 26, 2015, aged 93. The Symbiosis Institute here remembers the Common Man with a beautiful eight-feet tall bronze statue.
The author is former Professor of English, IIT-Bombay
(The article was first published in The Hindu)