They shared a name and hometown, Rasipuram, and a particular sense of humour: gentle but sharp and unsparing, an ability to get to the heart of things with their lines, written or drawn. R K Narayan died in 2001, leaving a classic portrait of the towns he knew so well from his long years of walking around his “material”. R K Laxman died on Monday at the age of 93, after a lifetime of capturing the politicians and the common men and women of India in his cartoons.
Both men firmly resisted the idea, often foisted on them by their admirers, that their work had a higher purpose. “I’m not out to enlighten the world or improve it,” R K Narayan wrote in The Writerly Life. “I was surprised to discover that my readers looked upon me not merely as a cartoonist who tickled their sense of humour, but as a profound thinker, a social reformer, a political scientist, a critic of errant politicians and so on,” wrote R K Laxman in his autobiography, The Tunnel of Time. But it is almost impossible to imagine India without the two RKs. Under the placid surface charm of Malgudi, R K Narayan found room for death, for betrayals large and small, for the quackery and credulity that supported accidental godmen, for the everyday joys and losses of people tied to places they could never leave or change. R K Laxman’s pocket cartoons were more courageous and outspoken than most of the literature and art produced today in India; their gentle humour masked the fact that he held nothing and no one sacred. No leader, from Indira Gandhi to Bal Thackeray, was off limits, no institution, policy or shibboleth above examination or ridicule. His Common Man, always silent, was also always eloquent – the fellow in his checked kurta stood at the margins of those pocket cartoons, acting as nothing less than the conscience of a nation with his “thick black eyebrows, permanently raised, expressing bewilderment”.
R K Laxman was one of the few journalists to stand up in his own quiet way to Indira Gandhi, telling her that he must have the freedom to draw. “No, no, the law applies to everyone,” she said; so he went away to Mauritius for a while, drawing no cartoons until the Emergency ended. Morarji Desai infamously called a Cabinet meeting to see if his caricatures could be reined in, but he did not get his way; the Common Man prevailed. R K Laxman made only occasional forays into his older brother’s domain, setting down his autobiography and a couple of collections of sketches and short stories. He was a collector by instinct, of foibles, and of crows (he loved sketching them), and of quotidian things – a recipe for making incense sticks that involved sandalwood powder, camphor and the claws of a cat; a record of the number of artificial trees and flowers he found during a trip to the United States. As many tributes will be paid to R K Laxman as were paid to R K Narayan 14 years ago. But just as everyone should re-read R K Narayan’s books to understand how greatly he changed Indian writing in English, and to appreciate the honesty with which he wrote about India, R K Laxman’s cartoons – drawn over eight to 10 hours every day for over five decades in The Times of India – will be revisited to truly honour his memory. His Common Man, he said, represented the silent majority, those without a voice; but they had their say after all, thanks to R K Laxman.