Undrawing the Line: R.K.Laxman

He was the only public intellectual in India who could make sense of the nonsense. The good thing is that he would baulk at being referred to as an intellectual. R.K. Laxman is dead.

Those who think a cartoonist cannot be an intellectual just need to trace his work. He could pare down the tonnes of bibliography and tomes to one box. He distilled them and came up with a trenchant take.

While some of it made us smile, he was certainly not a comic. His work was political and social commentary at its best. And he exposed it without moral pretensions. You instinctively knew that he was not scoring any points or patting himself on the back, something that latter-day cartoonists in India seem to revel in.

He did not appear to be friends with politicians, but he was no enemy either. That imbued him with a practicality and it reached the reader as an objective and concerned voice.

His caricatures were precise, taking one sharp feature to delineate the personality. You knew Indira Gandhi would follow the moment you saw the nose line. I thought he captured her hauteur perfectly. There are many more of other leaders and I would urge you to look for them.

However, his creation of the common man surpassed everything else, so much so that the dhoti-clad, checked raggedy jacket, half bald caricature has become to represent the aam aadmi. No political caps claiming the common man will ever be able to take the place of the Laxman one, because it came from a penetrating eye and a deep sense of anguish that did not disappear to get political mileage.

His common man is an observer occasionally forced to be a participant. But he does not lose himself. And when the need arises he even contributes with his commonness to become rather special. This gesture is not covered with tinsel as a celebration, but rather subtly it gives us a peek into what equality really means.

R.K.Laxman does not need a photograph to be recognised. His lines are intimations of, pardon the hyperbole, immortality.


Obama, Modi and Chemistry

India's Republic Day has given an opportunity to leaders of two of the biggest democracies to showcase themselves.

The media, and the public that views TV, reads newspapers and is connected to social media, are all agog by the display of camaraderie. Does this in any manner indicate change in Indo-US ties? How good is it really for India?

That does not seem to be of any immediate interest. We are all lapping up trivia. It began the moment an invitation was sent and accepted. To the run-up we were told how roads would be cordoned off, how the four-layered security would work (including 12 dog officers arriving ahead of the visit to sniff out danger).

Obama's office sent out the message that there should be no terror attacks during his trip or there "would be consequences". There was no statesman-like no terror at any time before or after. This sort of arrogant and insensitive statement set the tone for what is clearly modern-day slavery where bonhomie buys acquiescence.

Narendra Modi broke protocol and went to receive Barack Obama. Images of him with the President and the First Lady after they alighted have sent the BJP supporters in a frenzy. Had this been the President of Nepal or Fiji Island would they feel as elevated?

Personally, I do not like over-familiarity between political leaders in the public space. It is less about warmth and more a public relations exercise. Both are conveying a message to their international constituencies.

Their lunch menu became news. Planting a sapling became a huge moment. And tea became "chai pe charcha", which Modi had used during his election campaign. He is apparently still campaigning.

At the joint press conference, Modi referred to the US president as "Barack". He spoke about chemistry between them. One is surprised he did not quote from Linda Goodman's sun signs to establish just how compatible they are.

The BJP had opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal during Manmohan Singh's tenure. Today, Modi and Obama have taken this even further. Modi informed us that the US would be an ally in defence. He parroted the terror line. If the US is so confident about its defense, it would not bulldoze other countries.

The so-called largest democracies are really about both wanting to play Big Brother. Sometimes it is good. Mostly it is not and proves to be a nuisance to others.

As I write this, the droning sounds continue on TV. The breathless, "Oh my god!" tone of the anchors seems to convey they've never seen an American President with an Indian Prime Minister feeling so jolly good before. For them, I have a few images from Barack Obama's previous visit.

And Obama cancelled his proposed visit to the Taj Mahal to visit Saudi Arabia to condolence the death of the king. Joe Biden was already attending to that. Here, the Hindutva bhakts we already speaking about how the Taj was a temple once. Should they not, then, see it as a rejection to their claims, if not of this ancient heritage in preference for a dead Arab King?


The monk, misogyny and more

It is surprising that people are surprised only because a Buddhist monk got abusive. As with any other religious community, Buddhism would have its share of disgusting men of faith. 

Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu called human rights envoy Yangee Lee names:

"We have explained about the race protection law, but the b**** criticised the laws without studying them properly."

"Just because you hold a position in the United Nations doesn't make you an honorable woman. In our country, you are just a whore...You can offer your arse to the kalars (derogatory term for South Asians) if you so wish but you are not selling off our Rakhine State."

More than his statements, one must note that the crowd cheered. That is something we tend to miss, and therefore target the tree when the woods are alive with similar sounds. 

The condemnation by Thawbita, of the progressive Saffron Revolution Buddhist Monks Network, was rather revealing:

"The words used that day are very sad and disappointing. It is an act that could hurt Buddhism very badly."

How would such abuse tarnish the faith, and is that the only concern? 

Honestly, though, in drawing attention to the abusive man as a person of religion there appears to be implicit belief that he has morally wavered rather than pointing out the patriarchal notions embedded in religion. 

Name-calling invariably takes away from what is really abused. Wirathu has served time in prison; he is openly anti-Islam and anti-minority. Ms. Lee was speaking about the discrimination against them. After the monk's comments, she said:

"During my visit I was personally subjected to the kind of sexist intimidation that female human rights defenders experience when advocating on controversial issues."

However, all we get to read is that the monk called her a bitch and a whore. We don't seem to even want to address the issue of the abuse not being for who she is but for what she says. Indeed, women in such positions or with a political stand are sought to be reduced with such slurs. 

The idea is to keep women away from public space, again mainly because women tend to have a more humane perception of the world. Gender here is also about how it impacts social positions and therefore ought not to be relegated to a victim of misogyny narrative. 

Had the human rights envoy been a man, Wirathu would have had the same problem with the findings. But, he might not have called him names because he would assume they were equals, in that it would be gender reflection. Calling him a dick would resonate with his own, for example. 

Some monks have said there would be no action against him. Even if there was it would soon be forgotten. In the end, Yangee Lee's report seems to have lost to the more potent insults she was subjected to. In that, everybody has become a conspirator. 


Sunday ka Funda

I've been reading about how tomorrow, Januray 19, is going to be the pits. It has been marked as the "blue Monday" of 2015, although nobody will enlighten us as to who decides on our happiness and unhappiness in such a fashion and how this will be the only blue Monday to qualify as the one for the year.

There are experts too on the subject who say the weather, debts, Christmas hangover and low motivational levels will make us all morose. And, yes, they also add failed New Year resolutions, and it is only 19 days since some of us might have made them. Why the hurry to damn us?

Indian papers and news magazines have picked up this 'news', even though our weather does not swing all that much and Christmas, although celebrated with much joy, is not the same as it is in many western countries.

If these are the yardsticks for unhappiness, would the opposite hold true for happiness? Are we all alike in the way in which we respond to the weather, for example? Grey clouds are elevating for me, and for a gambler a few debts are part of the game. Anyway, how much can happen to one individual in a day? Will we all go back to smoking and ditching healthy eating habits together?

In that case, such social congruity ought to be reason to celebrate and be happy.

For those of us with less ambition, there is Berke Breathed who said, "It’s never too late to have a happy childhood."


The howl...

Nights seem more evanescent than days, even though the night passes without much occurrence. I cannot see the moon today. Possibly, there is no moon.

I am deeply fascinated by the idea of howling at the moon. Today, I felt like doing so. But I can't spot the moon. Such howling, where the wolf is said to invoke spiritual guidance, perhaps occurs in a state of cloudiness.

Spiritual guidance is often less mysticism and more a communion with oneself. We wish not to be guided so much as we want to be unknotted. The howl is more deeply-felt than any invocation conveys.


Sunday ka Funda

A caricature is putting the face of a joke on the body of a truth.— Joseph Conrad

Who defines truth is now in the realm of debate once again. And cartoons and caricatures are being heralded as the new truth.

How truthful is racism and sexism if it is only seen as a sharp comment without any supporting analysis or explanation?

If the pen is in opposition to the sword, why does it not take on more than one kind of sword?

Should we exercise freedom of expression without fear or favour? Or be selective? Here is a selection — some are Charlie Hebdo covers; a couple are responses to the recent terror attack:

The world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.—George Santayana


Rainbow Lives

I started writing out a list of events, mostly sad.

I went on to pen something tongue-in-cheek, and it is all so farcical.

Yes, things happened. Sad. Happy. Angry. Disgusting. Depressing. Elevating.

Most emotions they evoked lacked introspection or the ability to inspire any. We live in superficial times, and any attempt to probe deeper seems an overstatement for those who may never grasp understatement.

Instead of skimming over such happenings and the people who mattered, I'll share stories about a couple of recent personal incidents.

* * *

While walking through a tiny lane, a lane I was familiar with long ago, I met somebody who was buying blankets. "This is from my zakat money," she said.

As some of you might remember, I've been a bit cynical about codified charity and days set aside for it. What after that, I would wonder.

This was before I saw the toothless man, his hands wrinkled, grasping one of those blankets offered to him. His need was immediate. It did not matter what time it was or what occasion or what the purpose was. For him, it was a blanket, warmth, a cover.

I am still not quite ready to let corporates off, but if money can get some people education, food, clothes, shelter and the dignity that comes from these, then how should one react? For the beneficiaries, words like exploitation, PR, photo opportunity do not make any sense. What they get is what they desperately need to be able to live.

And why only big business, small businesses use such philanthropy too. Ordinary folks too look for IT exemption; activists also want to exert power. Everybody is an exploiter. Or, perhaps everybody is a giver?

* * *

I was at the salon down the lane. The reason I had chosen the place at all was proximity to home. A few months ago I stopped visiting after they messed up on my appointments and their tardiness of service became inexcusable.

The other day, I went there again after confirming that they had a spare slot. They messed up again, in more damaging ways. As I waited to pay, they asked me to fill the feedback form, a routine they follow.

I ticked most boxes with good, and a couple with fair. After I left, i was very angry with myself. Why did I lie? To be honest, I did not think I was lying. I never tick 'excellent' or 'poor' anywhere. But they needed to be pulled up. With the good feedback I gave, I would not be able to register a legitimate complaint. The previous time, I decided not to visit. But is that a solution? Why did I hold back?

The young woman who was attending to me is one possible reason. She said she was new here. Was her job more important than the mucked up timings, ill-preparedness and in this case an untested product? I think so. She was not directly responsible for any of these.

However, my response led to some examination about my silences. That same afternoon walking down the familiar street of Christmasy cheer, I stopped at a stall selling home-made sweets. I picked up a few packets. The owner quickly did some calculations and quoted what seemed like a big amount. I had no example to go by, but when I raised my eyebrows he gave what looked like a hurt smile and asked, "Sabka hisaab doon kya, bharosa nahin hai (Do I have to give an account of each, don't you trust me)?" I felt chastised and paid up, as I would have anyway.

My query was legitimate because there were no labels. And why should I trust somebody who had set up a temporary stall and would not be there later? But his ruse worked.

In the evening, I brought out the sweets. Except for two, the rest were either inedible due to the strong essence or had gone bad. They could not be consumed or even be given away.

This is not the first time, and it won't be the last. I explain away such overcharging and sometimes cheating as their need to survive. When someone offers a discount saying they don't mind if they get a smaller margin of profit, there have been times I have returned to reimburse that discount. Somewhere along I begin to imagine a family of theirs that might do so much more with that money.

Only because we do not know about people's lives can we make assumptions about their compulsions?

* * *

Can we think about the rainbow in one colour? It is the hues that give it beauty and identity. The world is made of such different shades of people, of thoughts, of behaviour.

As we embark upon a new year, perhaps we can think about the rainbow. And living like one.

* * *

Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali goes up on the sidebar because the new does not have to mean burial of the old, but a reminder of lessons learned and to be understood.


1. Elderly Man on the Threshold of Eternity by Vincent Van Gogh
2. Rainbow Stallion by Deviant Art