I know the work of RK Narayan more intimately than RK Laxman’s, even though the latter’s is more ubiquitous. Political cartoons, at the dose of one a day becomes so routine that you tend to take them for granted.
Besides, I never had an idea of RK Laxman’s persona. It is easier, I suppose, with writers, to put some part of them into their work, and RK Narayan’s first three books seemed quite autobiographical. His memoir gave a lot of insight into his personality, and that of people around him, but his youngest brother Laxman is hardly mentioned. His older brother Pattabhi and younger brother Seenu are mentioned as part of the many experiences he narrates, but Laxman is only mentioned as being ‘ready with one foot on the pedal of his bicycle to drop off my piece in time for the evening Mail’, and maybe a couple of more mentions.
And when you keep commenting about the nation in the voice of the common man, it is easy to get this idea of RK Laxman as being this old gentleman who’d fit right in with your grandfather’s friends circle, who all went to the bank in the morning, and spent evenings endlessly discussing politics over endless cups of coffee brought dutifully by a wife with whom he wasn’t overtly affectionate.
Oh well what did I know.
I think I read his book The Hotel Riviera when I was fifteen or sixteen. It felt scandalous to my young-adult-literature-reading mind. Not that I wasn’t by then used to reading saucy stuff, but that was not from people who drew cartoons and who your entire family loved. That was reserved for Khushwant Singh and Kamla Suraiya to write erotic stories and poetry. And even their work had a faraway tinge to it, because it was based on people you’d never run into in situations you couldn’t comprehend. But here was this icon of South Indianness, this beacon of Brahminism, writing about hotel managers who stared more than you’d like at women’s bosoms, and about kept women and sexually frustrated men. It’s kind of like you’re totally fine with seeing people kiss on the subway in NYC, but when a couple do it on the Bangalore metro, a small part of you squirms. I put the book away.
It didn’t end there.
When you read The English Teacher and My Days, you are struck by the relationship between RK Narayan and his wife, so much that he pines for her decades after she dies, even having sessions with a medium to communicate with her. You come to expect the same of his brother.
But RK Laxman’s first wife was a dancer named Kamala. I suppose back then that was kind of like marrying a filmstar. They actually separated and divorced. In my teens, it was incomprehensible that someone from that generation and that kind of a family background could ever be capable of divorce. Of course, since then, I’ve wised up and heard more scandalous stories from the extended family history that were earlier deemed too saucy for my delicate ears, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal to me now. And then he married again, this time an author, also named Kamala.
Apart from the famous Common Man, I really enjoyed the illustrations he had made for RK Narayan’s works. I loved how he drew the characters in Grandmother’s Tale, which is actually the story of his great-grandmother. The granny in her nine-yard saree with her head covered as was typical for widows back then, the eighteen year old Bala looking nothing like I imagined an eighteen year old to look like, the ageing Vishwa looking like every grandfather ever. I don’t like my favorite books to ever be made into picture books or movies because it’s always better in my head, but here, the caricatures augmented the story so well and brought subtle mundane aspects to the characters’ life alive because of so much attention to detail.
And I distinctly remember an illustration for RK Narayan’s Ramayana which depicted Rama as bearded. We are so used to Raja Ravi Varma’s depictions of what Indian gods should look like, and it shook things up for me a little bit. Why not a bearded Rama? Why not a simply-dressed Sita with curves and her hair worn low? Why not a fat and hairy Dasharatha? It was empowering, freeing, to think this way.
I suppose RK Laxman was a private person, who didn’t like to talk about his family or his life or experiences much. I know there’s his autobiography titled The Tunnel of Time, but I don’t know if he actually talks much about his life in that, because otherwise you’d have it plastered all over the newspapers instead of homilies about The Common Man.
I’d love to have picked his brain. He seems an infinitely more interesting person. His life seems more colorful. He seems to have been more in the moment than his reflective writer brother. I wonder about his perspective as a Youngest Child. Most writers seem to be tortured Oldest Siblings. How did he spend his younger days? What sort of conflicts does he face personally? Who are his friends? Does he draw lewd stuff in his spare time? Does he find The Common Man as just a day job or does he have a strong bond with the character? Does he have any regrets?
I understand the impact The Common Man has had on Indian cartooning. However it feels plain wrong and restrictive to focus on only that aspect of RK Laxman. He didn’t flinch while taking down our holy cows. Let’s not make him one.