Visiting India’s most Uncommon Man

By Dev Nadkarni

Early this year, the Indian Posts and Telegraphs department honoured a simple, bespectacled, dhoti-clad Indian who has never spoken a single word for more than 60 years. Sporting horn rimmed glasses and with his thinning wisp of hair crowning his balding pate, the man, always wearing a checked coat, has been immortalised on a postage stamp.

The man is one of India’s most well recognised cartoon characters: legendary cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s Common Man. Featured in every single “You Said It” cartoon on the front page of what is today the world’s largest selling English newspaper, The Times of India, Laxman’s Common Man has been a silent spectator to the goings on in the rough and tumble of Indian life since 1951.

The postage stamp is among a string of great national and international honours that have come the way of India’s greatest ever cartoonist. Among the big awards he has received are the nation’s second biggest – the Padma Vibhushan – and the Ramon Magsaysay Prize, often called the Nobel Prize of the east. His ardent fans, of which there are millions, have been expecting India’s top honour, the Bharat Ratna, to come his way for a few years now. But as we have seen, it has eluded him this year as well. Unfortunately for the mindless boffins in Delhi who are in charge of the award, the recipient has to be thoroughly dead before they can be persuaded to confer it, as has been proved repeatedly.

I’ve had the good fortune to know Laxman closely for many years – first, because my father was a long time columnist and writer with the Times of India and second because he had a home in the same street that I lived in the city of Pune. For many years, he would spend weekends away from the bustle of Mumbai, where he lived and worked, and dash of to the more salubrious climes and relaxed pace of Pune – which is where we would meet for a long walk followed by a round of Scotch nearly every weekend.

Visiting Laxman during my visit to Pune last month was different. The maestro, now 90, has been ailing for several years and lives permanently in Pune. A severe stroke about a year ago has left him without speech – like the Common Man, his uncommon creator is now silent. I spent a couple of hours with him and his genial wife Kamala and he conversed with me scribbling words on a notepad. His wit is still razor sharp and he is quite cogent and lucid but for his ability to speak.

When he turned 90 last year, the Laxmans’ elegant Pune home played host to a legion of his well wishers and fans beginning from the President of India, Pratibha Patil, to chief ministers, political heavyweights – almost all of whom he had taken potshots at on the front page of the Times of India – industrialists, academics down to the common man in the street.

A few years ago, Symbiosis, one of India’s most forward looking tertiary educational institutions erected a ten-foot statue of the Common Man on its premises in Pune, which is today quite a tourist attraction for visitors to the city. The new postage stamp will now take the visage of the famously silent Common Man on to countless letters, postcards and envelopes around India, bringing a smile on the faces of millions of recipients – and fans of the master cartoonist.