It has been my good fortune to have known two R.K. Laxmans: the unspeaking Common Man on Times of India’s front page, who legions of readers like me adored, and the uncommon man who made me wonder whether he was indeed the creator of the balding, bespectacled, dhoti-clad gent, generating a zillion laughs a day, every day for six decades.
I was introduced to the first Laxman when I was about 10 years old. My dad, Mohan Nadkarni, was a longtime Times columnist and on one of my visits to the Times with him, we ran into Laxman on the long third floor corridor. Dad and he chatted a bit and then we trooped into his cabin on the far side of the building. It felt great to meet the man who actually drew the cartoon on the Times’ front page. Sifting through his pile of sketches next to his drawing board, he picked an inked sketch of a street urchin and gifted it to me, which to this day is among my most prized possessions.
Over the years he knew me as ‘Mohan’s boy’ and seemed quite fond of me stopping by to chat with me if I ran into him while running dad’s errands in the Times building. Then, in 1984, when my first cartoon strip appeared in the Sunday Magazine of the Indian Express, I asked my father if I should mention it to Laxman. He hesitatingly assented. A few days later I was in the building again, saw Laxman and showed him a copy of my first published work. He looked at it for all of five seconds, handed it back, said nothing and went his way. That was my brief introduction to the second Laxman. We never discussed my cartoons ever again. Neither did he like to say anything about any other cartoonist’s work.
In 1987, when, as part of the Festival of India, some 10 Indian cartoonists were invited to exhibit their work at the Bande Dessinee festival in Switzerland, he declined to join our contingent. Because of my acquaintance with him, I was asked to persuade him but he had made up his mind. So we had Mario Miranda, Sudhir Dar (Hindustan Times), Ram Waeerkar (Amar Chitra Katha/Tinkle), noted freelance cartoonist Vins (Vijay N Seth), a few others and me, but India’s greatest wasn’t there. We were hard put to explain to the show’s visitors why his work wasn’t there.
My associates in the business of communications and media knew about our friendship. I was therefore able to drum up quite a few lucrative special assignments for Laxman, including a diary for a leading international bank and a calendar for a major Indian IT outfit, besides many smaller assignments like traffic and law and order education booklets for Mumbai Police. It was also great to have facilitated his meeting with over 1000 adoring software professionals of my friend Anand Deshpande’s company, Persistent Systems, in Pune. My encounters with Laxman grew few and far between over a number of years until my family moved to Pune.
One weekend, as we strolled through our quiet, leafy street, Laxman spotted me and called out. We knew the Laxmans had a flat somewhere hereabouts but had no idea that it was a mere stone’s throw away, just about 50 metres from where we lived. We clambered up to his commodious flat and were warmly welcomed by his ever-affable wife Kamala and treated to idlis and some superb filter coffee. He told me he was contemplating living and working in Pune and that the Times was setting up some scanning equipment so that he could send his cartoons electronically.
We were delighted to have him live so close by. Our meetings grew more regular – the couple would visit us and we would visit them. On many evenings he would insist I join him for his customary regimen of Black Label. He would simply call and say, “Come over for a drink.” I’ve lost count how many Johnny Walkers we’ve downed between us. He would often invite me to walks around the area, which were almost always interrupted by wide-eyed fans and autograph seekers.
We talked of many things – his love of black, why he liked to paint crows, his favourite comic strips, illustrators and artists, his huge collection of twigs and stones, his fascination for Lord Ganesh’s iconography even though he openly claimed to be an atheist, at least in those days. He also told me why he refused excellent offers to work in the UK, how he went about planning his cartoon for the next day and so much more. He related fascinating personal anecdotes of his travels around the world and his encounters with famous people – from the Shankaracharya to Indira Gandhi.
Someday, perhaps soon, I’ll put them to paper. But I can see it will be a rather long piece…
The uncommon creator of the common man that I came to know better was typically critical and brooding. There hardly was any humour in most of our conversations, though there was the odd joke or funny gesture. It made me wonder if this was indeed the man who would produce a rip-roaring comment with an economy of brush strokes and a less-is-more approach to captioning, the next day. But then again, maybe that sullenness was actually the fuel that propelled his creative genius to produce such incredible work: Drawing his ‘You Said It’ daily pocket cartoon was like trying to “fill your tummy now by thinking of yesterday’s meal,” he once said.
On the morning of my fortieth birthday Laxman and Kamala turned up at our home quite unexpectedly with a box of sweets for our girls (he didn’t know it was my birthday). We were to host a party that night and had a few friends over, helping out. Laxman asked what the preparations were all about. The couple wished me, had a cup of coffee and left. Later that day, Laxman came back with a most gorgeous drawing of Ganesh as a birthday gift to me. “Specially for you, my friend,” he said. That framed masterpiece has had pride of place in all the homes I have lived in since.
Over the past decade, I met Laxman only a few times – whenever I visited Pune. His health declined steadily. Then, a stroke paralysed him and took away his speech. His last years have been spent quite like his unspeaking common man who indeed has immortalised him. He would speak in gestures, lovingly interpreted by Kamala. When it was possible, he would write what he wanted to say. He mainly stayed at home, confined to a wheelchair but every evening, a longtime faithful friend took him on a drive around parts of Pune for about an hour. Visiting a Ganesh temple was part of the routine.
I last met him just over a month ago in December 2014. I told him about dad’s passing. He remembered they were of the same age, he gestured (dad was a year younger). He then insisted I join him on his evening ride (I had to reschedule an appointment, which I am so glad I did). We visited a Ganesh temple in Aundh. An attendant brought forth a red hibiscus, which Laxman touched and was then placed at the feet of the God of Creativity. The rest of the trip was spent in silence, my left hand gripping his right forearm. I glanced at him as we passed by the statue of his Common Man at the Symbiosis Institute Complex on Senapati Bapat Road. He didn’t seem to notice.
Back home, we sat around for a while as Kamala chatted with the unending stream of evening visitors. Not long after that, I said my final goodbye. It felt like the final flourish with which the great master crossed the ‘x’ in his ‘Laxman’ signature before handing in the picture that would launch a million laughs the next morning.