The first time I met RK Laxman, I remember, we talked about crows.
I had gone to meet him in connection with some work, and as we were talking, a crow came and sat in the window, squawking angrily. Laxman stopped mid-conversation, and looked at it lovingly. “Look how beautiful it is,” he said, very softly, almost to himself. And then, after the crow had flown away, he began to talk about crows, as if they were some higher form of civilisation. “Amazing fellows,” he said, “Much more intelligent than us. Much more disciplined. Their society that is so much more orderly than our own.” I hesitantly mentioned to him that I had witnessed a crow’s funeral recently, when hundreds of mourning crows had gathered, lined up thickly on the balconies and ledges of the high-rise buildings of my neighbourhood in Bombay. He nodded. “We have a lot to learn from them,” he said. And suddenly I felt as if I had passed some kind of test, and been accepted by him.
I asked him once who he had found the most difficult person to caricature. “Rajiv Gandhi was difficult in the beginning, because he was so good looking,” he told me, “So I started playing with his caricature, doing different things with it, and as I did that, I discovered that he had a certain incipient chubbiness to his face. So I drew that out in the caricature, and made him look slightly plumper than he was in reality. And with that, his character, suddenly, fell into place. After that I always drew him slightly plumper than he really was.
“But the most difficult person to caricature was Jawaharlal Nehru,“ he continued, “No matter how I tried to draw him, he always ended looking like a superhuman, in his immaculate topi and achkan with a rose in his buttonhole. I used to get very frustrated. Then one day I drew him without his topi, and suddenly his whole personality seemed to change. Suddenly he looked like an ordinary mortal, after all, confronted by all the problems of his office. No longer the heroic Nehru, but Nehru the fallible human being, overwhelmed by the difficulties of running the country. After that I always drew him without a topi, with just a few wisps of hair on his head.”
Didn’t any of the politicians complain about his wicked caricatures, I asked him. No, he replied, only one politician complained, and that was Morarji Desai. “He had no sense of humour, that man. All the others actually seemed to enjoy being caricatured by me.”
And how did he get those wonderfully pithy caricatures? I got a small insight from someone who had been caricatured by Laxman. When I asked him how exactly the great man had managed to get such a likeness, he told me in a slightly awed tone, “I really don’t know. I met him once, and as he was leaving, he turned around and held up one fore-finger, and looked at me for a moment with one eye closed. Then he said, “Got it”. I didn’t know what he meant. A couple of days later, I received a package with this caricature inside it”.
Laxman had a love-hate relationship with the breed of Indian politicians. He seemed to loathe them and their unlovely ways. And yet he couldn’t do without them, for he knew that his whole job - his whole life - depended on their failings, and his lampooning of them. If they were to miraculously shed their imperfections, he would have nothing to do in life. In fact, he had apparently received lucrative job offers from publications in the West, but he found their politicians too bland, too competent, and he knew they would therefore stop his creative juices from flowing, and soon put him out of work.
It was remarkable that he was so prolific: turning out a cartoon a day (and often more), every day for over fifty years. He would be in the office by 8.30 every morning and leave by 3.30 every afternoon. And if he was ever stuck for an idea, it was said, he would simply go for a walk in the gullies of Bori Bunder, around the Times of India office, simply observing the bustling humanity around him - and by the time he came back, it was always with that elusive idea. It was a system that apparently never failed him.
The last time I met Laxman was when he had come home to tea, and as a very special favour he called my four-year-old nephew and asked him to fetch a pen and paper. He then did a caricature of the little boy with a few deft strokes of the pen, autographed it, and handed it to him. That done, he continued with our conversation. After a little while, my nephew came running gleefully into the room, waving the caricature and shouting, “See, uncle, see, I’ve improved it!” With his colour pencils, he had scribbled all over Laxman’s caricature. Laxman looked visibly upset, “Arre, what have you done? What have you done?” he kept repeating. He was a genius, and he knew it. And he clearly didn’t like any criticism of his work, in whatsoever form.
And so now, RK Laxman has left us. Flown away. I like to think he will be reborn as a crow. As a form of life that he considered more evolved than our own, living in a society that is more ordered, more disciplined, and all in all, superior to our own.