essay Arts

“Hope Means What?”

The cockeyed vision of RK Laxman

By NAKUL KRISHNA | 1 January 2017

THE WORD “CARTOON” got its modern sense, denoting a comic drawing, in 1843. It appeared in the still-new British weekly Punch to describe the magazine’s popular caricatures of London political life. When the news reached London a couple of decades later that someone had launched a magazine called Indian Punch, Charles Dickens was incredulous. “Punch in India,” he mused. “The idea seems unpromising. … The Asiatic temperament is solemn, and finds no enjoyment in fun for its own sake.” Within a few short decades, as the anthropologist Ritu Khanduri describes in Caricaturing Culture in India, the satirical ideals of Punch were appropriated, indigenised, and, with an irony worthy of one of its cartoons, transformed into a vehicle for anti-British commentary in the colony. The empire’s humourless Asiatic subjects were laughing back.

By the time RK Laxman was born, in 1921, the political cartoon had put down deep roots in India. Caricatures of politicians appeared, accompanied by wry or raucous captions, in publications in virtually every major Indian language. The future icon of political cartooning in India received some of his first commissions from Koravanji, a Kannada magazine self-consciously in the tradition of Punch, published from Bangalore beginning in the early 1940s. His great fame, however, and the instant recognition and affection his style inspires, came from his work for the institution where he spent nearly all of his professional career: the Times of India.

The thousands of editorial cartoons, large and small, that Laxman did on an unrelenting schedule for the Times of India from when he first joined its staff, in 1951, until he died, in 2015, have become not just a commentary on, but part of, the history of independent India. The figure most Indians associate with Laxman, “the Common Man,” was devised early in his career and stayed with him through his life: puzzled, ageless, powerless, ubiquitous, and always silent.

RK Laxman died on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Indian republic. He was 94 years old, and ailing after a series of strokes. A social critic with a vastly larger daily audience at his height than that of any contemporary columnist or academic, he has been lionised, even by the institutions and people he spent his life satirising. In 1984, he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, and, in 2005, one of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Vibhushan. But more significant than either piece of institutional recognition was a Reader’s Digest poll in 2010 that placed him ninth on a list of people Indians found most trustworthy.

In 2003, the Common Man became the mascot for the just-launched Air Deccan, India’s first low-cost airline. A 16-foot-tall bronze statue of the Common Man has stood on the campus of Symbiosis Institute, in Pune, since December 2001. A garland appeared around the statue’s neck in the course of the anti-corruption protests of 2011 that brought Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal into the public consciousness, and, eventually, brought into being the Aam Aadmi Party—a party, as its name claims, of and for the “common man.”

Even at the peak of his fame, Indians always regarded Laxman as eminently ordinary, as one of their own, perhaps conflating the Common Man and his creator. But this does Laxman the injustice of being reduced from the complex, acerbic, dark figure he was to a sentimental caricature. Two years after his death, it is time to go beyond the treatment of Laxman as everyone’s favourite grandfather, pronouncing amusing verdicts on the foibles of politicians over morning tea. It is time to ask some hard questions about him, about the vision behind the drawings and the sensibility behind the humour. Where did he come from? How did he do it? And what did he do, exactly?

WHERE DID RK LAXMAN COME FROM? One clue, though not a very revealing one, is in his first, toponymic, initial: the R is for Rasipuram, a small town in what is now the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A better clue lies in his second, patronymic, initial: the K came from Laxman’s father, Krishnaswami Iyer, a schoolmaster who had taken himself and his family away from the rural, Tamil-speaking country of his ancestors, quietly allowed his brother to help himself to the agricultural lands that were his inheritance, and devoted himself to education instead.

Krishnaswami Iyer’s story was typical of an entire generation of rural Tamil Brahmins in the late nineteenth century, a story told in intriguing detail in Christopher Fuller and Haripriya Narasimhan’s sociological study, Tamil Brahmans: The Making of a Middle-Class Caste. The apparatus of colonial government needed a class of people willing to move to where the jobs were. Tamil Brahmins, only loosely connected to the lands they owned, were well poised to do this. Moreover, they were largely literate, and had relatively weak connections to what was ostensibly their first language, Tamil. The institutions of administration—the schools, the civil service, the law courts, the press—were for a time theirs for the taking.

A natural analogy that Fuller and Narasimhan propose is with the more urbanised of Russian Jews, who, by the early twentieth century, were disproportionately represented in institutions of education, professional employment, business and banking. This placed them, as the American historian Yuri Slezkine has argued, in the vanguard of a certain strand of modernity, one embodied in the figure of the “service nomad: mobile, clever, articulate, occupationally flexible, and good at being a stranger.” In this sense, if no other, Tamil Brahmins were, like the Jews of Russia, “becoming modern faster and better than … anybody else.”

Krishnaswami Iyer, no doubt unaware he was part of so world-historical a phenomenon, made his way first to the colonial city of Madras, and then to the smaller city of Mysore, where he would gain a reputation for those distinctively modern virtues, punctuality and impartiality. Laxman’s 1998 autobiography, The Tunnel of Time, shows us many sides of the man his subordinates nicknamed “The Tiger,” who played tennis at the Cosmopolitan Club and the veena at home, could be very free with his cane, and lived in a perpetual state of disappointment at his sons: “One or the other was always failing exams.” In one generation, the Rasipuram farmer had given way to the Mysore headmaster. And the headmaster’s sons would take the principle of diversification to a yet more radical level.

One of Laxman’s five elder brothers was the pioneering novelist RK Narayan. Narayan’s accounts of his writerly formation present him, as no doubt he seemed to his early readers, as having no prehistory at all. His self-conception as, in his own words, “a realistic fiction-writer in English,” seemed to have come from nowhere. But his accounts of his childhood reading offer some clues as to where his sense of vocation originated.

Narayan writes that he was allowed “extraordinary privileges in the school library,” by a clerk who waived his usual bureaucratic demands in an attempt to curry favour with the headmaster by patronising his bookish son. The headmaster probably didn’t even notice the attempt. Narayan, in the years before Laxman was even born, read frenetically and competitively in English, maintaining a commonplace book into which he copied out his favourite passages, and stopping only for the rushed family meal. The school library was well funded, and generously and variously stocked, its budget spent to the limit and subsidised by any remainder from the sports fund.

Narayan recalls the excitement of post day, when a family servant would bring home a mountain of magazines in brown wrappers straight from the post office. The headmaster’s children would have first dibs on the loot, on solemn oath that the magazines would be returned to his desk undamaged by Monday morning. Narayan writes evocatively of those mornings, dreaming “over the advertisement pages in the Boys’ Own Paper or the Strand magazine,” learning from The Bookman how GK Chesteron and Hilaire Belloc had teamed up against George Bernard Shaw, or who made how much in royalties. “From our room, leaning on our pillows … we watched the literary personalities strutting about in London.”

Laxman was the baby of the family when his elder brothers were strutting about with copies of the Strand and Punch. He became enraptured with the large black-and-white illustrations in these magazines long before he could read the captions beneath them. “I used to spend hours studying each,” he writes in his memoir, “and would critically judge their quality. This exercise helped me develop a visual sense of humour and also the rudiments of perspective, drapery and human anatomy, without being conscious of these.”

Caught by an elder brother copying out a caricature from Punch, he recalls being violently chastised: “Copying? Never. Look around, observe and sketch! You will never be an artist if you copy. It is like eating leftover food from someone else’s plate.” An old taboo against eating saliva-sullied food was being put to a new, artistic use. And more surprising than the analogy was the breezy assumption that the little boy could become an artist.

This air of possibility was not simply an artefact of growing up in an unusual household. Set to draw a leaf by an ill-tempered schoolmaster, the young Laxman produced an intricate chalk-on-slate picture of a peepal leaf (Ficus religiosa). As the master stared, the boys’ excitement mounting at the prospect of a violent explosion, Laxman began to apologise, until the master delivered a surprise. “He turned to me and said, ‘You will be an artist one day. Keep it up.’ He gave me ten marks out of ten. … I was inspired by this unexpected encouragement. I began to think of myself as an artist in the making, never doubting that this was my destiny.”

The young Laxman drew constantly at home, “dry twigs, leaves and lizard-like creatures crawling about, the servant chopping firewood and … crows in various postures on the rooftops of the buildings opposite.” He would walk around the city of Mysore, “sketch-pad and pencil in hand,” and hang about the squares, the parks, the vegetable market, “in order to sketch people in action, study their faces, their dresses, their postures … My sketch-book was filled with drawings of whatever caught my fancy including the local railway station, weather-beaten houses, ruminating cows, meditative donkeys, schoolchildren, lawyers, passengers at the bus terminus.”

In adolescence, he made the acquaintance of the professional painters who relied on the patronage of the Maharaja of Mysore and produced the sort of derivative portraits (with titles such as “Love” or “Reverie”) of local bigwigs or their wives and daughters that could be hung up in parlours or public buildings. Some of them became his friends, and accompanied him on bicycle rides across and outside the city. Mysore, Laxman recalls, “was a landscape painter’s dream—enchanting rock formations at the foothills of the Chamundi; gigantic banyan trees, ancient, nameless, dateless ruins overgrown with shrubs and weeds as if artificially arranged; lakes, huts, village roads.” Laxman and his companions would choose a subject, then sit on their folding stools and paint until dusk.

He was taking his brother’s advice: Look around, observe and sketch. The crow was a childhood favourite that remained for the rest of his life an artistic obsession. It was, he later observed, “so alive on the landscape. In our garden it stood out against the green of the trees or the blue of the sky, against the red earth or the cream compound wall.” His mother noticed his talent for rendering crows and encouraged it: the crow was, after all, fabled to be the mount of Shani, or Saturn, the ominous god who brings bad luck unless propitiated. “By drawing his mount was I averting his evil eye? Of course, I ignored this religious interpretation. For me looking at the crow affords pure aesthetic pleasure.”
There is a good deal contained in that “of course.” For Laxman, as for his novelist brother and the other self-styled modernisers of their generation, aesthetic pleasure was always reason enough. There was no need for a religious interpretation of the world when its appearance itself could keep the attentive mind busy.

But Laxman’s real artistic leap came when he asked not just what he could see of the world around him, but also what he could see in it. A few lines of chalk on slate and Laxman’s father was now a Roman senator (his father was unamused, but his mother fought the young artist’s corner). A schoolmaster was outraged at finding the young Laxman’s doodle of a tiger cub in his exercise book and insisted it must be a caricature of him, against Laxman’s quite sincere denials. “It was,” Laxman wrote in retrospect, “a moment of discovery vital to my understanding of the art of caricature.”

“An active imagination,” Laxman wrote, “fuelled by a keen sense of absurdity, could … see the human resemblance to inanimate objects … A cartoonist born with a cock-eyed vision manipulates a face or a human situation and distorts it without losing the essence of humour.” Laxman had discovered that anything could be seen as anything, and nothing feeds the artistic imagination like the paranoia of the powerful. The tyrant’s greatest fear is not the violent rebellion of the masses but their laughter.

A SENSE OF DESTINY ALONE is not, or not yet, the path to what is called a career. Laxman did the most obvious thing after he finished school and looked for somewhere to study formally what he had been teaching himself. He applied to the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay and received a rejection letter for his trouble: judging by his drawings, the dean said, Laxman “lacked the kind of talent required to qualify for enrolment in our institution.” The letter kindly advised the young artist to “continue your studies further.” Later in his life, he would, to his immense amusement, listen to another dean of the institution commend his draughtsmanship to an audience of students to whom Laxman had been invited to distribute prizes. Forced to deliver a speech, Laxman thanked the dean who had rejected his application and thereby rescued him from a career languishing at an advertising agency drawing chubby babies while hawking “Crunchy, munchy Vita Biscuits” to unwary mothers.

At the time, he took the blow on the chin and did a standard-issue Bachelor of Arts at Maharaja’s College in the University of Mysore. This turned out to be a stroke of luck. The campus of Maharaja’s College saw writ on a larger and more diverse stage the same things that had characterised Laxman’s upbringing. Reading, writing and drawing were ways of life among the students, and there was no shortage of publications, some more amateurish than others, in which a young artist might publish his sketches. New styles of sociality were emerging among young men, styles that their fathers could not have known, in spaces such as coffee houses that had been growing in tandem with the emerging south-Indian obsession with good coffee.

There were hints of a nationalist awakening and reverence for the leaders of the anti-colonial movement. But this was combined with a healthy understanding that power corrupts and that no politician should be taken simply at his word, a sensibility that would have been at home in the pages of Punch. When India gained its independence in 1947, it didn’t need to develop a satirical consciousness out of nothing: the caricaturists were already there, along with audiences who got the joke.

Then, as now, there was no established path to becoming a cartoonist; each one had to find his own way. Laxman’s father died of a brain haemorrhage while the youngster was still in school and it fell upon his elder brothers to handle the burden of the family finances. Laxman was not allowed to feel the pinch and—it seems astonishing even from the perspective of 70 years later—never dissuaded from the uncertain career as artistic freelancer on which he embarked.

Laxman spent his first years out of college selling his work to any publication that would print it: the Kannada humour magazine Koravanji, published from Bangalore, the investigative tabloid Blitz and the nationalist newspaper Free Press Journal, both published from Bombay. The money trickled in, his reputation grew, and readers began to recognise his style. A policeman let him off for a minor traffic violation after he realised that the young man without a licence for his bicycle was “the Koravanji Laxman.” He came to be associated, very early in his career, with the meticulous draughtsmanship, the quiet, ironic contrast between the image and the caption, that became his way to register the gap between preaching and practice, aspiration and reality.

When Laxman rose to the position of the staff cartoonist of the Times of India, in the early 1950s, he found that he had what the US President Theodore Roosevelt famously called a “bully pulpit.” With his regular, single-column front-page feature “You Said It,” he became the republic’s pocket-sized conscience, working to a daily deadline. An early volume reprinting his cartoons had him reflect on the nature of his job: “A cartoonist works for an industry in which time is of the essence. The Damocles’ sword of deadline rules his days, which for him follow one another in a bewildering order of importance: tomato shortage, nuclear threat, five-year plan, potholes, corruption, monsoon forecast, adulterated drugs, prohibition and mission to the moon.”

With virtually no pre-existing professional norms to guide him, Laxman had to invent his own way, immersing himself in the news as the cables came in, reading the opinion pages and absorbing his paper’s editorial position, waiting—often until dangerously close to his final deadline—for inspiration to strike. It always struck in time, giving him the image he needed to provide the ironic commentary on the day’s news it was the cartoonist’s job to provide. “I am continually surprised to note,” he would later write of a collection of his cartoons, “that most of them are timeless in their relevance to any given moment in our history.”

In the office, he soon acquired a reputation for a brusque and profane personal style at odds with the self-effacing, somewhat put-upon public persona he had among those who identified him with his most enduring creation: the Common Man. The Common Man was, in Laxman’s retrospective description, a “mythical individual in a striped coat, with a bushy moustache, a bald head with a white wisp of hair at the back, a bulbous nose on which perched a pair of glasses, and thick black eyebrows permanently raised, expressing bewilderment.” His dress never changed: a traditional dhoti rather than trousers, a long shirt and a checked jacket.

In an uncharacteristically stern moment, Laxman remarked: “You cannot do away with the Common Man. They have tried it for centuries and not succeeded … he is the mirror image [of millions of readers]… the conscience that pricks the evildoer.” Famously, the Common Man never spoke in all his decades on the front page of the Times of India. He was often at the edge of the picture, holding a file, taking notes, more often just standing, a little befuddled, a little shocked at the political machinations or bureaucratic shenanigans unfolding around him. He never took any active part in politics. He watched and he listened. “He remains the same and has not spoken a word. Quietly watching the world, he represents the silent majority of India, who have no voice.”

Laxman was no copier, but he took his inspiration where he could find it. He had been struck even in childhood by the cartoons in London’s Evening Standard, which were often reprinted in The Hindu. Even before he understood what was meant by “Armament” or “League of Nations,” he saw in “the effortless flow of lines, the perspective, the drapery—all done in controlled distortion—a masterpiece of visual satire.” The name signed at the bottom right of them was, he thought, “Cow.” It was many years before he learnt that the cartoons were in fact the work of the iconic British cartoonist David Low. Low’s work marked for Laxman the gold standard of the cartoonist’s craft.

A few years into his job at the Times of India, he was visited by his distant guru. David Low and his wife were in Bombay for a few hours while their ship to Hong Kong was docked there. Laxman showed them around Marine Drive with a proprietary air, as if he had drawn the urban landscape himself. Proud of the obvious modernity of the scene, he told Low he hoped he had “gathered a different impression of our country to take home” than one stuffed with the usual cliches of “sadhus, snake charmers, elephants and tigers.” As he gestured at the skyline, he became aware of a faint tune being played on a wind instrument. To Laxman’s dismay, this was followed by the appearance of someone who had cannily made himself up to look like “the Hollywood idea of an Indian snake charmer.” Low, ever the connoisseur of situational irony, enjoyed Laxman’s discomfiture. Laxman took a sportsmanlike attitude to the affair: “Let us go before the rope-trick fellow, the sadhu, the elephants and tigers follow, Mr Low.”

LAXMAN WOULD NEVER STOP being disappointed by India; in a sense, disappointment was his day job. His encounter with the snake charmer, which happened in 1952, was in keeping with the ironies that gave his daily cartoons their special bite. The snake charmer was in one sense a creature of pre-modernity, but in another he was that most modern of things, an entrepreneur with an eye for the gullible foreign tourist. That arch-moderniser Nehru, with his Five-Year Plans, industrial strategy and passion for the “scientific temper,” promised things no government could deliver: a wholesale transformation of the Indian psyche.

Even the superficial achievements of the Indian state were not everything they claimed to be. Faced with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s facile talk in the 1980s of taking India into the twenty-first century, Laxman, in his cartoons from this period, made it clear what was already becoming apparent to everyone: that technological modernisation remained an elite project driven by elite concerns, whose fruits trickled down slowly, if at all, to the rest. The aeroplane to the twenty-first century needs to be dragged along the runway by the sweating Common Man.

India and its distinctive political culture were essential to Laxman’s style. At one point early in his career at the Times of India, he seriously considered moving to London to take up an offer of a job at the Evening Standard to replace David Low, who had moved to the Daily Mail. He was flattered, but decided in the end that it wasn’t worth it. “The conformity and uniformity of [Britain’s] social life and the propriety in political conduct would have reduced me to a mediocre illustrator of events. I would have missed the multifaceted, colourful life of India … that I lived with and understood.”

Later in his life, he visited the Soviet Union, where he was introduced to the cartoonists at a satirical weekly called Krokodil. Their drawing was exemplary, but their targets were carefully circumscribed. One could attack the laziness of factory workers, the waste of water and the vulgarity of capitalism, but the superiority of the Communist system could not be called into question.

Reconciled to his life in India, he poured himself into “You Said It.” The figures in his cartoons were rarely specific politicians. Laxman devised a set of archetypes—politician, civil servant, journalist, and, of course, the Common Man. The Common Man was first a way for the overworked cartoonist to avoid the trouble of drawing large crowds, and then to fend off charges that he overrepresented characters from one Indian region or another. It was only later that the figure came to be seen as an expression of Laxman’s deepest political sympathies. In consequence, Laxman came to be seen as a representative of the people with as much legitimacy as those who had been chosen in elections. His readers, Laxman found to his dismay, “looked upon me … as a profound thinker, a social reformer, a political scientist, a critic of errant politicians and so on. I received letters complaining about postal delays, telephones, the sloppiness of municipal authorities, inflated electric bills, bribes in school admissions.”

Usually, Laxman protested, quite rightly, that he had no power to change any of these things. But every now and then, he was willing to make a stronger claim on behalf of his vocation. “The role of today’s cartoonist is not unlike that of the court jester of yore. His business in a democracy is to exercise his right to criticize, ridicule, find fault with, and demolish the establishment and political leaders—through cartoons and caricatures.” “Demolish” is an odd choice of word, and indicates a rare lapse from Laxman’s insistence on the limits of a cartoonist’s power.

The poet William Cowper, writing in 1785, asked a hard question about humour: “What vice has it subdued? whose heart reclaimed/ By rigour, or whom laughed into reform?/ Alas! Leviathan is not so tamed.” Leviathan—the traditional, monstrous symbol of the sovereign state—is indeed not so easily tamed, as Laxman would find during the Emergency, between 1975 and 1977.

In those years, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, her insecurity and large nose gifts to the caricaturist, suspended civil liberties and enforced a strict regime of press censorship. In the beginning, it was unclear how strict the censorship was going to be. On the day the Emergency was declared, Laxman was to address a meeting of the Rotary Club in Bangalore. He had prepared a splendid and funny denunciation of the prime minister, but as he rose to the stage, the president of the club took him aside and urged restraint. Laxman looked around the room, and saw men in uniform at the door and others who were unmistakably policemen in mufti. He decided he didn’t dare deliver the remarks he had prepared. The audience were treated instead to an account of Laxman’s trip to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Laxman did what he could under the new constraints, choosing subjects for his cartoons either so foreign or so generic as not to worry the government in office. But some factotum decided that even a cartoon of a fat man slipping on a banana peel could well contain a hidden political meaning. Jokes about the British prime minister Harold Wilson were thought to be veiled digs at his Indian counterpart. When Laxman appealed to the prime minister herself with a full list of the censors’ excesses, she piously announced that “in a democracy satirical comments are essential as checks and balances.” But this tolerance did not stay long. Laxman’s memoir records a summons from an unnamed minister who said, with authority and menace, “You are not above law” [sic].

Laxman decided to retire from political cartooning and take a trip to Mauritius. He enjoyed the self-imposed sabbatical, but the satirical itch was growing again and he was relieved when the Emergency ended, a general election was called, and a chaotic coalition government came to power, offering endless opportunities for caricature. In the 1980s, the election of Rajiv Gandhi, with his handsome features and urbane manner, briefly gave Laxman cause for concern. What if Rajiv’s twenty-first-century utopia materialised? “I would lose my job … and I would be living in a country which would allow no scope for me to satirize and ridicule it.” He needn’t have worried.

The last two decades of his life gave him no further grounds for hope in politics. Over the course of the 1990s, that decade of corruption scandals and political instability, he noticed a dispiriting pattern. Cartoons, and satire more generally, derived their special power from their capacity to reveal what was hidden, to expose what was unobvious. But, increasingly, Laxman found that cartoonists had nothing to expose. The corruption and criminality were all on the surface. There were no broken promises to hold against a politician who made no promises, or showed no shame on being found out. In a culture where the only power the masses have is the power to shame, power lies with the totally shameless.

The Common Man would become, in these years, a more ironic figure than even his creator was ready to acknowledge. He was marked by his powerlessness and status as perennial victim. But it was the vote of the Common Man that brought leader after corrupt leader to power; surely, by now, he must know better? Perhaps the Common Man was really affording us a comforting fiction. As long as people saw themselves in him, they could place responsibility for India’s failings on someone else’s shoulders—just as the Common Man always did. It was always the politician, always the bureaucrat, never the voter.

Laxman spent the 1990s—that decade of coalition after unstable, scam-prone coalition—in a state of mounting despair. “It was nerve-racking to read almost the same news, assimilate, analyse and create a cartoon with fresh brilliance day after day.” Yet, the deadlines wouldn’t stop. But Laxman found to his relief that he could always count on “the insatiable appetite of the public to enjoy denigrating and pillorying its leaders in several variations, even if the situation happened to be the same.”

Laxman’s humour grew darker. In an interview given late in his life, he took a deeply pessimistic view of things: “Sense of humour does not give hope. It has nothing to do with it. Hope means what? Tomorrow will be all right?” A lifetime of days spent immersed in bad news—good news rarely produces a good cartoon—did not leave Laxman a sanguine man. His sense of humour was ultimately about the Common Man’s capacity for endurance. As he once said, “You cannot do away with the Common Man.” There is no reason to think this a rousing, or even hopeful, statement.

You cannot do away with that abstraction, “the Common Man,” but—as Laxman well knew—you can do away with common men and women. Innumerable common men and women are done away with everyday, in riots, in police stations, in forest raids, on the streets by people in uniforms with titles and official badges, or in offices by signatures from civil servants’ pens. Sitting at a desk while reports of such things poured in day after day, Laxman knew all this better than most. No, he concluded at the end of it all, tomorrow will not be alright, but it must be lived through nonetheless. A sense of humour cannot give hope, but sometimes, it can provide something more modest: consolation.

The idea of consolation can be misunderstood. A “consolation prize” is, after all, something given out to losers to keep them quiet, to keep them trying, even if the game happens to be rigged against them. But there is another way of thinking of consolation, suggested in a remark by the British writer Penelope Fitzgerald, the daughter and biographer of the satirist Edmund Knox, who edited Punch in the years when Laxman first read it. Consolation, she writes, “is to be made welcome in a different world, where the laws of time are suspended, and yet which is still my own.”

The Common Man in Laxman’s world is always disappointed. But only those can be disappointed who have high expectations. Behind every one of Laxman’s cartoons is a utopian image of a world where those in power keep their promises and the Common Man is not betrayed. This is not the world the Common Man inhabits, but it is the world he dreams of.

The last two decades of his life gave him no further grounds for hope in politics. Over the course of the 1990s, that decade of corruption scandals and political instability, he noticed a dispiriting pattern. Cartoons, and satire more generally, derived their special power from their capacity to reveal what was hidden, to expose what was unobvious. But, increasingly, Laxman found that cartoonists had nothing to expose. The corruption and criminality were all on the surface. There were no broken promises to hold against a politician who made no promises, or showed no shame on being found out. In a culture where the only power the masses have is the power to shame, power lies with the totally shameless.

The Common Man would become, in these years, a more ironic figure than even his creator was ready to acknowledge. He was marked by his powerlessness and status as perennial victim. But it was the vote of the Common Man that brought leader after corrupt leader to power; surely, by now, he must know better? Perhaps the Common Man was really affording us a comforting fiction. As long as people saw themselves in him, they could place responsibility for India’s failings on someone else’s shoulders—just as the Common Man always did. It was always the politician, always the bureaucrat, never the voter.

Laxman spent the 1990s—that decade of coalition after unstable, scam-prone coalition—in a state of mounting despair. “It was nerve-racking to read almost the same news, assimilate, analyse and create a cartoon with fresh brilliance day after day.” Yet, the deadlines wouldn’t stop. But Laxman found to his relief that he could always count on “the insatiable appetite of the public to enjoy denigrating and pillorying its leaders in several variations, even if the situation happened to be the same.”

Laxman’s humour grew darker. In an interview given late in his life, he took a deeply pessimistic view of things: “Sense of humour does not give hope. It has nothing to do with it. Hope means what? Tomorrow will be all right?” A lifetime of days spent immersed in bad news—good news rarely produces a good cartoon—did not leave Laxman a sanguine man. His sense of humour was ultimately about the Common Man’s capacity for endurance. As he once said, “You cannot do away with the Common Man.” There is no reason to think this a rousing, or even hopeful, statement.

You cannot do away with that abstraction, “the Common Man,” but—as Laxman well knew—you can do away with common men and women. Innumerable common men and women are done away with everyday, in riots, in police stations, in forest raids, on the streets by people in uniforms with titles and official badges, or in offices by signatures from civil servants’ pens. Sitting at a desk while reports of such things poured in day after day, Laxman knew all this better than most. No, he concluded at the end of it all, tomorrow will not be alright, but it must be lived through nonetheless. A sense of humour cannot give hope, but sometimes, it can provide something more modest: consolation.

The idea of consolation can be misunderstood. A “consolation prize” is, after all, something given out to losers to keep them quiet, to keep them trying, even if the game happens to be rigged against them. But there is another way of thinking of consolation, suggested in a remark by the British writer Penelope Fitzgerald, the daughter and biographer of the satirist Edmund Knox, who edited Punch in the years when Laxman first read it. Consolation, she writes, “is to be made welcome in a different world, where the laws of time are suspended, and yet which is still my own.”

The Common Man in Laxman’s world is always disappointed. But only those can be disappointed who have high expectations. Behind every one of Laxman’s cartoons is a utopian image of a world where those in power keep their promises and the Common Man is not betrayed. This is not the world the Common Man inhabits, but it is the world he dreams of.

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Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

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One thought on ““Hope Means What?””

I grew up on cartoons of Laxman while I was in India and later migrated to the US for further studies. The instant I left India, my association with Laxman’s cartoon was gone. I realized how deep rooted his commentary was to our way of life in India. But I also realized while his “you said it” feature could be acerbic, his other musing were very ordinary. I could not help but compare him to the culture of cartooning that I found here in the US, and I think this is where he comes across as ordinary. His sketches were extra-ordinary but they would convey a very ordinary message. He needed a writer in his later years who could have helped him say more. An Albert Uderzo to Rene Goscinnay of the Astrix comics. RK Laxman needed his Rene Goscinnay. This comes a surprise to many of my fellow Indians as we are brought up with the diet that Laxman was great throughout his life. He was not. I found Ajit Ninan and Mario Miranda to be consistently more enjoyable even after shifting my physical presence to another part of the world.

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