In the “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, during the memorial service to Albus Dumbledore… “Harry had a wonderful momentary urge to laugh….Odd words floated back to them over the hundreds of heads. “Nobility of spirit”…”intellectual contribution”…”greatness of heart”…It did not mean very much. It had little to do with Dumbledore as Harry had known him. He suddenly remembered Dumbledore’s idea of a few words, “nitwit,” “oddment,” “blubber,” and “tweak,” and again had to suppress a grin…”
Nitwit. Oddment. Blubber. Tweak. Yep, that is precisely what happened to me when I heard of R K Laxman’s demise today. I know. Its a solemn moment. One in which one prays for the departed soul. But if there is something that this man gave us, it was that smile early in the morning. And distressed as I was on hearing the news, a tiny part of me went back to the good old days in Mumbai when I couldn’t really get started on newspapers…
“Manasi, newspapers are fundamental…helps to better language, general knowledge, news content..I don’t care if you don’t read textbooks. Newspapers are a must.” That was mom, talking to me, all of 12, sulking and not wanting to read boring old Times of India, whilst my brother (who loved seeing such scenes between mom and me) grinned evilly, standing behind her. “But mom, I don’t understand it! I find it boring..” Mom fixed her famous “find yourself another mother, girl” stare on me and reluctantly, I picked up the Times. Headlines. Snippets of news. Something about Rajiv Gandhi. Something about some “balance of payments” thingy (What the hell is that? I remember thinking. Sigh. Such is life)…and then suddenly I saw an eye catching comic strip. A young man twisting in his seat in an office to ask an elderly co-worker “Uncle, what’s nepotism?” And I was baited. For life. Hook, line and sinker.
Oh, I remember so many of those positively delightful ones. A cricket match that India had lost in a most humiliating fashion was followed by a rib tickling visual the next day. The batsman had been given the “Out” verdict by the Umpire and was shaking his bat and fist angrily in the Umpire’s face. The Umpire says, with a rather mild look on his face “Don’t threaten me with that bat. You are incapable of hitting anything with it!” And then, the other one, after some news on major misappropriation of funds came out. There’s this engineer peering over a big construction who is saying “There’s a fundamental mistake with this dam. There is no river here!”
While it made it immensely enjoyable to read him the morning after, to find his take on the big news rocking Indian economy and polity, there is also this other thing that I must mention. Very often, I used to see his cartoon and not follow the jab and then, I’d invariably go back to the earlier day’s papers (that I had missed out of sheer laziness). R K Laxman did more to help mom’s cause of coaxing the reluctant daughter to read the news than any other elite argument about it helping my grammar.
Many a morning did the old man light up with his light hearted humor. Much as there is no hard core literature that I associate with R K Laxman (though there are a few books authored by him), for me, I place him on the same pedestal (and a pretty high one, this) as my other favorites, P. G. Wodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome and George Mikes. Broadcaster and humorist Arthur Marshall said of Wodehouse that he used to read at least a few pages from Wodehouse before sleeping so that if he were to die in his sleep, he would die with a smile on his face. In the innocence of my youth, there were these giants, the great humorists, my best friends, people I literally grew up with, whom I really did not appreciate then but do not know how to thank now. If there was a Wodehouse to gently pat me to sleep in Blandings castle, there was R K Laxman to wake me up to the humorous reality that was India.
And then there was snooty ole Mikes delivering intellectually evil humor in “How to be a Brit”. “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one” is cult Mikes. Just as when one would think that noone, and I mean, noone can come even close to Mikes, Laxman would deliver his one-liner the next day. The politician’s wife telling her husband agitatedly “You are going to be in trouble. Four people have come to see you claiming they are humble, loyal, disciplined servants of the Congress party!”While it was never titled so, I believe that his columns could have been India’s answer to Mikes on “How to be an Indian”.
I was floored when I read “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K. Jerome. Sometimes, authors unwittingly create characters that actually light up the book much more than the central characters. Think of Captain Haddock. Or Peeves (incidentally, my favorite character in the Potter series). Similarly, perhaps the sweetest and funniest characters that Jerome K. Jerome created was Montmorency, the dog. Montmorency’s idea of “life” was “to hang about a stable, and collect a gang of the most disreputable dogs to be found in the town, and lead them out to march round the slums to fight other disreputable dogs.” Much as Montmorency brings that colour to the three men, “the wife” often brought colour to the common man. The fat, aggressive, sari wearing Indian wife with a sharp tongue and even a sharper sense of the situation.
Humor is tough. And gentle humor, the one that warms your heart and sets the world right, is impossibly tough. But with these four guys, life was a laugh. Its only now that I appreciate how safe I was in their world and their word. Dignified, yet making a point, never below the belt, nothing remotely trashy about it, but guaranteed to give you that gurgling smile in the morning. Coffee, with a couple of Parle G biscuits and an R K Laxman. That pretty much was enough to make my day.
Thank you R K Laxman. You created me, the common man. You made me laugh and cry, you painted me with pathos, with charm and with wit. You gave my mundane life an existence. Owe you one, Sir!