February 25, 2020
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One Straight Line

Life for Laxman is a linear path, remembered minus ambiguity

One Straight Line
The Tunnel Of Time: An Autobiography
By R.K. Laxman
Viking Rs 295, Pages: 238
EARLY in his autobiography, India's most celebrated cartoonist, Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Laxman, describes a moment in childhood when he came upon a few fragments of coloured glass. Putting these to his eye one at a time, he discovered a new world with each colour. Moody blue, vibrant green, smiling yellow, glowering red—the way he describes these hues and the effect they have on his outlook provide a key to his whole personality. He really does seem to see the world in bright, brilliant shades, with little or no concession made for ambiguity or uncertainty.

Therein lies his charm and, if one is in a mind to quibble, his failing. The failing is that he doesn't seem to introspect much. His life has apparently run along a track as pure and straight as a railway line. Just as one does not argue with the absolute precision of two rails of polished steel extending towards the infinite horizon, so one absorbs the account he gives us of his youth, his trials, his setbacks and triumphs as if these events were all pre-ordained. But in the same way that one can hardly form an attachment to something as fixed in purpose as a railway line, it is difficult to feel close to the narrator of the many anecdotes which make up this story. There is very little, in this account, to help us understand by what stages a world-class talent like Laxman's is honed. He appears to have been like a force of nature, unstoppable once released upon reality.

The best moments of the book are the early ones when he is still growing up. He had an authoritarian father and a highly intelligent, educated mother. He and his brothers grew up in a spacious home, indulged in a way that today's urban children can never be, however wealthy or sheltered. Laxman had the wonderful good fortune to grow up feeling an absolute security about his world and his place within it. Whatever his trials were, they took place within the golden aura of a confidence made all the more precious by the fact that he was not conscious of it. Today's privileged child, by contrast, is constantly reminded that she or he is only one element in a complex global picture, born into the steely harness of nursery schools and examinations, whipped into believing that every race must be won, and at any cost. How delightful, then, the pre-competitive era described by Laxman, when he and his brothers could afford to fail at their exams without attracting any very dire fate. As he puts it, "My brother Narayan's words were the most comforting. He declared proudly that though he had failed in English in the entrance examination, he had survived the blow and had become an outstanding novelist in the English language."

It is not easy to judge what element in this upbringing resulted in a talent which is as spontaneous as it is carefully disciplined and sophisticated. His parents neither restricted nor especially encouraged him. When he showed a distinct talent towards art, they permitted him to follow his inclination. Perhaps his greatest asset was the time he had in which to form a picture of the world around himself, having resisted going to school for several years. To read about the freedom with which he explored reality is to recognise how restricting it is for children to receive knowledge passively, predigested and prejudged. Laxman came to his own moral conclusions about his experiences so that his perceptions were fresh and original, not merely parroted from the existing canon. It must have helped, of course, that he was surrounded by intelligent, well-read and well-informed relatives, that his brothers were also gifted personalities in their own right and that society did not make him suffer for his eccentricities.

He finds his niche with The Times of India in Bombay almost by chance, but once there, his path is set for glory. He travels from peak to peak along a high-altitude range of professional success and unlike many contemporary celebrities, he takes an unalloyed glee in his progress. There is nothing shrinking or self-effacing in Laxman's account: he knows he has had a gilded innings and he seems to have enjoyed every moment of it. Why then is there a lurking disappointment with the telling of this tale? It is full of event, it does not unnecessarily embellish, it describes moments of loss and disaster alongside the triumphs and yet.... It

is not evocative. Laxman writes in the manner of a slightly jaded raconteur who knows that his audience will laugh regardless of what he says or how he says it—and he's right: it will.

Reading between the lines, one realises that this is a man who has no peers. No one with whom to share his vision or to confess his rare moments of self-doubt. His is a unique history and in the way of nonpareils, he lives remote from the ordinary plane of reality. His ability to communicate intricate ideas across a broad spectrum of Indian sensibilities is unsurpassed in his drawings. But in his prose he comes across as that rare and lonely bird, the Common Man with an uncommon talent.

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