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Review: What A Life! A Kaleidoscope of Rajinder Puri’s Cartoons

Cartoonist Rajinder Puri is best remembered for tearing off the masks and puncturing the egos of lofty leaders, rhetoricians and public hypocrites

books Updated: Jun 29, 2018 20:35 IST
Madhuri Santanam Sondhi
Madhuri Santanam Sondhi
Hindustan Times
Cartoonist,MK Gandhi,Nehru
Cartoonist Rajinder Puri(HT Photo)

Edited by Partha Chatterjee and Arvindar Singh; 148pp, Rs 495; Niyogi Books

Cartoonist Rajinder Puri was a standing refutation of, or grand exception to, WB Yeats’ famous line in the Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” He was nothing if not a man of conviction, a nationalist, champion of the poor and destitute, whilst his expression in the pursuit of authenticity, social justice and national honour was ever marked by ‘passionate intensity’. He is best remembered for tearing off the masks and puncturing the egos of lofty leaders, rhetoricians and public hypocrites, but at times he was also driven to try more direct ways of effecting social change.

It is therefore most welcome that Niyogi Books has published ‘What a Life! A Kaleidoscope’ of Rajinder Puri’s Cartoons’ edited by Partha Chatterjee and Arvindar Singh. Their Introduction aptly describes him as a Swiftian Satirist, i.e., there was a slightly savage edge to his pillorying and commentary on persons and events. They have made the book more accessible to a new generation of readers by adding a few words of explanation below the drawings to background their now distant political context. The selection covers almost half a century from 1960 to 2010 and is a journey down memory lane for octogenarians like myself.

However, I must comment on one cartoon on page 69 captioned ‘Gandhiji and Nehruji 1984’ depicting Rajiv in a loincloth, Arun Nehru in churidar achkan, followed by a hairy Youth Congress thug brandishing a primitive club. The Editors explain that Puri thought that Rajiv and Arun were the M.K. Gandhi and Nehru of 1984 – far from it: he was unmasking their hypocrisy in pretending to be so. Puri admired Gandhi and though he opposed Nehru, recognised him as a confused, mistaken idealist: Arun Nehru was a mere fixer.

Cartoons like paintings are better looked at than talked about, so I may be forgiven for taking advantage of these columns to reminisce a little about the long association my husband, the late ML Sondhi and I had with Puri. (ML Sondhi had been an IFS officer, an MP, member of the Jan Sangh/BJP and was professor of International Relations at JNU). We discovered Puri in the early sixties when he was drawing for the Hindustan Times. ML, newly resigned from the Foreign Service, sometimes published articles critiquing Indian foreign policy in the HT, and on request editor S Mulgaokar introduced us to Puri and we remained friends thereafter. We shared a critical attitude towards several aspects of the Nehruvian government – its glaring failure and fumbling over India’s defence, especially its Tibetan and Himalayan policy, and its self-declared ‘socialistic’ economic policies intended to help the poor which mostly petered out in the quicksand of bureaucratic corruption and delays. And there was also the smug impeccably khadi-clad Congressman, heir to the Gandhi-led national movement, fast becoming a symbol of moral decadence and venality. In the early Sixties during a longish study tour of various western and East European countries, we would make a beeline for the local Indian embassy to read the latest Indian newspapers and look for Puri’s cartoons.

“Please, would you bend a little...?” (Nehru appeals for trade benefits from President De Gaulle of France) (Rajinder Puri courtesy Niyogi Books)

I can think of several reasons for the strong bond between ML and Rajinder – both were Punjabis from Arya Samaj families and could share Punjabi jokes and colloquialisms. Both admired Ram Manohar Lohia, who combined a socialistic idealism with a strong grounding in Indian civilizational values and a contempt for the Anglicised Indian bourgeoisie which slavered at all things western. But like Lohia, with his German PhD, Puri and Sondhi had partaken of the best in western education: what they chafed at was Indian slavishness and ingested colonial inferiority. (This was perhaps aptly satirised by the Blitz column ‘Boycott British Language’ written by DF Karaka, then editor of Current.) However, neither of them officially enrolled in Lohia’s party, and ML in particular, often in Puri’s company, made the rounds of all political leaders whether of the opposition or Congress – keeping an open mind while familiarising himself with the political scene. Puri’s family were refugees from Karachi; Manohar’s father, of the British engineering service, had been transferred out of Lahore to his home town Jalandhar a few months before August 1947, and so his immediate family suffered no loss either to life or property. However many relatives, Sondhis and Dhavans from Punjab and the Frontier, were almost destitute when they reached India. I myself was a refugee, albeit the daughter of a Tamilian who had made Lahore his home. That did not quite make me a Punjabi but gave me a sympathetic ear.

Let me make it plain at the outset that this was a ‘yaari’ between the two men: Puri tolerated my presence because he had no option, but he must have been a bit of misogynist (or suspicious of my Congress antecedents) because he did once hint to Manohar (pronounced ‘Manöhr’ Punjabi style, emphasising the second and swallowing the third vowel) that they should meet ‘without Madhuri’! However since I tagged along anyway, he had to accept it, resignedly at first but later I like to think, more positively. And Manohar did at some stage try some match-making but that was not his forte: he was easily outsmarted by Puri who refused to surrender his privacy and remained a lifelong bachelor.

We met frequently at cafes in Connaught Circus: more often by ourselves at the New Nanking restaurant (rechristened the ‘New Namkeen’!) but at times we joined Puri at Ram Singh’s morning coffee table in the Embassy restaurant. (Ram Singh, Editor of Thought Weekly, often used his columns to give up-and-coming journalists a forum: both Rajinder and his brother Rakshat wrote for him.) RK Hooda, a stringer for The Statesman and follower of Chaudhuri Charan Singh, would wryly comment in his Haryanvi Hindi when Puri, carried away by some argument would pound the table with clenched fist, ‘Puri Sahib tho table torna chahte hain’.

With Puri we shared another ambition, that of producing our own journal. By December 1964 we began publishing Shakti and earlier Puri had launched his weekly tabloid – Lok – complete with an office in Karolbagh. If I’m not mistaken Mulgaokar did not ask him to stop drawing for the HT, which was helpful as Lok did not have a very long life. (But it did carry an interview with me as Secretary of the Tibet Swaraj Committee!) Shakti also was a small mostly self-financed husband-wife journal, but we kept it going till the Emergency, i.e., for almost ten years, periodically changing its format and frequency to suit our circumstances. We shared overarching goals but the media were different. Lok was an evening newspaper, Shakti a monthly journal concerned with more in-depth political and foreign policy analysis, also literature, philosophy, sociology, Tibetology and history.

Came the 1967 election, and ML who had resigned from the IFS for a political career, was looking for an opening. By now he was familiar with most political leaders from both Opposition and Congress and went first to Ram Manohar Lohia. But Lohia put his arm round his shoulders and advised him: Look, you are Manohar and so am I – my frank advice to you is – since you want to stand from Delhi and oppose the Congress - no one here knows “Lohia kis janwar ka nam hai” – so it is better you take the symbol of the Jan Sangh but stand as an Independent. (ML could not get the symbol and at the last minute joined the party). Puri came to several of his election meetings, and in the last week drew a cartoon of his opponent Mehr Chand Khanna (as it happened a distant relative of ML’s) getting into a dustbin, watched with one cocked ear by Puri’s quizzical little dog – and we turned it into a poster.

Profiles(clockwise) of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jagjivan Ram, Morarji Desai and SK Patil (1963) (Rajinder Puri courtesy Niyogi Books)

Mrs Gandhi soon put Indian politics into fast gear by nationalising banks and abolishing privy purses, and split the Congress Party to rid herself of the old guard. Advancing the national election by a year on the back of her populist measures Mrs G. ran a garibi hatao campaign which gave her a landslide victory in the 1970 polls (a heaven-sent boon of a slogan for any cartoonist). ML lost his parliamentary seat. He had not relinquished his teaching position at the ISIS and now found himself a member of the newly established Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Puri was keen to publish, at this stage privately, a collection of his cartoons and writings, and ML took him along to Megh Raj, proprietor of a print shop in Connaught Circus who agreed to do the job at a reasonable rate. Thus 1971 saw the publication of Puri’s first book, India 1969: a Crisis of Conscience dealing with the unsavoury methods employed by Mrs. G. in her bid for power.

ML also lobbied with the RSS to appoint Puri Editor of their new English daily, The Motherland. Puri accepted, but unaccustomed to interference and paternalistic discipline didn’t last longer than a few months leaving Malkani in charge till the demise of the paper in 1975. Puri started another small paper, Stir Weekly of which he was again both editor and proprietor, and again it lasted just a few years.

A cartoon by Rajinder Puri featuring ML Sondhi, husband of the reviewer. (Courtesy Madhuri Santanam Sondhi)

The events in the early seventies leading up to the Emergency require no repetition: ML had left the Jan Sangh to join Charan Singh’s BLD, and both parties were in the JP-led alliance to oust Indira. She imposed an Emergency suspending all civic freedoms, yet two and a half years later announced an election and withdrew it. In response to the latter there was a hasty cobbling together of opposition parties into the Janata Party (a combine of Swatantraites, Socialists, Jana Sanghis and others). Puri became founding General Secretary of the Janata Party in 1977 and phoned ML inviting him to join, but ML was confused: his diplomatic experience in totalitarian societies behind the Iron Curtain left him unprepared for this sudden opening of the system. He was distrustful of JP’s leadership (whose call for Total Revolution and revolt of the armed forces against the government had provoked the Emergency in the first place) and refrained. Later however, through Jagjivan Ram’s CFD he did reach the Janata and again Charan Singh, but that was short-lived as soon Indira Gandhi was surprisingly and overwhelmingly voted back.

The Janata broke up into its constituent elements, and Puri cycled through various political formations – the Lok Dal, the BJP, finally setting up his own Ekta Party, fighting and losing an election from New Delhi. One memorable incident of the Janata days was when he took a contingent of labourers into the Asoka Hotel for tea on the grounds that public sector hotels were meant to serve the people – well, here they were! The management of course was not amused, nor was most of the socialistic coffee crowd, but ML was delighted! ML himself had been President of the Ashoka Hotel Workers Union but it is quite possible that the waiters did not approve of serving tea to these ‘sans culottes’! Hierarchies afflict all classes and castes!

Reviewer Madhuri Santanam Sondhi

Puri continued to cartoon and publish and sometime in the late seventies, possibly due to the retirement of Ram Singh, the Embassy meetings petered out, and he finally overcame his reservations to apply for membership of the bourgeois IIC, perhaps introduced by ML. Soon one corner of the lounge became a kind of hub for journalists and politicians, similar to the Embassy gatherings, and occasionally we joined in. With changes in economic policies and India tweaking her ‘nonalignment’ (such as it was) so as not to outright condemn the Soviet occupation of nonaligned Afghanistan, an era of even more fuzzy ideology posed a challenge to commentators. When the Soviets finally withdrew ML was honoured by becoming the subject of a RAP (Puri) cartoon strip – instead of rejoicing he was shown bewildered, bereft of the cause for which he had fought so long! Puri could have repeated it after the fall of the Berlin Wall! However China’s ambitions soon filled that lacuna.

For some years after ML’ s passing in 2003 I wrote a literary cum general column for Asian Age and would on occasion receive the proverbial pat on the back from Rajinder when we passed each other in the IIC.

Then one day I received a surprise phone call saying he had to vacate his Defence Colony premises, and would it be possible for him to rent our converted garage not far from IIC! But it was already let, and I was truly sorry not to able to literally accommodate him. He found a flat in a block of apartments in Kasturba Gandhi Marg, (where George Verghese also lived) and it was here he met his end. During his last days I came to know that he was not well and was struggling to look after himself. I went over with a tiffin-carrier of food which he courteously emptied into bowls but showed me the inside of his new fridge and assured me he was well-provisioned and well-served. He died a few days later and I was glad to have been able to meet him this one last time.

After Indira Gandhi defeated Morarji Desai in the Congress leadership contest, Puri drew this cartoon which was published on the front page of The Hindustan Times. It emphasised the significance of Desai standing on his own against virtually all the Congress bosses and yet getting 32% of the vote. (Rajinder Puri courtesy Niyogi Books)

One cannot but remember Puri with a smile, unequivocally and passionately committed to whatever he thought was right. In terms of independence of thought he ranks amongst the great editors and journalists of newly independent India – Frank Moraes, Shankar, S Mulgaokar, NJ Nanporia and George Verghese. Especially now do we remember them when, to return to Yeats’ poem: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned’.

First Published: Jun 29, 2018 20:02 IST