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The laughter challenge

Several years ago, when Sharad Pawar was returned to Maharashtra as chief minister by then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao – there was a brilliant cartoon by renowned cartoonist RK Laxman that said it all. Sujata Anandan writes.

columns Updated: May 22, 2012 14:14 IST
Sujata Anandan,Sharad Pawar,Maharashtra

Several years ago, when Sharad Pawar was returned to Maharashtra as chief minister by then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao – in whose cabinet he had been defence minister – there was a brilliant cartoon by renowned cartoonist RK Laxman that said it all.

The cartoon depicted a plumpish Pawar straddling two scales – one scale read `New Delhi’ and the other read `Bombay’. A concerned doctor was bent over those scales even as Pawar looked rather anxious. The doctor was depicted as saying, "Sir, I am sorry to say you have lost weight both there (in Delhi) and here (in Bombay)."

A thousand more words could not have described Pawar’s situation better – for a man who had just contested the prime ministerial race against Rao and been defeated fair and square, to have to return to his home state as a mere regional chieftain was a real comedown.

It took a long time for him to claw his way back up the central ladder again but even as that cartoon stuck in my mind, I remember, a few weeks later, another cartoon by the same cartoonist. The second one was identical in every way to the first. Only this time the doctor reported, ``Sir, you have gained weight both here and there.’’

It was instantly clear to me that Pawar had, perhaps, not liked the earlier depiction at all and had wanted the damage undone. Or, perhaps, Laxman thought he had been too unduly harsh (though I thought that one to be his best bit of work during my time as a political journalist reporting out of Maharashtra) and that he had thought to soften the impact by reversing the message.

But even when you wear two hats, like Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray does – that of a cartoonist and of a politician -- he has no sense of humour and cannot appreciate a joke against himself. More than a decade ago, I had a cover story in Outlook, the magazine I worked for at the time, which had digitally elongated Thackeray’s face from an original picture to make him look rather ridiculous.

The story said many nasty things about Thackeray – its theme was how the Sena tiger, who ran terror through Bombay once upon a time, had reduced himself to a `tamasha’ by various ludicrous acts like taking public pride in the use of his personal bathroom by international singer Michael Jackson (who had held a show in Bombay and dropped in on Thackeray without whose consent the show could not have gone on) when graver issues like lack of electricity and water supply deeply concerned the state during the Shiv Sena-BJP regime at the time.

His supporters, of course, hated that story but Thackeray, I discovered was not concerned about that per se. He was more upset about the picture on the cover that made him look like himself but rather silly.

When I told him it was a decision by my editor over which I had had no say, he said, ``Tell your editor, then, that I can make him look even more ridiculous. I am a cartoonist, not he.’’ Cartoonist, yes ---- but not a cartoon. He severely objected to himself being depicted as one. Like RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav today, he was quite unable to see that it was not his face but his acts that lent themslves to good cartoons for, as Laxman once said, he made such a good cartoonist for his `raw material' (politicians' shenanigans) was inexhaustive. They kept him in business.

With West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee earlier arresting a professor for circulating a cartoon of hers and the Parliament now uniting in withdrawing some from books prescribed by the NCERT, Shreyas Navare, the HT Editorial cartoonist (you can find some brilliant ones from him on the HT website) rues that tolerance for differing views that is a cornerstone of democracy is fast disappearing.

``Laughing at ourselves is the best way for a society to develop this tolerance.’’ He does not agree that students are immature to appreciate cartoons. ``Cartoons are the best of way of bringing to them a sense of politics, history and philosophy. By keeping students away from cartoons, which are tools of self-introspection through laughter, they will be denied the fullest scope of what democracy has to offer,’’ says Navare who began cartooning at the age of 12, when he was a student of VII. So did Laxman. And so also did Bal Thackeray, who is even today so proud of his cartooning skills.

But, clearly, as politicians our leaders are greatly laughter-challenged!

First Published: May 16, 2012 16:58 IST