Remembering Sudhir Tailang, cartoonist with passion for life
The cartoonist began his work in Hindi and moved on to English language media with ease.india Updated: Feb 06, 2016 22:26 IST
We shared many things: A Mumbai local train, jokes and mirchi-wali roti. But I am sad that I could not meet Sudhir Tailang in his last year of life, despite his being only a mile away from where I lived.
We met in the training room of the Times of India, Mumbai, then Bombay. He had joined six months earlier as a trainee journalist in Hindi, while I was an English language trainee. As it turned out, his cartooning skills were so good that the establishment suggested he become a Trainee Cartoonist. I don’t recall there ever being another trainee cartoonist anywhere.
He took to the task with delight--and the task of being a “Hindi” cartoonist (Do cartoons have language?) in the same company and floor as the venerable R K Laxman was a daunting one. But Sudhir took up the challenge with a dedication that never left him.
We talked news and cartoons a lot. Myself from Delhi and he from Bikaner were both lost souls in the mangled urban wilderness of Bombay, struggling to put ourselves into its machine-like routines. We both would squeeze into the Harbour Line local train from the King’s Circle station. We simply could not get into the Central Line. Inside the crowd, we would discuss everything under the sun, but his passion for cartooning was often a theme.
Later, we both shifted to the Delhi office of the same company.
Being a cartoonist for Navbharat Times, he had the luxury of a corner cabin, where we would meet for quiet lunches from our tiffin boxes. It was during those days that he announced he wanted to create a character resembling Laxman’s Common Man. “Hum usko journalist banate hain, jholewala,” he said. So a jhola journalist was born in his cartoons as an observer of the world around him. As it turned out, he fashioned it after Sushil, one of his goatee-bearded journalist friends who used to drop by. Somewhere along his career, the jhola journalist character disappeared, perhaps in keeping with the waning of the stereotype.
One day he showed some mirchi-ki-roti, a Bikaner special item that was somewhat crunchy. You could make it a meal or a tea-time snack, he said, but best had with tea. Then he would take me to the Inter State Bus Terminus because that’s where you could get a thali that reminded him of home. Then he got married, and I attended his wedding in a far corner of Delhi. The girl was a student-admirer he fell in love with. His passion showed everywhere.
(There was one particular incident where he roped in a friend to pose as Mani Shankar Aiyer, who was then a diplomat close to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and rang up to meet me. I thought there was something interesting for a journalist and turned up to meet Mr Aiyer at his home early in the morning only to be told by an annoyed Aiyer that somebody had been playing a prank by sending people to meet him. I caught Sudhir out because someone had told me the internal office extension sounded two rings, and I now knew it was not an external call. I observed Sudhir’s movements and the grin on his face and knew it was him).
Suddenly, he left Navbharat Times to become an English language cartoonist, and we lost direct touch but his work was everywhere. His works were particularly noticed in the Hindustan Times and then the Asian Age. He prepared to switch to English for a wider audience, and surprised us with his increasingly smooth English captions that were clearly an acquired skill.
The boy who would look up with envy to Laxman was suddenly in the same league--certainly for someone so young.
We would meet now and then socially but time flew as we moved in different professional orbits.
Social media brought us together again, and we were chatting on Twitter decades later, like old times. I had hoped that I would release a book of my political verses with his sketches. Alas, that was not to be.
One day, I heard he had a cancerous growth. As I got caught up in some stuff, I tried to raise some help for him by hollering out on Twitter, but clearly, it was time to go.
It is my deep regret I could not see him in his last days.
I hope his soul somewhere up there forgives me, the way I forgave his prank. Though I never told him I had actually been fooled by him.
Tailang’s cremation will be held at 2 pm at the Lodhi crematorium, Delhi, on Sunday, February 7.
(Narayanan Madhavan is a senior journalist with Hindustan Times.)