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Companion of fifty years

Published : Aug 09, 1997 00:00 IST

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R. K. LAXMAN

A GLOOMY forecast about the increase in the cost of living, an additional tax burden, terrorism, endless scams, walkouts, water shortage, power failure are items that greet the Common Man as he wakes up and glimpses the headlines in the morning paper.

For the past fifty years, his saviours have borrowed from various financial institutions and taxed the people to improve the lot of the Common Man. Plans have been drawn up for building mammoth bridges, dams and roads cutting across impenetrable jungles and mountains, besides schools and hospitals, housing and civic amenities. All this is to give the Common Man a better quality of life. Political leaders and bureaucrats have struggled to make this glorious dream a reality.

But nothing has changed the Common Man's life! Poverty, disease, ignorance, unemployment have increased over the years, despite vast amounts of money spent to get rid of these evils. Thus, in the name of the Common Man and his well-being, enormous expenses are incurred on the Minister's travels, cars, security, housing and so on.

A Gandhian once remarked, "Serving the Common Man has become too expensive. In our days, it cost nothing."

But who is this Common Man around whom the whole nation is revolving? Where to find him? You may search for him at the bus queue, in the crowded bazaar, in the government secretariat, at the mammoth public meetings addressed by his leaders. But your search will be unrewarding, you will only be pushed and jostled by the over-crowded population of politicians, civil servants, godmen, bankers and stock-brokers who are all so visibly evident in our day-to-day life. But such an important entity as our Common Man remains supremely nebulous.

Mystified by this phenomenon, I once went out to search for him. After a great deal of effort, I spotted him in a queue in front of a ration shop. A look of mute acceptance of his place in the queue, waiting patiently for a better life, bushy eyebrows raised in permanent bewilderment. The very image of the Common Man I had visualised.

With all due deference, I asked: "Are you the famous Common Man, sir?"

"No, I am a clerk in the municipal office. Maybe he is somewhere at the end of the queue."

I then went down the line and saw someone who I thought could be our man. When I asked him, he said: "Certainly not. What makes you think so? I am a Police Sub-Inspector." He said this proudly. The next person I asked said that he was a watchman in a business firm and not the Common Man. Then the tradesman, businessman, engineer, doctor - none wanted to own to being the Common Man. They didn't want to dilute their distinct identity in society in the larger ocean of an idea of the masses, though they shared with the Common Man the agonies and rewards administered by the rulers.

So I had to create this mythical individual in a striped coat, with a bushy moustache, a bald head with a white wisp of hair at the back, a bulbous nose on which perched a pair of glasses, and thick black eyebrows permanently raised, expressing bewilderment.

He is the one who is the silent spectator of politicians as I portray them in my cartoons, deflating their egos, revealing their foibles, vanity, duplicity and blunders. He also witnesses riots, strikes, public meetings and so on. He voyages through life with quiet amusement, at no time uttering a word, looking at the ironies, paradoxes and contradictions in the human situation.

To understand what exactly he sees and what he hears, let us take a short walk with him.

He enters a street crowded with pavement dwellers, beggars and hawkers. The street leads to an open area where a crowd is gathered and a Congress leader is addressing it through amplifiers placed at various corners and on treetops. His voice booms out: "Vote for the Congress Party. We will remove poverty. We have fifty years of experience in removing it... No other party has the experience." We see our Common Man's eyebrows going up still further.

His next stop is at a building that seemed to have collapsed. A man tells a group of PWD workers and the fire brigade: "No, no, this building has not collapsed. It has always been like this - ever since we occupied it twenty years ago. Ask the landlord if you want. He lives in that new building opposite."

Now we follow the Common Man to the market square. We hear a voice bemoaning the soaring prices: "How are we to survive? The prices of cooking oil, bread, milk, kerosene, pulses, vegetables have all gone up overnight." In reply, a voice from the crowd shouts: "We must be grateful to our leaders. Our nation, as you all know, had a glorious past. But that was several centuries ago! Our politicians have succeeded in making even the last week our glorious past!"

Then we go to the government secretariat with our companion the Common Man. Here we see a veteran politician walking with slow dignity along the corridor. He is wearing a Gandhi cap, an immaculately white dhoti and matching kurta. Two officials standing by comment in whispers: "He is the only honest Minister in the entire Cabinet. The only one having no bank account... I mean, account in any Swiss bank..."

Next, we witness some doctors and nurses with medical kits and a stretcher rushing into a Minister's room. There is excitement and confusion all round. We make anxious enquiries and are told that the Minister was casually browsing through the morning paper when his eyes fell on an item that the CBI had raided one of the big business houses suspected to be involved in a scam of several crores of rupees and seized all bank account books, confidential papers, letters and diaries. The Minister, it appears, before fainting and falling off the chair cried out, "Oh my God! I am finished!"

The Common Man leads us out of the great administrative edifice, after we witness several such comic scenes concerning ministerial blunders, waste and corruption, including one in which the Minister is sternly reprimanding his secretary: "You say you put this important paper in my hand for signature. But is it not your duty to bring it to my notice?" Finally, we come to the city square just when a police constable is seen catching a pickpocket red-handed. Never before had we witnessed such quick action taken by the guardians of the law. But the constable lets the culprit off immediately, much to our surprise. One of us asks the policeman why he did so. "Because the pickpocket threatened to inform the higher authorities about my apprehending him. You never can tell these days. He might have connections in a high place. I didn't want to be transferred, demoted and punished for my deed."

All this are just brief glimpses into what the Common Man sees and suffers with a great deal of tolerance.

While all the so-called leaders who came forward to champion his cause and improve his life have perished or disappeared from the scene, it is a miracle that he has survived through all the turbulence of social upheavals and political crises our nation has gone through. What stands by him is his indomitable good-humoured approach to the human situation. A satirical cartoonist perceives life from the Common Man's point of view and stimulates the people's sense of humour and makes them laugh through his cartoons. This emotion helps them view the adversities created by their rulers as comic relief in a sordid existence.

I visited Germany in the 1960s. It had emerged just then from the devastation of war and suffering and had became one of the economically most prosperous countries in the world.

I went to the office of the famous satiricial magazine, Simplicissimus. It had flourished for years as the country's most popular humorous periodical. But now its Editor was in tears because he had just brought out the last issue of the magazine and it was to close down forever that day.

The reason he gave me was that there was nothing to laugh at and comment on any more in Germany. People had become rich. They had plenty to eat and drink. They enjoyed peace and utopian tranquillity, and the provocation to laugh at the oddities of life had disappeared, thanks to imaginative, wise and committed political leaders.

At least in this respect, we should have no fear and be grateful to our leaders. They will never fail our cartoonist and render him jobless. On the other hand, the way things are shaping, he will perhaps have to work overtime in the future.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 09, 1997.)

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