Just heard about RK Laxman’s passing. One of my abiding memories of speaking with Kundan Shah for the Jaane bhi do Yaaro book years ago was the boyish, hero-worshipping grin on Kundan’s face when he spoke of Laxman and their brief association. Here are the relevant bits from the transcript (some of it is in the book too):
I was doing Wagle ki Duniya with Laxman – I was just an instrument for him on that show – and I tell you, he’s the best actor I’ve ever seen. Sometimes you can’t narrate a gag, you have to act it out, which Laxman did phenomenally well. But of course, you couldn’t ask him for a retake!
Once I met him at the Times of India office. I thought his office would be fantastic – I mean, Laxman IS Times of India, a good cartoon by him tells you more than all the headlines put together. But his cabin was an isolated place on the side – one of the most spartan rooms I’ve ever seen. There was no visitor’s chair even. He had an artist’s desk, a huge thing high up. And because his chair was high his feet wouldn’t touch the ground, so he’d constantly be tapping them against the underside of the table while working. It’s rumoured that the table has little holes or dents now.
It’s difficult to become fond of him, you know – he’s like a snake, he’s always ready to strike. And he’s got humour on his side: he could be wrong and you could be indignant as hell, but he would let loose one wisecrack at you and the whole room would be in splits. He is one tough nut, very temperamental. He would reach his office early and read all the newspapers for cartoon ideas. And he was so irritated until he got the right idea that if he heard someone outside his cabin laughing he’d go take out all his frustrations on that poor guy: ‘You fucker, you’re doing no work, what do you mean by laughing like this?’ But the day he got his cartoon early, he’d go to the same guy and say ‘Why aren’t you laughing?’
He told me that Rajiv Gandhi would always tell him, why do you depict me so short? I’m quite tall. Bal Thackeray (who had been a cartoonist himself) would call him up just to chat, and perhaps to ensure that Laxman wouldn’t caricature him that day.