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Mainstream, Vol. XLVI, No 23

The Nehru I didn’t Caricature

Wednesday 28 May 2008, by OV Vijayan

There are a dozen or so funny situations I love to fancy Jesus Christ or the Buddha in. Like a sour Centurion (no relation of the columnist) telling Jesus at Calvary, “Look J., don’t be cross!” or the Buddha dozing off under the damned tree, and being shocked into enlightenment by a bird’s dropping. I indulged in these profanities to feel more intimate.

Over the five years or so I’ve been a caricaturist of sorts, the opportunity to be intimate with Nehru had eluded me. I realised to my chagrin, that within the precariousness of the Left press Nehru was some kind of washable nylon Virgin Mary. His infallibility was predetermined for him. And even if he had said it himself, that at seventy or so, he could do with a bit of fallibility, we of the Left would have refused him, for fear of strengthening (a) the imperialists, (b) their indigenous collaborators, and (c) the Chinese, of course. It has to be left entirely to people like Schlesinger to quote Kennedy to the effect that Nehru was getting unstrung, like people do when they grow old.

Before I thought of becoming a caricaturist, which was five or six years ago, I had lived in the deep south. Down there we don’t run into these characters in the flesh, except when they come on one of those fabulous visits. It is different for people up here, who have grown up with them, seen them at stupid art exhibitions, heard them across tables or brushed shoulders with them in the pleasant intimacy of funerals. It is different. But for us these would remain for a long, long time, characters. To be comprehended in the abstract, in the unreal, to be overwhelmed by. Like King Lear, Hamlet Jesus, Zarathustra or Rumpelstiltskin. It is a crazy situation; but you should realise, it wouldn’t have been otherwise.

And hence, when I came up here in the Capital about five or six years ago, I was looking for the hallowed Rumpelstiltskin image, an image of sheer twilight which I found hard to render in terms of wakefulness. This was the tragedy I started on. The next tragedy was my being a Leftist. I was supposed to deal with the patron saint of Leftism (who incidentally was debunking all manner of Right-Left dialectics) in virgin white. Except in pre-Liberman socialism, humanity had never really succeeded in drawing political cartoons all the while in support of something or somebody.

There were a hundred things I had wanted to lampoon Nehru about. Well, none of these things perhaps concerned him as such. These were if you will a kind of transferred culpability. When, for instance, one of his distinguished colleagues douched the feet of Banarasi Brahmacharins with disinfectant, when another colleague of his consulted the stars, when an undertrial (or was he a convict?) press baron presented him with a commemoration volume, I could not resist the temptation of involving him in whatever comment I might have wanted to make. For he was in the middle of these unpleasant certainties as a still centre of serene confusion. He was sloppily epic, not too disturbingly intellectual, yet terribly refined and sophisticated. Around him milled tirelessly the congeries of irrationality and grossness, only to be redeemed by his charisma.

Hundred Situations

I could have drawn him in a hundred situations: in this crazy still centre of his, handing out this charismatic treacle to the minions around. I could have drawn him as the little romantic delinquent, as the farcical Hamlet fallen among politicians, as the poet who tended to put a whole world’s platitudes in indifferent free verse, as the child who got innocently excited by the many splendours that weren’t ours. I would catch him strolling through vast lawns that didn’t belong here in our terribly gross and crowded country, his golden retrievers nuzzling his heels, and the pandas and the paper tiger cubs popping in out of the Real Prince’s fable, asking for feed, their faces looking a trifle stupid. I had wanted to say, ‘my foot’ to his renaissance and his princeli-ness.

I couldn’t because that would not have exactly served the cause of our terribly spinsterish socialism. It would have strengthened (a) the American imperialists, and (b) the Chinese. That was an ideal equation in classic contradiction though, and to this day. I haven’t puzzled out why we Leftists didn’t pick on him if only the Chinese and the Americans would have benefited equally. You see, they would have cancelled each other out. What a pity.

That’s over. The man is gone. And we sprayed him from aeroplanes as though he were some brand of insecticide. It was terribly sad, and terribly phony. I could have wept not for death, which came to him with splendid quiet, but for the phoniness that death was desecrated with. As the cortege moved down the mirages of May, I realised he was nearer my heart than many things I have known and lived with. It was such a mean trick, though. Because it hurt my little ego, I haven’t forgiven him that. As the flowers dropped along the trial of death, the last of the Nehru caricatures slowly grew within me. It was the picture of a thing that was, like God, terribly inefficient and alienated for ever from a context. It was like a lovely stupidity.
Of course, I didn’t draw this. Not because it might jeopardise the cause of socialism, but because it was far too precious for gross tangibility.

The author, a writer, novelist and a brilliant intellectual with a razor-sharp mind, was one of the country’s most distinguished cartoonists.

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