The story of an unusual, all-weather friendship between two of India's best known political cartoonists, Bal Thackeray and R K Laxman.
On November 3, Bal Thackeray’s physician made a phone call from Mumbai. “Balasaheb is sinking,” he told cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s wife Kamala. “He wants to hear his voice just once.”
Later that afternoon from Pune, 91-year-old Laxman, who is slowly regaining his speech after a stroke he suffered in 2010, called his fellow-cartoonist and friend of more than 60 years to enquire about his health. “I’m well on my way out. Goodbye,” the 86-year-old Thackeray said, according to Ms. Laxman. “Then Balasaheb told me, ‘You know, I’ve never spoken like this. I didn’t want to regret not having called him’,” Ms. Laxman told this correspondent recently.
“As I can see it, you’ll recover and surely come to our Pune house again,” she told the ailing octogenarian. “I can only wish,” Mr. Thackeray replied, but insisted on saying goodbye again.
Their friendship may have looked unusual: R.K. Laxman, the relentless critic of the state of the world, yet affable creator of ‘The Common Man,’ who crossed all boundaries of identity and came to be regarded as the conscience of the nation, cannot be more different than the right-wing politician.
Thackeray met Mr. Laxman in 1946, when he joined The Free Press Journal, where Mr. Laxman was working. In their twenties and just starting out as political cartoonists, they hit it off instantly. “They visited cafes, shared many days of people-watching and laughing together. Both were cartoonists, what else do you expect? Their relationship grew on a steady dose of laughter,” Ms. Laxman said. Mr. Laxman, who gestured to convey the fact that his hearing too was not so good anymore, sat holding his wife’s hand, nodding in agreement to stories of yesteryear.
In 1950, Mr. Laxman joined The Times of India where he started his daily pocket cartoon, ‘You Said It.’ Soon, Thackeray too quit The Free Press Journal. “It became impossible to work there. The newspaper wanted them to follow Communist leanings, and both of them disagreed…,” Ms. Laxman said.
But their friendship continued over the years. Thackeray started his own magazine Marmik. “All through, he was proud of Laxman, and pampered him. Balasaheb knew Laxman was a better cartoonist, a step above,” she said.
In 1966, when Thackeray announced the launch of the Shiv Sena, it directly targeted south Indians. But this did not change anything. “There were no political strings attached to their relationship,” she said, describing Mr. Laxman as “apolitical.”
Asked whether the Sena’s vicious attacks on south Indians bothered Mr. Laxman, she said: “Sometimes he said he shouldn’t have gone this far. But we understood he perhaps had his own reasons for doing what he did. But it never mattered that Laxman was a south Indian. Our friendship was totally different.”
Through the 1980s and 1990s, when the Sena’s fanaticism peaked, Mr. Laxman’s cartoons never targeted it, Ms. Laxman said. “He kept quiet. …And Balasaheb appreciated it.”
“He registered his protest in silence. He didn’t understand the need for violence, though. He used to say, is he mad? Why does he need to do this? But they never talked about it, as far as I know. Maybe, his way of expressing was not to express at all. But Laxman forgives people.”
“Laxman liked the cartoonist Bal more than the politician Balasaheb. He’d have liked it if he had continued being a cartoonist, but he told me maybe it is his inner calling, we cannot avoid that. He always thought that if you are cut out to do something, you must do it,” Ms. Laxman explained.
Once, many years after the Sena was formed, Balasaheb confessed he felt sorry he didn’t continue being a cartoonist. “He felt sorry. He told Laxman, ‘I’m basically a cartoonist’,” she said.
Thackeray visited their Pune house for the first time last year with his son Uddhav and grandson Aditya. Showing off the sketch of the Common Man that Mr. Laxman made for him, he told reporters: “When he saw me, the poor chap started crying.”
“These days, every time they see each other, one starts crying and then the other starts crying — till one of them bursts out in laughter. The laughter stays,” she said.