A rare collection of O.V. Vijayan's political cartoons and writings provides a glimpse of his genius.

O.V. VIJAYAN, in his characteristic satirical tone, once wrote about how he chose to become a journalist. After his "failure" as a teacher - he had been sacked from Malabar Christian College, Kozhikode - an aged and tired-looking man, the Zamorin, called upon him.

King's boons

The former king promised to give Vijayan three boons before the latter left the city. The first two were a leaking fountain pen and a ball of string. "To write whatever you feel, get strangled in controversies, correct yourself in vain. To be a journalist."The best part of the story is the third gift that the King gave to Vijayan - a cock. Before leaving, the King explained, "let your readers remain where cock's crow is heard." Was he hinting at the limited audience that really understood the depth of O.V. Vijayan, the political journalist and cartoonist?The story comes to mind as one turns the pages of Tragic Idiom O.V. Vijayan's Cartoons and Notes on India, an unprecedented and rare collection. Vijayan was known as one of the leading writers in Malayalam and English, but his true passion, cartoons, was never duly acknowledged. Even though, as doyen of Australian cartooning Bruce Petty notes in the foreword to the book, "what Vijayan has commented on all his career is relevant to human future in a way Western cartoonists can never be."Cartooning was where Vijayan synthesised his talents as a graphic artist with an excellent sense of composition, as a writer of poetic brevity and as a political observer who could see beyond the obvious. With his value-based historical sensitivity, Vijayan could infuse many layers of connotations to contemporary political developments in his cartoons.

Unending angst

Vijayan did not draw to make others laugh. Instead, he drew to share his unending angst about being a politically awakened Indian - as symbolised by two repeating characters in his cartoons, the peasant and his son.The editors of Tragic Idiom, Sundar Ramanathaiyer and Nancy Hudson-Rodd, observe that the collection of cartoons represented in this book is an "autonomous editorial commentary on 'Independent' India". His astute historical insight saved many of Vijayan's cartoons from contextual trappings and gave them extended temporal relevance. He always returned to the farces and absurdities of Indian politics. He once updated a political cartoon, which had Indira Gandhi looking at the poster pasted on the "Democracy Wall". The poster said Charan Singh and Raj Narayan were back. The cartoon had the caption, "Updating a Cartoon: See in Figure 1 Rajiv Gandhi, Figure 2 Indubhai Patel, Figure 3 Dr. Swamy". It could go on like this, even today. Only faces change, realities don't.The editors have rightly used Vijayan's notes, extracted from both his political writings and fiction, to introduce the segments: there are nine. There will not be any other cartoonist who could offer this option to editors. This juxtaposition of images and words, in a way, plots the progression of Vijayan's careers - as a writer, as an artist and as a political commentator. And also the consistency of his philosophy.In one of the extracts used for the segment titled "State of the Nation", Vijayan makes an observation about the contemporary Indian rulers. Unlike the colonial master from whom (s)he took over, the modern Indian ruler felt little concern for the people. Vijayan writes, "Instead of guilt, history had given them phoney heritage of struggles, and armed with this heritage, they embarked on a new and invisible colonisation without precedent - a colonisation of their own people."

Evolution as cartoonist

The collection also demonstrates how Vijayan evolved as a cartoonist, though the cartoons are not arranged chronologically. But then, Vijayan gave scant respect to hierarchy of time. The segment titled "The Emergency" features only doodles and 'silent' cartoons. That, Vijayan says, was the only way to escape the Censor. "As Emergency dragged on, silence was the only safe thing to do. I started doodling, which was a sly way out."In one of the outstanding political statements appearing in this segment, a peacock is seen with Lord Krishna (or the King), who orders his soldier to capture the bird. In the final frame, the peacock, shorn of all its feathers but one, is in jail and Krishna is seen playing his flute outside, his crown stuffed with feathers.During his final moments, the greatest wish that Vijayan cherished was to establish a Cartoon Academy. Besides objectives of building up a collection of all available cartoons, the Academy's was to become a tool for gradual demolition of the misconception that the cartoon is a subsidiary art and to take over the "Tragic Idiom of the Third World". This book, says Sundar Ramanathaiyer, is a humble attempt in this direction. A good one, at that.