Sunday, August 23, 1998
Politicians and the cartoonists
WHEN and how the cartoonist entered the newspaper world to become an adorable member of the family is at best an academic question, and need not concern us here, though, it's almost certain that the original impulse has, over the years, lost little of its force or character. If anything, the cartoon has acquired new wings, new colours and new aesthetic. And amazingly, its popularity is wide enough to take it from the town broadsheets to the elitist magazines in each country and in each tongue. Though the cartoon serves many a satirical theme, a polite whip of chastisement in general, its political use on a large scale in dailies, weeklies, fortnightlies etc. makes us ponder the problem of the culture of politics per se and the cartoon culture, and look for the dialectic of their link. In sum, we mean to examine the cartoonist's art as a fit and proper vehicle for the unmasking of political cant and humbug and hypocrisy. A light weapon when wielded with vision, it becomes an oblique ally of the editor, and a collateral signature in a scrawl of line and curves.
The cartoonist's art, informed by an oblique or indirect vision, seeks to bring out, the lighter, the pompous, the pretentious and the uglier aspects of the worthies in question. And the "victims" range from the ruling Presidents and Prime Ministers and their panders and ponces to all manner of thugs, outlaws, mobsters and conmen in this business. Though "the naked ape" displays the same traits of character wherever in power, there are, undoubtedly, a few national species with their own specific or characteristic spots and stripes. And the Indian political theatre today offers a wide variety of "animals" as baits to the imagination of the cartoonist. All he needs is a light hunting gun.
The cartoonist's art, it appears has graduated from the fables and folk-tales and country quips to the sophisticated literary gerres, particularly, the novel. And the novel itself subsuming comedy, satire, lampoon, farce, etc. finally, became, as the Russian critic, Bakhtiin showed, a wide ranging mirror in which you could see the grotesque and comic figures of those in power and authority. It became a "a carnival" of laughter puncturing all balloons of official pieties and protocols. That is how in the hands of a Charles Dickens it becomes a part not only of his craft, but also of his informing vision. It may be helpful to remember that the great Victorian novelist started his career as a Fleet street reporter, and the British Parliament and the Westminster ethos gave him, at an early stage, a penetrating peep into the political culture of the place, and an insight into the mechanics and the dark heart of politics. His inimitable classic Pickwick papers, a masterly example of the cartoonist's art, was done in light pencil and soft coal, so, to speak, but as his perceptions deepened, and he began to see the thug and the charlatan under gown and cloak, or in ermine and crimson robes as in his later novels, the cartoonist in him acquired more and more stringency, more and more bitterness. So from the court and the church to the school, the prison and the alms house, he set out to hoist the grand show of political masters and mice. And in this encompassing vision, one finds in his novels a unique symbiosis of laughter and tears of poetry and pathos!
Dickens, as you see, only serves in our argument as a clear point of reference. But before I return to the Indian cartoonist scene, I may as well say a word or two about the essential Dickensian logo, his distinguishing mark which, indeed, is the mark of all authentic cartoonists when their business is with the world of art or with "newspaperism". And that Sui generis aspect or quality is the ability of the artist in question to fasten with an unbiased but unerring eye on his victim's one quiddity which is unmistakable, and which may invariably arouse laughter (sometimes tinged with a slice of malice) whenever exposed to the full. Now such a quiddity can be that worthy's penchant for bombast and double-talk, for graft and sleeze, for nepotism and cronyism, for flattery or flunkyism, or, in some cases for 'affairs' and liaisons etc., and all the cartoonist has to do is to stretch the point to the edge of absurdity and exaggeration in such a manner as to catch the eye of the reader instantly. For such an exaggeration alone brings out the truth without causing any great hurt. And not unoften, the "victim" himself or herself may join the laughing assembly, though the Indian type, on the whole, is too humourless, self-righteous and stuck-up to send up a guffaw when the cartoonist's hose is turned full in the face.
Since the cartoonist's art is essentially a matter of lines, curves and hints, it has to be bare to the point of bone. The cartoonist necessarily fastens, then, on some recognisable obtruding picture of the "victims" face or physiognomy a long beaked nose with a held pate, a shut-up, constipated face a dressed-up roly-poly figure etc. to bring his sketchy figure to life. To be sure, all cartoons are not born of pique or malice or even criticism. For instance, Gandhiji's cartoons and Jawaharlal Nehru's. They simply serve as markers, even adorable icons, in some cases. But, on the whole, it's the impish wit of the cartoonist that makes a ruling worthy's person a come crashing down, and the residues remain a matter of mirth and mirch-masala for the wagging tongues, and a lesson in morals and proprieties for the readers in general.
Recently, an Indian cartoonist displayed in a special exhibition, a full range of the Indian "political menagerie" nearly all the brutish and predatory animals you find in the cages of a zoo. So, each "subject" was seen in his essential animalness, greed, lechery, aggression, treachery, fawning, cunning, stupidity etc. I am sure such an exhibition must have been a great draw. To see Aristotle's homo politicus or "political animal" in his natural impulses and environs in not to see an edifying picture. And, in essentials, the Darwinian pack always managed to remain in power in one form or another. A noble or visionary politician is more a freak and extravagance, an indulgence. Often, the pretender or the plunderer is let off with a laugh or two. No wonder, then, it's the wily, Machiavellian, "the blue-suited gangster", to use an American phrase from their context, or the khadi-clad, dhoti-and-kurta muscleman, who becomes a juicy stock for the cartoonist to dig his teeth into, and draw blood.
A titan, not a postscript
MINOO MASANI, who passed into history on May 26 at the ripe age of 92, needs to be remembered by the nation for many achievements. Some of these have not been brought out in the obituaries by those who seem to remember him for his volume Our India. Although I had seen him a number of times in Bombay when I still donned my white uniform in the 40s and 50s. I saw him a couple of times at a gathering of what was then called The Progressive Group. But I first met him when I went to see him in his office at Bombay in 1983.
I had been commissioned by Naval Headquarters to write the history of the Royal Indian Navy, later the Indian Navy. There is a volume written by Minoo Masani titled Bliss was it in that dawn. In it, there is a reference to the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny of February 1946. Referring to this volume, I asked him if he had anything further to say. And I quote extracts from his volume and what he told me. All this and much more is quoted in my volume Under two Ensigns" which he later reviewd in The Statesman. He said: "An exciting debate which took place on February 22, 1946 was that on adjournment motion to discuss the mutiny of the rating of the Royal Indian Navy in Bombay. Our Deputy Leader, Asaf Ali, had tabled an adjournment motion to discuss the grave situation that has arisen with respect to the Indian Navy, affecting practically the whole of it as a result of mishandling by the immediate authorities concerned. In a speech on the occasion, I appealed to the British to leave the country while there was still an Army, Navy and Air Force left in the country. We are told that the situation is in control and that prestige has been preserved, no doubt, with the cooperation of men like Sardar Patel in Bombay and Gazdar in Karachi. It has been preserved because our national leaders of all parties are prepared, in the interest of this country, to endorse the call of the authorities. I wonder whether this kind of victory is worth having. The ratings who surrendered in the interest of their country are the moral victors of the struggle.
Surely, I continued, the British Government did not have to wait for another mutiny. They could go while there was still some social stability and law and order left. They needn't pull down the pillers of society.
The Defence Secretary, Philip Mason, whom I was to come to know later as the writer Philip Woodruff, told me in the lobby in a typically sporting manner "That was a wicked speech, Masani, but I enjoyed it."
When I interviewed him he had many more things to say but on the larger question on whether members of the armed forces have right to rebel I was in agreement with my friend Jaiparkash Narayan, when he called upon the armed forces to disobey "illegal" orders of the government. Even though I personally warned him not to repeat the statement as it was difficult to say what orders were legal and what were illegal and he was liable to be misquoted, which he was. My own thinking would be that the Polish Army would be perfectly entitled to mutiny and restore solidarity in Poland unless of course there again it would only result in inviting Soviet aggression. It is, therefore, a difficult and complicated question to answer.
"When I was a young rebel under Gandhiji during Independence days I used to question the words 'Government by law' established (he was referring to a foreign regime). It does not mean that even then I was for violent action and I did say in my speech in the Legislative Assembly though the motives of the ratings may be patriotic I could not support their method of resorting to a mutiny. Similarly, I do not think the police force have any right to strike or riot..."
In one of his volumes he has a colourful description of this experience when he was arrested when proceeding to Chowpatty beach to preside over a meeting which had been declared as illegal. The British Deputy Commissioner of Police who arrested him happened to know his father and he was disgusted wit what he had done and said: "Masani, you damn fool (he meant it in a friendly way Masani records) why does an intelligent young man like you have to do this?" He spent a night at Gamdevi Police Station along with some other criminals and bugs, who he says "are the denizens of a police station". In the fortnight or so he spent at the Arthur Road Prison, we had as our fellow prisons two crooks of international repute, Womborg and Rosenfeld. The latter was a trained chemist and master forger of cheques and the former was a confidence trickster. They said they had a wonderful plan for subverting the British Raj and are thus to get Gandhiji's approval for the scheme. The scheme was that they should be asked by the Congress Party to print counterfeit notes in great quantity. The credit of British Raj would thus be destroyed and hey presto, Swaraj would be achieved!' Masani was later shifted to Nasik jail to undergo a year's imprisonment.
But I would like to give a few extracts from his column in The Statesman of December 23, 1990 of which the nation should be reminded. Minoo Masani says that while we all knew that Winston Churchill saw a bleak future for the suffering people of India under the rapacious politicians who would take over after Independence. He did not, however, know that Rajaji shared this bleak view and expressed himself as early as 1992. Masani says he had an occasion recently to preside at a Rajaji's birthday lecture in Bombay on "Dharma in public life" by C. Subramaniam, Governor of Maharashtra. He quotes a prophetic quotation from Rajaji's prison diary as far back as January 24, 1922: "Elections and their corruptions, injustice and the power and tyranny of wealth, and inefficiency of administration, will make a hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us. Men will look regretfully back to the old regime of comparative justice, and efficient, peaceful, more or less honest administration.
In the same column Masani says: "I was privileged to be in the chair of a meeting addressed by the Dalai Lama in Bombay the other day. His visit to Bombay showed what a large number of supporters he has in Bombay I took the opportunity to apologise to the Dalai Lama for the disgraceful manner in which the Government of India had treated his country when it was overrun by the Chinese Communist imperialists in 1949. One would have expected the Government of India to rush to the rescue of our peace-loving and friendly neighbours, but on the contrary, Nehru to the shame of this country, instructed the Jam Sahib who was India's representative in the UN not to support Tibet's appeal for help from the UN against this aggression. For this crime we Indians cannot apologise enough to the Dalai Lama and to the people of Tibet."
On our debacle when China invaded India in 1962, Minoo Masani wrote in a national daily on November 28, 1962: "Wars are not won by craven calculations. Can we imagine Winston Churchill agreeing to a ceasefire after Dunkirk? The honour and manhood of India are at stake. Shall we not assert them? The time to fight is now or never."
At another place Masani mentions about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and refers to the two-minute silence observed at 11 a.m. on January 30 in honour of the memory of Mahatma Gandhi. He says: "Fine. But look who was asking us to perpetuate Gandhiji's memory! I cannot quote any better authority than Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan who, some years ago said in this connection: "I am pained to find that the country and the people whom Gandhiji served so long have forgotten him so soon."
When an Indian leader visited him in Jalalabad on his way to Europe in connection with the centenary celebrations, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan told him: "The foreigners will laugh at you when you preach to them about Gandhi... because they know about the violence, hatred and absence of sympathy for the human being in India."
There is much, much more that Minoo Masani did for the nation. To call him a rightist is not at all appropriate in any case, for our very own, 'preachy' pontificating politicians, this is a dirty word. Minoo Masani was actually a democratically/iconoclastic personality who has done us proud.
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