October 11, 2003
BEFORE I come to the art of writing good prose, let me say a few words why I have been provoked to do so. I first read Gerald Durrellís Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons 12 years ago. I read it a second time this summer. It is about his expedition to Mauritius and neighbouring islands to collect species of lizards, snakes, bats and birds threatened with extinction and to breed them in captivity in his animal and bird hospice in Jersey (Channel Islands, England). He then talks of returning some of them to their original habitat. It may be recalled that the flightless Dodo was also found on these islands and being unable to defend beef against predators was killed to the last one ó hence the expression dead as the dodo. It is the logo of Durrellís set-up in Jersey.
Durrell gives a vivid
description of the Mauritius landscape and the people he met. In his
spare time, he went snorkelling among the reefs and found baffling
variety of marine life about which we know very little. There are in
fact more living creatures in the ocean than there are on the earth. He
brings everything living or dead doubly alive in the way he writes about
it. This is a God-given gift richly shared by his brother Lawrence. Both
of them were born in Jamshedpur. This makes their books: Lawrence
Durrells Alexebrian Quartet and Gerald Durrellís books on animals such
a joy to read and re-read. I marked out a passage in Golden Bats and
Pink Pigeons as an example of how lyrical prose can be:
"Any naturalist who is lucky enough to travel, at certain moments has experienced a feeling of overwhelming exultation at the beauty and complexity of life, and a feeling of depression that there is so much to see, to observe, to learn, that one lifetime is an unfairly short span to be allotted for such a paradise of enigmas as the world is. You get is when, for the first time, you see the beauty, variety and exuberance of a tropical rain forest, with its cathedral maze of a thousand different trees, each bedecked with gardens of orchids, epiphytes, enmeshed in a web of creepers; an interlocking of so many species that you cannot believe that number of different forms have evolved. You get it when you see for the first time a great concourse of mammals living together, or a vast, restless conglomeration of birds. You get it when you see a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis; a dragonfly from its pupa; when you observe the delicate, multifarious courtship displays, the rituals and taboos, that go into making up the continuation of a species. You get it when you first see a stick or a leaf turn into an insect, or a piece of dappled shade into a herd of zebras. You get it when you see a gigantic school of dolphins stretching as far as the eye can see, rocking and leaping exuberantly through their blue world; or a microscopic spider manufacturing from its frail body a transparent, apparently never-ending line that will act as a transport as it sets out on its aerial explorations of the vast world that surrounds it."
The one person I have always regarded as a born genius is the cartoonist R.K. Laxman. His recent illness and incarceration in hospitals in Pune and Mumbai made me recall our many years of friendship while we worked in the Times of India building in Bombay. Almost every other morning after he had finished with editorís meeting where they discussed events in the country and abroad, he would come up to my room for a cup of coffee. We didnít talk politics: we indulged in gossip about politicians. He was an excellent raconteur, full of animation, slightly built and a handsome man, his eyes always twinkled as he talked. He did not like other people to be in the room. He was a snob and restricted his socialising with senior editors of English journals. He thought nothing of wasting their time but never allowed anyone to disturb him while he drew his cartoons in the afternoon. Everyone of them was a masterpiece of draftsmanship, gentle irony and humour. I never hesitated telling him that I thought he was the greatest cartoonist of our times. He loved to be praised; he did not believe in false modesty.
Before I met him face to face, I had reason to think there was a streak of genius in him. He illustrated one of my short stories in which one of the characters was myself. Without having ever seen me he reproduced my likeness. I had only known him as the younger brother of R.K. Narayan, the novelist, short-story writer and creator of Malgudi. He illustrated his brother's stories and put life into what appeared to me drab narratives of life in a non-descript imaginary south-Indian town. Laxman hero-worshipped his brother and could not stomach any criticism of his writings. I took great care not to offend him.
Laxman is the youngest of a family of seven brothers and sisters of a Tamil Brahmin headmaster of a school in Mysore. His full name is a yard long ó Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman. He had no formal training as an artist but started drawing pictures on white walls with pieces of burnt charcoal from the age of three. He was not much good at studies but the arts teacher who had asked the boys to draw a picture of a leaf was quick to notice that the only one who reproduced the exact likeness of a peepal leaf was Laxman. In his childhood he got attracted to crows, watched their antics and made pictures of them by the dozen. His passion for crows has never abated.
From illustrating his brother's stories, he went on to making cartoons. From small magazines, he went on to the prestigious The Hindu. He applied for a job with The Hindustan Times. He was turned down because he was too young: he has always looked younger than his years. The Hindustan Times must rue the day when its manager made the wrong decision. Laxman arrived in Bombay. Among his competitors was Bal Thackeray, who later became head of the Shiv Sena. Laxman got a job in The Times of India and it has been its mainstay for over half a century.
I saw quite a bit of Laxman and his ever-smiling lovely wife Kamala. (I believe she is his second wife). I never dared to ask him about the first who I learnt was a Bharatnatyam dancer. I had him and Kamla over in my flat a few times. He loved to drink and did not mind driving all the way from Malabar Hill where they lived to Colaba (over 10 km away) to have a couple of drinks with me. He always preferred other peopleís Scotch to his own. He could put a few down without the slightest sign of being tipsy. He was unlike his hero-brother who was as abstemious as Morarji Desai.
Laxman and I spent three days together in Calcutta at the invitation of Manjushree Khaitan (nee Birla) to do a book on the cityís bicentenary celebrations. I was commissioned by Suhail Seth to write the text, while Laxman was asked to do sketches of sites and people of the city. The two were published separately. Laxman got a lot more for his drawings than I did for my text. He deserved it. He also has a knack of extracting big fees. He knows they are owed to him.
Banta wanted to go from Karol Bagh to Connaught Place?" and hailed a cycle rickshaw" :How much for Connaught Place?"
"Depends on whether you wish to travel first class, second class or third," replied the rickshaw owner.
"What do you mean? asked Banta, "you have only this one rickshaw."
Replied the rickshaw driver, "For first class, I clean my rickshaw and say baitheeye (please sit down). The fare will be Rs 20. For the second I say baitho (sit) and charge Rs 10. For the third class, Iíll charge only Rs 5, but you will drive the rickshaw and I will sit in it."
(Contributed by J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal).