The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Born genius

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 Durrell’s Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons twelve 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 breed them in captivity in his animal and bird hospice in Jersey (Channel Islands, England), then return 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 — hence the expression “dead as the Dodo”. It is the logo of Durrell’s set- up in Jersey.

Durrell has vivid description of the Mauritius landscape and the people he met. In his spare time, he went snorkeling 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. Durrell 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 born in Jamshedpur. This makes their books — Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Gerald Durrell’s 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 it 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 a 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 serial explorations of the vast world that surrounds it.”

Full of animation

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 the editor’s meeting where they discussed events in the country and abroad, he would come up to my room for a cup of coffee. We didn’t talk politics: we indulged in gossip about politicians. He was an excellent raconteur full of animation. He was a slightly built, 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 socializing 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 nondescript 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 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, later head of the Shiva Sena. Laxman got the 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 Bharata Natyam dancer.) I had him and Kamala over in my flat a few times. He loved a drink and did not mind driving all the way from Malabar Hill, where they lived, to Colaba (over 10 kilometers away) to have a couple of drinks with me. He always preferred other people’s 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 city’s bicentenary celebrations. I was commissioned by Suhail Seth to write the text; Laxman 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.

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