A near exact reproduction of my attempt at cartooning in 1982
Waiting outside The Times of India building across Bombay’s Victoria Terminus station I was rushing to finish a rough cartoon sketch before my meeting with the famous cartoonist R. K. Laxman. It was sometime in 1982 when I was 21 and had just entered journalism.
The sketch showed a man who was supposed to be Abdul Rehman Antulay, then the disgraced chief minister of Maharashtra who had been forced to resign over allegations of corruption. I vividly remember that I had drawn Antulay from behind since I did not have the skills to create an accurate caricature from front. I had discarded two sketches of his face from front because they looked nothing like him.The one from behind also did not look like Antulay but I solved that problem by saying CM, a popular short for chief minister.
The caption to the cartoon read “Trust brought me in. Trusts got me out.” The pun was inspired by the fact that Antulay had to resign after a massive newspaper expose that alleged that he had floated charitable trusts to divert donations coerced from Bombay builders in return for releasing special cement quotas. All this sounds weird now but cement then was almost like a controlled substance since it was so scarce. There was a premium on it, both financial and political. The broad allegation was that Antulay as the state chief minister had created trusts in the name of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to extort money from cement-strapped builders. While the Bombay high court convicted him in January, 1982, over a decade or so later he was exonerated by Supreme Court of any wrongdoing.
Let me finish my story before I come to Antulay. I did meet Lakshman in his office that day and showed him the “cartoon” and sought tips from him on how to pursue a career as a cartoonist. He was rather indulgent towards a young aspirant. In fact, he said he found the caption “clever” but the drawing “terrible.” “Work on your caricature skills. Cartoons are as much about words as they are about drawings,” he said. The meeting lasted less ten minutes but it was long enough for me to give up on the idea of becoming a cartoonist.
I was reminded of this incident on hearing the news of the demise of Antulay at age 85. In the early 1980s Antulay, one of those rare flamboyant and hyper-articulate politicians, became a symbol of corruption in high places despite his steadfast denial of having done anything wrong. As it turned the country’s highest court agreed with him but not before his personal reputation took a severe beating. Notwithstanding that Antulay never came across as a bitter man but remained someone who mostly displayed sanguine optimism about his profession and his country.
As dear friend and fellow journalist Kajal Basu pointed out, many journalists in Bombay cut their teeth on the Antulay-cement story in those days. Antulay was one of the most colorful politicians who built his political career in the shadow and under patronage of the larger than life figure of Indira Gandhi. He was particularly enamored of Mrs. Gandhi whom he saw as his role model. In so much as she was capable of it, Mrs. Gandhi too liked him.
In the pre-Internet, pre-social media era, Antulay provided charismatic relief with his natural theatrical flair. He had this habit of flipping his rather rich forelocks in a manner that suggested that once having done it he was ready to take on the world. A sharp legal mind who was a Barrister-at-Law from London Antulay was also very well-spoken in English, Hindi/Urdu and Marathi. There was a certain grandiloquence to him that I found particularly entertaining. It was as if was in a perpetual performance mode.
I interviewed him once at his residence on Marine Drive. I went in fully aware of Antulay’s reputation for treating most journalists as stenographers who were there only to take down in shorthand his grand pronouncements. True to that reputation even before I could begin my questions, he flipped his forelocks and said, “Take down.” That he had lived up to his stereotype so quickly made me laugh out.
He was somewhat intrigued at my response. I said, “Mr. Antulay, There is no taking down. I will ask the questions first.” I then showed him that scrap of paper on which I had done my first cartoon. He looked at it and laughed. It was six years after he had resigned. Thereafter, the interview became a smooth and equal affair. I remember asking him about his adulation for the actor Dilip Kumar. He almost struck a trademark Dilip Kumar pose and said, “I do copy him sometimes.”
During his brief stint as Maharashtra’s chief minister between 1980 and 1982 he distinguished himself as someone utterly decisive who cut through the bureaucratic red tape quickly. He had a flair for policy and the politics of policy. He was unusually aware that in a room full of politicians he was inevitably the brightest bulb. Antulay was one of those politicians who had the body language of someone in position of unassailable authority even when he was not. All in all, he was a highly compelling personality who perhaps fell short of his natural promise and potential.