This is how those of us who come from Mysore of the Mysore State remember the two famous RKs of the RK family. The neighbourhood was Vontikoppal, an intimate quarter like Malgudi, where communities lived in harmony. And the two RKs were a creation of that milieu.

R K Narayan and R K Laxman were a pair, creative and political but tethered to their beginnings. They were political in the laidback but clearly defined sense that reflects in their work and, I suggest, in the character of Mysoreans.

Laxman and my brother Sreedhar were school friends, who later kept up their support for each other even as Laxman moved to Mumbai and Sreedhar to Delhi. We have cartoon portraits of Sreedhar drawn by Laxman. Narayan and my brother Parthasarathy bonded, as writers and creative persons, at the famous Gemini studios where Parthasarathy was a producer and Narayan often a scriptwriter.

Narayan regularly stayed for long periods in Parthasarathy’s house, regaling us with his sarcasm and jokes during these visits. Laxman was my only contact in Bombay when I moved there in 1957 for a brief spell of paid work. A sort of loner, he expressed helplessness in dealing with mundane things like finding a room for me and chaperoning me.

The two brothers were similar. Their perspective on society was expressed through jokes and irony. Looking back, it amazes me that such strong ideological perspectives could emerge from that quiet, cocooned city of Mysore. But then, that was the special spirit or ethos of the Mysore State, a progressive state headed by rulers who were intelligent and just. It is said that Mahatma Gandhi described the state as Ram Rajya when he spent some time recuperating in the Nandi Hills.

Satire and commentary

It is not surprising that the RKs and other lesser-known but equally gifted persons from Mysore State – civil servants, journalists and businessmen – were different from the products of other states. They were modest compared to the Tamils, but creative in science and technology, administration, literature and believed in communal harmony. The RKs came from those roots, something that should not be forgotten.

Laxman is being praised for being funny, for making people laugh with his cartoons. But his Common Man, as Narayan’s Malgudi, was not just for laughs. It was a medium to show injustice, inequality, corruption. It mocked the leadership that makes promises and yet robs. It was not funny but a powerful satire.

Narayan would be seen by few people today as a feminist, a social commentator with a philosophical perspective. But for those of us who have read his Dark Room, it stands out as a reflection of the worst of the Brahminical society – the terrible treatment of daughters-in-law, of widows. Yes, the radicals of today, impatient and sharp-lined as they are, will challenge this view. But the soft touch, the combination of philosophy and an understanding of society along with skilled writing or drawing – the RK way – I suggest were idioms that current commentators have lost.

Those of us in their 80s are a fast-declining group. Our memories are not well documented since we were active in an age when the digital medium did not exist and when photography and videography were not pervasive. We read, we listened and we participated, mostly in proximity. Proximity was critical to our learning, growing and thinking – not just a part of the build-up of thought and action like today.

It was from that space that the two RKs came.