To say that times of confinement lead to thoughts of freedom and liberty, would be stating the obvious. Of course, the trajectory and range of those thoughts would be unique to each individual. In this restrictive time, my attention goes very specifically to a sub-section of my cartoon book collection – those that go under a broad heading of “French cartoons”.

French cartoons had a huge appeal worldwide in the 1950s and ’60s. The allusions the word “French” evokes or at least once did, are not totally misplaced. If you thought they would be saucy, sexy, sexist, sophisticated, rude and droll, you would be correct (and also above 50, I’d guess). They are that, yes but not just that. They are all gag cartoons of the highest order, a breed that is now totally extinct.

Its extinction has to do with many things, and the list is long, but one reason is this – cartoons now, like everything else, need a purpose and a message. They need to rile people or rally them. It is now an instrumentalised and weaponised article. The cartoon has to take sides as everything is either “with us or against us”.

The gag cartoon, particularly of the French variety is nothing of the kind. It taps in to your primitive brain as it delights your forebrain. And invariably evokes a chuckle or a laugh. It is also the kind of cartoon no one would publish now, for fears of being labeled non-PC.

Freedom of expression today is just a useful farce. Very often, it is just the freedom to express what is largely agreed upon. There is an army of people who police the media for imagined slights and insults, and then shun and shame people into silence. A letter to the editor recently wanted my cartoons dropped as they had “made fun of even Greta Thunberg”.

All of this works when the times are good, salaries come on time and useless degrees are considered valuable. In troubled times however, much like the present, these voices that do this kind of shouting and objecting are clearly nowhere around. A tweet recently went, “How come only men and women died in the corona outbreak? What happened to the 47 other genders?” There is no better way for me, to underscore the total redundancy of that lot than dipping into these “French cartoons”.

Hemant Morparia is the cartoonist at the Mumbai Mirror.

Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.