For someone who considers himself apolitical, amateur cartoonist Lakshman Balaji has an unintended knack for causing much sensation and outrage on political matters. First it was his rib-tickling Tamil puns that made a splash on social media, and then his commentary on racism among Indians went veritably viral.
A 23-year-old dentistry graduate, Lakshman lives in Chennai. Incensed by the video of a racist mob in Noida attacking a lone Nigerian man in a mall in late March, Balaji sublimated his rage in a cartoon. Within days, the image had received over four million views on social media, including a tweet from Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.
It wasn’t all bouquets – Lakshman received his share of trolling and abuse online for calling Indians racist. Two weeks ago, Facebook removed the post, citing violation of community standards.
After his initial response of indignation, Lakshman resigned to the idea that Facebook was perhaps doing its job by removing the post. “If you look at it from their perspective, I might have been a non-Indian casting Indians in a bad light,” he said.
The single image increased the number of followers of Lakshman’s Facebook page to over 20,000 people. He suddenly finds himself posting thoughts for a larger audience than he ever imagined.
Lakshman’s interest in cartooning began when he was just two and his parents and uncles bought him Asterix and Tintin comics. “I don’t know in which universe a two-year-old kid can understand these comics,” he said. “I would pretend to read them, but I would pay attention only to the cartoons. My theory is if you want to make a cartoonist out of someone, give them comic books at an age when they cannot read the text. That way, they are only going to notice the drawings and be primed to draw those later in life.”
Scribbling on the margins of notebooks at school and sketching cartoons with wisecracks to amuse his friends, sustained Lakshman’s interest in drawing through childhood. Finally, in August 2015, he decided to start a Facebook page called Lakshman’s cartoons. “I don’t like people telling me what to do,” said Lakshman. “I like the freedom cartooning gives.”
Stylistically, his inspiration still comes from his childhood favourite, the creator of Asterix comics, Albert Uderzo. Lakshman loves Uderzo’s expertise at exaggerating body language. Another favourite is RK Laxman.
“It’s crazy that I’ve got the same name [as Laxman],” he said, in a tone which expressed his awe. “He used a brush to draw his cartoons, which is incredibly difficult. He always found some subtle way to poke fun of politics and the government.”
Lakshman rarely deals with current affairs, unless something makes him angry – which does not happen often, he said. Instead, he prefers to find humour in the everyday quirks of average middle-class households, drawing inspiration from his father and his grandfather. “When you talk to my grandfather, it feels like you’re time travelling. After spending time with him, I come out of the room, rub my eyes and remind myself that it’s 2017.”
Lakshman features in several of his own cartoons – a tall, lean character with twirled moustache who engages in occasionally clumsy attempts to impress women, or has long, deep and funny conversations with his friends and family.
This cartoon, for instance, compares a particular ceremony in Tamil Brahmin weddings to bargaining with auto drivers: the groom pretends to take off in a huff to Kashi, and bride’s father runs after him and pleads with him to come back and marry his daughter.
Lakshman’s cartoons explore the cultural peculiarities of not just his family, but of Chennai. For example, the poster-advertisements for a magician named P James are ubiquitous on the walls and trees of the city – but few know who he really is or what he looks like.
But by far the most popular of his cartoons are the ones with his hilarious Tamil puns, which bear the characteristics of a typical mokkai, Tamil for a lame joke.
“People don’t want to be seen making these jokes out loud because they are usually received with a lot of eye-rolling and groans,” said Lakshman, with a laugh. “I too make them only because I can hide behind the cartoon. But people tend to be much more forgiving of these jokes as cartoons than in real life.”
In this cartoon, perungaayam is the Tamil name for the herb asafoetida, which is commonly used in South Indian recipes. Periagaayam, however, refers to a big wound.
With the page gaining followers, Lakshman has started feeling the mild pressure of having a large audience for the first time, many of whom might not get his Tamil-centric humour.
“Initially, I could draw whatever I wanted,” he said. “But now I have to keep a check on what I say. By any chance, if my cartoon goes viral, I will have to defend what I put up.”
Despite receiving a number of suggestions to compile his cartoons into a comic book, Lakshman has other plans at the moment. He will be packing his bags in a few months to pursue graduate studies in epidemiology at a premier university in the United States. As of now, cartooning is a hobby, one which he does not plan to give up.
“Cartooning is only a small part of what I do,” said Lakshman. “But I don’t think cartooning is something I’ll stop. I’m pretty sure I’ll be drawing till when I’m an old man with white hair and a white beard.”