In Remembrance of Rajinder Puri
When a long-standing friend passes away a bit of you also dies. An enriching link with the past is snapped. And that’s what happened when I heard, to my shock, this Monday of the death in sleep of my friend of some three score years.
Rajinder Puri was the youngest of the five children of H R Puri, a meteorologist by profession, Puri was born in Karachi and the family arrived in India when Rajinder was thirteen, in the massive influx of refugees forced to leave their hearth and home at the time of Partition in 1947.
I walked up and down the corridors of memory to recall when did we first meet. Rajinder Puri and I were contemporaries in St. Stephen’s College in early 1950’s. Actually, his elder brother, Rakshit – also a journalist who passed away last year – was my class fellow and Rajinder was junior to me. I had – most undeservedly – acquired a reputation of being an expert in every area other than what I had chosen to qualify in.
Probably because of that false halo, one day he barged into me and said: “Bali – that’s what he called me till the end – I’ve decided to be a cartoonist.”
“Shankar – (then a famous cartoonist then with Hindustan Times) – must be feeling trifle shaky.” I said light-heartedly.
“No, he need not. Shankar is Shankar. I’ll be my own self.”
“I’m planning to leave for England to study cartooning. Tell me which book I must read to start.”
“Alice in Wonderland,” I said instantly, half in jest and half seriously.
Puri probably opted to accept the latter half as my reply.
That’s how started a friendship between a highly creative artist and a thoroughly prosaic fellow.
He went to England and stayed on after finishing his course. He worked in London for a brief time drawing cartoons for The Guardian, and later The Glasgow Herald.
On his return to India, he joined Hindustan Times. S Mulgaonkar was, I recall, the paper’s editor whose favorite Puri was. It was probably he who sowed the seeds in Puri to become a columnist too. From Hindustan Times Puri shifted to the Statesman. For the last twenty-five years of his life he was a freelance journalist. His columns appeared on regular assignments in several leading dailies and weeklies. He also authored a few books on Indian politics.
He was a featured columnist on Boloji under his column “My Word” for over a decade before he received the call.
After I shifted from Delhi to Calcutta in early 1960’s I lost touch with him. However, wherever I was, I used to look up Delhi newspapers. And whenever I liked some cartoon of his, I dropped him a line of appreciation which he promptly acknowledged. (There were no Emails then. You wrote in long hand.)
After I returned to Delhi in 1995, we resumed our contact and had frequent discussions with him. Puri used to have a group of friends at his reserved table in the Tea Room of India International Centre and the inconclusive discussions went on for hours over tea and sandwiches.
The trauma of Partition never left Rajinder. Until his end he always vigorously wrote to undo the spirit of Partition. He frequently wrote on the desirability of a South Asian Union, including Kashmir too as an autonomous entity. As a hardheaded realist, I never shared his dream.
For some years Puri also dabbled in politics in his bid to change the grim reality of our polity. He was the founding General Secretary of the short-lived Janata Party in 1977 and was in charge of campaign publicity in the 1977 general election that led to the Janata Party’s thumping victory. Later he was founder General Secretary of Lok Dal and also in charge of the Labor Cell of BJP.
PPuri had a grudge against BJP. When the Party thought of starting “Motherland”, a national daily from Delhi, Rajinder was sounded to take over as its editor. All details were sorted out. Then for some reason he refused to divulge, the proposal fizzled out. He never forgave the top leadership for it, especially Malkani – later BJP-appointed Governor of Pondicherry.
Since 1988 he was not attached to any political party. So disillusioned was he with all political parties.
He crusaded all his life against that hydra-headed monster called the system behind the stifling political reality. His cartoons unfailingly had a dig on that reality. The trouble with cartooning is that black and white lines force you to have a laugh, even provoke you, but their impact is ephemeral. A column is more effective. Perhaps that explains his increasing emphasis on writing rather than cartooning despite his commendable skill as a draftsman.
He always gave an evasive reply whenever I asked him why he wasn’t cartooning.
HHe felt that to change the political reality, he needed to be within the political system at least to some extent. Having opposed the Emergency vehemently he was very actively involved with the Janata Party. But later, he became disillusioned and realized that he did not fit in in the world of politics,
Now that he’s gone, all I’ve are memories of the man, most especially his IIC Tea Room sessions in the tradition of the Latin Quarter cafes of Paris in which revolutionary proposal are discussed and discarded day after day. The most endearing attribute of my friend was his incorruptibility which now is getting very scarce in the profession he enriched. Though disappointed with politicians he never became a cynic. Whenever in life I’ll think of him I’ll recall the Bard in Hamlet:
He was a man, take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.