The pea under the mattress
Cartoons: Abu Abraham / Himal Southasian, December 2008

The pea under the mattress

A retrospective of Abu Abraham's cartoons, meant to “burst bloating bladders of lies and pomposity”

"The important thing is not winning, but taking part." So goes the timeless satirical barb at the (fictitious) Arms Merchants Club, derisively equating the members' collective penchant for war games with the slogan of the Olympic Games. This cartoon, created by the maestro Abu Abraham back in 1982, is as potent today as it was then. Indeed, in looking over Abu's illustrated record of the second half of the 20th century, it becomes clear how little has changed – in Southasia and beyond.

Attupurathu Mathew Abraham ('Abu') was born in Tiruvalla, Kerala, on 11 June 1924. He began his career as a reporter at the Bombay Chronicle and the Bombay Sentinel, and later in Delhi worked as a staff cartoonist and caricaturist at the satirical English-language journal Shankar's Weekly. In July 1953, he moved to London, to receive immediate acclaim from widely respected publications in the UK (see accompanying article, 'Abu in London'). Abu Abraham returned to India in 1969 to work in Delhi as a political cartoonist at the Indian Express (1969-81), where he earned a reputation as one of the most hard-hitting cartoonists anywhere in the modern era. The accompanying selection of his work focuses on the turbulent, formative years from 1966 to 1988.

Attacking the war machine

An ardent and conscientious objector of militarisation, some of Abu's most biting cartoons are devoted to denouncing the industrial-war machine, as well as exposing the skulduggery called 'foreign policy' from the peak of the Cold War, during the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing upon his deep interest in English literature and the Romantic poets in particular, his cartoon depicting "World Opinion Beheading Military Rule" – a la John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" – is unequivocal about Abu's own position. A committed opponent of the nuclear-weapons programme, Abu was quick to comment on the idiocy of the neutron bomb, which he felt was developed specifically to eliminate all living things, even while it 'protected' property.

Cartoons: Abu Abraham / Himal Southasian, December 2008

Abu's journalistic insights are particularly sharp when he comments on the various ways in which the US 'psychiatric' intervention in West Asia helped to brainwash Arab countries into believing that the greatest threat to their security came from the Soviets. His 1980 cartoon of 'Cowboy' Ronald Reagan enunciating the three core American values of 'life, liberty and happiness of pursuit' (as opposed to the 'pursuit of happiness'), is a good example of Abu's ability to prise out the hypocrisy behind favourite clichés.

The cartoon of the same period in which, through political double-speak, US-trained 'terrorists' are conveniently dubbed 'freedom-fighters', remains particularly relevant to this day. Indeed, some three decades later, the idea that violent occupation could be a 'delivery of democracy' – as in Iraq – is a specific American contribution to contemporary political thought and practice.

The neighbourhood as seen from India

The preoccupation of the Southasian media with keeping tabs on its neighbours is a longstanding one. But the Indian media's obsession with its split twin, Pakistan, is almost pathological. Inevitably, the most angled reportage on either side of the border focuses on the other's shortcomings. Cartoonists, in particular, find themselves being called upon to bolster and augment editorial stances. Abu's canon has a good amount of material on this subject, with particular vitriol reserved for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who he regarded as not only exceptionally corrupt but as a puppet in the hands of Western powers. Years later, Abu was equally severe on General Zia ul-Haq – presenting him as a mechanical doll, keyed-up by the US and the USSR through their substantial arms aid to the military ruler during the late 1980s.

While Abu's cartoons pillory Bhutto senior for being a misfit as a democratic leader, as well as his bluster, ineffectiveness and manipulative streak ("Will you forget war crimes if I forgive the Bengalis?"), he dismisses daughter Benazir as too callow and wet behind the ears. Abu's cartoon of her as Little Red Riding Hood, being led through the forest by Gen Zia in wolf's clothing, offers brilliant political insight. It anticipates similar subsequent turns in Benazir's life by decades.

Cartoons: Abu Abraham / Himal Southasian, December 2008

More generally, India's difficult relationships with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have offered innumerable opportunities for cartoonists. For example, the infamous rounds of 'peace talks' at Shimla was inspiration for Abu's outstanding depiction of Bhutto being administered 'the Washington Spirit' on the road to Shimla. Another contemporary masterpiece is that which shows 'the Shimla Spirit' as an egg hatched by 'mother hen' Indira Gandhi. These are gems of draughtsmanship and excellent examples of the economy of line so typical of Abu, as much as they are examples of perspicacious political comment. Equally smart is the depiction of General Zia as mentor to General Ershad in Bangladesh, with the crack about "The first seven years" being "the most difficult".

A couple of cartoons from the late 1980s cogently commented on the disastrous intervention by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Here, the 'frustration' of the LTTE, while the 'Dove of Peace' – with a laurel leaf in its beak, in the form of elections for the North-Eastern Provincial Assembly – perches atop a pole, was an accurate readings of the situation at the time.

Nineteen months of darkness…and after

Indira Gandhi has long been a favourite of Indian cartoonists. Her dynastic origins in the Nehru family, evolving imperiousness, her decisive role in 'containing' Pakistan by manoeuvring the liberation of Bangladesh, and the authoritarian excesses of the Emergency period of the mid-1970s – all of these combined to make her a significant enough figure for cartoonists to tilt at. Most propitious (for cartoonists) was the 'gift' of her long nose.

In June 1975, Indira Gandhi suspended the Indian Constitution, imposed press censorship and declared a State of Emergency, stemming from an internal crisis of agitations and upheavals. The subsequent 20 months, until the Emergency was lifted in 1977, was also the worst period for the free press in India. Soon after the proclamation of Emergency, the Information Ministry and the Home Ministry appointed Censor Officers to sit in the editorial rooms of all leading Indian newspapers, in order to prevent the publication of information, visuals or cartoons critical of the government. In a press conference, then-Information Minister V C Shukla explained this action as in order "to prevent the spread of rumour." To this, Abu's famous retort was, "But why prevent the spread of humour?"

Cartoons: Abu Abraham / Himal Southasian, December 2008

Many of Abu's cartoons were subtle enough to pass the censor, however, such as the famous one of then-President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signing a flurry of ordinances, even from his bathtub. Here Mrs Gandhi's claim that "A bitter pill was needed to restore the nation's health" is met with Abu's rejoinder on the overproduction of sugar coating for the pill. The political cartoon offered some space for resistance during those troubled months, and Abu, along with other cartoonists, led that front.

In 1977, the lifting of the Emergency, the holding of elections and the complete rout of the Congress Party (and Mrs Gandhi) were to launch a new and unexpected period in Indian politics. This was to be an era of ideological recession and hasty, brittle and opportunistic coalitions. This was therefore another bonanza period for political cartoonists, as all sorts of colourful players entered the arena and livened up daily life, even as they muddied the political waters.

The left, too, divided into the CPI and the CPI (M) – the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – engaged in desultory mutual sparring, coming together occasionally on fairly innocuous issues such as opposing the ban on cow slaughter. Abu's sharp eye was tuned to the rapid erosion of responsible oppositional politics, leading to one of his most outstanding cartoons, of the "Homo Oppositionus Indicus". This was to become the most frequently plagiarised Abu creation.

Examining the navel

Abu's satire spared none, including the journalist fraternity. His cartoons urged introspection and self-criticism, actions that were largely absent during the period following the Emergency, when the press became complacent at best and sycophantic at worst. Commenting on the spectre of 'handout journalism' during the 1980s, as journalists became increasingly prone to be 'persuaded' to write reports the way government and officialdom wanted to tell the story, Abu puns on the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) as the 'Central Bureau of Investigative Reporting'. Just as the CBI often found itself a tool of the central government, cynically deployed to arm-twist political opponents, Abu's pun on the CBI was his way of pointing to the practice of what has now come to be known as 'embedded journalism'.

A classic Abu cartoon from the Emergency years. Cartoon: Abu Abraham / Himal Southasian, December 2008

Abu's barbs on editorial independence did not go down particularly well with senior editors of the day, of course, unhappy with being likened to bumbling or self-promoting politicians. This, though, was precisely in line with Abu's stated mission. While the Guardian once described him as "the conscience of the left and the pea under the princess's mattress", in his own words he was out there "bursting bloated bladders of lies and pomposity, cutting people down to size; these are the purposes of satire."

Believing that India's democracy and its base of tolerance allowed for editorial cartoonists like himself to thrive, Abu devoted the last three decades of his life to keeping politicians on their toes, offering up at least one cartoon per day. His unique minimalist style, coupled with acerbic wit and astute political analysis, make him as relevant today as during the decades in which he lived and worked.

In mid-November 2008, Himal Southasian held a retrospective of selections from Abu Abraham's work from 1966 to 1988. Thanks to  the Prince Claus Fund for its support and to Ayisha and Janaki Abraham for permission to use the cartoons.

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