Thursday, April 28, 2016

An Unparallelled Talent

The great Malayali cartoonist Toms passed away on April 27, at the age of 87. I had the opportunity to meet him at his home in Kottayam a few years ago to hear his life story

By Shevlin Sebastian

A huge loss of crop his family in Kuttanad suffered in the monsoon deluge that year was what brought young Toms to the nearest coastal town: Alappuzha. There, the affected farmers were being given compensation, and writer N P Chellapan Nair was the special officer on duty. But Nair had yet to arrive.

Toms noticed some people waiting under a tree. This included one of Tom’s former classmates, Eashwara Pillai. “He knew I had sent cartoons to newspapers and got rejected. Just to pull my leg, he asked me ‘What’s happened to all your drawings?’”

Tom replied that talent apart, one had to have godfathers in newspaper offices. “Only then can our creations appear in print. I’m just incapable of mollycoddling them.”

Standing under a nearby tree was a thin man holding an umbrella. “After a while, he came up to me and said, ‘I heard you abusing newspaper people. You write poetry?’”

“No, I do cartoons…very good ones,” said Toms. “But nobody gives me the chance.”

The man said, “I will give you an address and you can send the cartoons there.”

Then he took out a pen and wrote, ‘Varghese Kalathil, Editor, Malayala Manorama, Kottayam.’ At which, Toms said, “Who are you to tell me this?”

In a low voice, the man said, “You can call me Varghese Kalathil.” He was himself the editor of the Manorama Weekly, and had come to Alappuzha to collect an article from Chellapan Nair.

That was how Toms’ cartoon got into the weekly. Soon he was given a regular column. For the next 30 years he contributed to the Malayala Manorama weekly; in 1961, he had become a staffer. And his cartoons revolved around the antics of Boban and Molly.

The ten-year-old twins in the cartoon, in fact, lived near Tom’s house and would go through his garden because it was a shortcut. One day, he befriended them. Inside Tom’s room, they saw a lot of drawings lying around. The twins became regulars at his place, and one day Molly said, “Can you draw me?”

Tom told her to sit down, and did a sketch. “She liked it a lot… Later her classmates appreciated it too.”

This made Boban jealous. Now, he too asked Tom to do a drawing of his. “I did it,” Toms says. “Thereafter, instead of drawing animals, I started drawing the faces of these two and their little antics.”

This strip, ‘Bobanum Molliyum’, became immensely popular and captured the imagination of Malayalis everywhere. “Manorama made me what I am,” he says.

When he retired in 1987, Toms brought out a book on Boban and Molly. The veteran cartoonist then started Toms Publications which continues to bring out Bobanum Molliyum (circulation: 1.5 lakh), Unni Kuttan, Mandoos and Tom’s Chitra Katha.

Asked the secret of his long career, Tom said, “Hard work and passion for the job. I also do a lot of reading and travelling.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India)

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