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Devangshu Datta: Fanfare for Common Man


Devangshu Datta  |  New Delhi 

For many years, R K Laxman had a cent-per-cent record in nailing major market moments. Even more than the wriggly ladies, Laxman was the key reason I looked at the paper he graced.

He rarely remarked on stock markets or the macro-economy. The Common Man doesn’t track the fisc or possess a stock portfolio. One doubts that Laxman himself has much market exposure. Yet, through the 1990s and early 2000s, he was right on the dot with his market calls.

Think back to those tumultuous times. The BOP crisis. Dr Manmohan Singh announces the New Economic Policy. Harshadbhai thunders, “I’m Long on India”. The Scam unfolds. The KP Scam unfolds.

Each time, a classic Laxman “pocket” appeared within a fortnight, this way or that, featuring the usual combination of pithy one-liner and bemused Common Man confronted with bulls, bears and scamsters. His timing was uncanny.

He was brilliant at market timing precisely because he was utterly disinterested in stock markets. Others tracked prices and calculated operating margins, PE ratios and capital asset pricing models. They drowned themselves in random noise.

The market entered Laxman’s consciousness only when it featured in mainstream media (MSM) headlines and drawing room conversations in what was called “south Bombay” in his heyday. When he “tooned” market themes, something extraordinary was happening.

Of course I loved his far more frequent takes on socio-political themes. I have often felt that he was among the most feared members of the press because he could have turned anybody or any policy into a laughing stock.

I remember his post-Budget vision of a tattered, ragged beggar with a garland standing under a sign that says, “The nation salutes the honest tax-payer.” That was in The Illustrated Weekly when Mrs G Senior raised the income tax rate to 98 per cent.

Unfortunately, even Laxman’s presence wasn’t enough for me to continue with my daily ritual of passing the paper onto the raddi-wallah after that one brief moment of homage. For a while, I continued to take it because I was rearing kittens — it was absorbent and useful for little misunderstandings during the house-breaking phase. Once the cats became civilised, I stepped aside from that value-chain.

I still do check out the e-paper but it has an irritating interface which requires about five clicks to reach “You Said It”. Also it’s obvious that the master’s hand is shaky and maybe, the power of observation has dimmed.

Laxman is top of the mind today for several reasons. He celebrated his 84th birthday on October 23, and that led to many retrospective slideshows on the Net. Also the stock market is up there in the headlines as it has been, for weeks. One is waiting for his take.

Perhaps it is simply not possible for him to time so accurately anymore. The markets feature day in, day out, on front pages and on news-channel headlines. The bright young things with accessorised MBAs who analyse reader preferences, know that it sells. Less than 5 per cent of household savings are invested in equity but it would take a hermit to ignore the noise the market generates on a continuous basis.

One day, one knows the Common Man must go the way of all flesh. But I fervently hope that it is a long time hence. Then it will be time to fall back with a heavy sigh on PE ratios, bond yields, company guidances, commodity prices, and other arcana. But until that bleak morning dawns, I’ll keep clicking through to the advisories of the best market forecaster India has ever had. If the Hinglish in the rest of the paper was less high-falutin, I might even aspire to read it.

First Published: Sat, October 25 2008. 00:00 IST