India

Charlie Hebdo: Recalling a day at the magazine

Vishwajyoti Ghosh's drawing of Tignous Image copyright Vishwajyoti Ghosh

Indian cartoonist Vishwajyoti Ghosh, who was friends with some of the Charlie Hebdo staff killed in Wednesday's attack, remembers a memorable day with courageous artists at the offices of the French satirical magazine.

A big round table, a generous spread of white paper and a few black markers - this was the first frame etched in my memory as I stepped into the newsroom of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

The editorial meeting was under way early in the morning. Some of the artists had arrived, some were on their way. Ideation had begun.

As the cartoonists began thinking aloud, the editor stood by the white board noting ideas and themes for the coming edition.

So this is how it works, I said to myself, a 12-pager with only political cartoons, strips and a small editorial.

As the meeting progressed, more ideas and jokes were tossed back and forth across the table. Some of the cartoonists had already begun their day, now doodling furiously.

My friend Tignous rushed in, much like the boy who lives nearest to the school and eventually turns up last.

A quick look at the white board, the themes somewhat ringing a bell. Then the arms were out and black sketch pen was now committed to paper.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Those killed (from left) include economist Bernard Maris, prominent cartoonists Wolinski and Cabu, Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier and cartoonist Bernard 'Tignous' Verlhac

I was in France on an artist's residency at the time and had met Tignous through a friend.

It was 2004, the World Social Forum was happening in Mumbai and some of Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists were on their way there to cover the event.

Tignous introduced me, the cartoonist from India, and everyone looked up, hoping I might have something to say about the World Social Forum or France's latest intellectual fancy for Arundhati Roy. The Booker-winning Indian author had delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne about the Iraq war a few months earlier.

I smiled. I was introduced to the man next to me, Cabu. He had travelled to India too and had published a book of cartoons on India.

We chatted, talked about cities we had travelled to and the absurdities cartoonists often discover, if not look for.

By now, the paper's mandate was evident. Irreverence, care a damn and, most importantly, ridicule-the-ridiculous. Spare no one.

At the time a school girl had been barred from wearing a hijab (veil) to school in France and the controversy had grabbed the headlines.

The entire nation was debating the story - and the cartoonists were drawing, poking at both sides of the debate.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Wednesday's deadly attack killed 12 people

Looking through many issues of the paper it was clear that no one would be spared - the god men, the institutions, the homophobes, religions and, of course, neither would Nicholas Sarkozy who was then pulling the strings as France's interior minister.

So here they were, a bunch of France's leading cartoonists vigorously expressing, ranting and laughing with their black markers.

In no time the cartoons were finding their way to the display board from where the best would make it to the paper.

The editor and the senior staff would have a word and discuss the pieces and then long debates would follow. Highly democratic and typically French.

After some time, Cabu turned to me and said: "Why don't you draw and put them up? Let's see if your humour's French enough." I smiled and drew a few things - whether they were French enough I never found out although they were all very welcoming.

Tignous and I became very good friends over time despite not speaking each other's language.

His wife, being the translator, was often caught in the crossfire of translating our ridiculous jokes and digs.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption AFP staff held up "I am Charlie" placards at the French news agency's Hong Kong office

A few years later I joined them at the Calcutta Book Fair where France was the guest country.

Along with other French cartoonists, our brief was simple - to bring out a daily tabloid about the city and the book fair, in cartoons.

The city fascinated him - the traffic, the honking taxis, the coffee house meetings and the filter-less Charminar cigarettes. Each of these came under his pen, the lines spontaneous and the humour erratic.

The conference room at the Alliance Francaise in the city was soon transformed much along the lines of Charlie Hebdo's editorial room. A bunch of creators, who loved having fun while making fun.

The charmed life of a cartoonist, did I think? For those men who ridiculed everything have now ridiculed death too, through their black markers permanently committed to their ideas of expression on white paper.

In times when the political cartoon becomes the easiest threat for the intolerant, the markers have the spirit in the ink to draw, critique, rant and ridicule.

We may agree or disagree with their politics, but I believe a thousand Charlie Hebdos are here to stay and make us laugh, think, hurt, debate and then laugh again.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh is a cartoonist/ graphic novelist based in Delhi