The scene is an editor's office complete with computer, phone and cluttered table. But sitting at the desk is a soldier in camouflage fatigues scribbling away. The sign on the door says: 'Editor-in-chief: In'.
Numerous editorials have been written about the loss of press freedom after February First. Columnists have heaped scorn at the curbs. But that one illustration by Nepal's best-known cartoonist, Batsayan, said it most eloquently of all.
His real name is Durga Baral and the 53-year-old artist lives in Pokhara, which allows him a different perspective on the absurd goings-on in the capital. The developments were ripe for ridicule. But in the fear-filled weeks after February First, Batsayan remembers being not so sure about how far he could go.
"I didn't want the editor to get into trouble just because of me, so I held myself back," he recalls. But when he read the columns of fellow-Kantipur contributor, Khagendra Sangraula and saw what Himal Khabarpatrika was getting away with, he decided to let himself go.
Batsayan's biting post-February cartoons boosted the morale of other editors and cartoonists. Playing cat-and-mouse with the censors, cartoonists started going further and taking more risks than writers. Budhabar cartoonist Basu Kshitij's illustration comparing Bhutan's democracy to Nepal's raised the government's hackles and editor Surya Thapa was summoned to the CDO to explain. Ramesh Bista of Bimarsha Weekly had a cartoon ready to go to press but the military 'guest editor' posted in the newsroom had objections. Bista held his ground and threatened that the space would be left blank, so the censor relented and the cartoon was printed.
Kantipur found two of Batsayan's cartoons too risqu? to print. One of them poked fun at the editors writing absurd editorials on ballet dancing and smelly socks by portraying a newsroom scene in which an editorial was being prepared and titling it, 'Delicious Momos, Possibilities and Challenges'. Uttam Nepal had a series of cartoons poking fun at Ramesh Nath Pandey and Kirti Nidhi Bista but his paper, Rajdhani, said it would be too dicey to print them.
"There has been an offensive to gag us and even my colleagues couldn't digest my cartoons," says Nepal. But cartoonists didn't give up and have been taking the lead in probing the limits of what is permissible. Rabin Sayami has submitted cartoons to Himal Khabarpatrika and Jana Aastha that make readers bite their tongues. One of them on 1 Baisakh was of Tulsi Giri wishing everyone, 'Happy New Year 2017'. This was a reference to the sacking by King Mahendra of BP Koirala's elected government in 1960. Another shows the king and the Maoists playing chess with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh looking over both their shoulders.
Rajesh KC of Kantipur mocked the ban on mobiles with a cartoon of a garbage collector walking the streets with a sack shouting, "Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola" offering to buy the sets by the kilo. Editors admit that part of the reason they have more freedom with articles and commentaries is because the cartoonists kept the door ajar. One of the taboo subjects has always been the depiction of royalty. Even after 1990 and even on Gai Jatra papers, when cartoonists drew prime ministers as naked women, the royalty was strictly out of bounds. But since February First, when the monarch descended to the level of everyday politics, the royalty is not spared. "If the king had remained a constitutional monarch, I guess we wouldn't be drawing him," says Rabin Sayami.
It is not a cartoonist's job to make the subjects of their work happy or sad, says Sayami, and adds that the UML's Madhab Nepal is livid about the way he is depicted as a wimp in cartoons. One favourite of cartoonists is Girija Koirala, the politician almost everybody loves to hate. With his large nose, bad teeth and outsized spectacles, he is a cartoonists' delight and appears on cartoons even when out of power.
If it appears that cartoonists are more critical of the government than the Maoists, it is only because they see that the press is being unnecessarily targeted as a result of the February First move. They wonder why press freedom should be the casualty when the reason for the royal takeover was to crush the Maoists.
Abin Shrestha of Samaya magazine says cartoons need not always be humorous, they can expose misery, double-standards and sadness. He has even drawn cartoons of the terrorist attack on the bus on Madi showing a Maoist crocodile shedding tears, saying: "We are saddened by this incident and like always we promise through this statement that we will take every step necessary to prevent it from happening again."