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Lai leaves lasting humour legacy

Vijendra Kumar
Saturday, January 25, 2014

THE sudden passing away on Tuesday (Jan 21) of Laisiasa Naulumatua, nationally known as Lai, the contributing cartoonist to The Fiji Times, marks the end of a long association between this paper and the talented artist.

I first saw a few of Lai's cartoons in a political party journal some time in the early 1970s when I was a reporter at the Lautoka bureau of The Fiji Times.

These appeared in The Nation, the official organ of the now defunct Alliance Party which was the governing party at the time. I did not know who Lai was but his cartoons left an impression on my mind.

When I was appointed editor in 1975 and moved to Suva, I tried to contact Lai. I wanted to have a regular cartoonist to brighten up the paper. Someone told me that he was a technician at Radio Fiji and his real name was Laisiasa Naulumatua. Soon I was able to track him down. He was in charge of a transmitting station somewhere in the bush near Nasinu and actually lived there in quarters supplied by his employer.

Lai was kind enough to accept my invitation to come over for a chat and one afternoon he turned up at my office.

The slightly-built man with a pencil-thin moustache and thinning hair was just the sort of person who would be either an artist or, as it turned out in his case, a pretty good cartoonist.

I found his affable manner infectious and we easily established not only a good working relationship but also a lasting friendship.

We agreed Lai would provide us with a cartoon every week for publication in our Saturday edition. He would have complete freedom to choose the subject that he wished to comment upon. And that's how it pretty much worked, although occasionally I would make a few suggestions.

He had no real interest in any payment but was happy that he now had an opportunity to pursue his hobby. However, I decided to pay him $F30 per cartoon. This was not a princely amount and Lai never cared how much we paid him. In later years, I think the amount was gradually increased. And so began Lai's long association with The Fiji Times.

Every Friday afternoon without fail, Lai would drive up in his battered old station wagon to drop his cartoon. He would stay around for a chat and we would discuss issues related to his week's subject.

Lai had a sharp intellect and his political antenna was always alert to unfolding issues. The artist in him easily perceived an angle that pointedly summed up the picture.

Unlike some political cartoonists, Lai's work seldom ridiculed or scandalised his targets. There was no venom or savagery in his caricatures. His weapon was humour. He made us laugh at the follies and foibles of our politicians. He could find a lighter side to even serious political or social problems.

Lai contributed hundreds of cartoons to The Fiji Times during the past 40-odd years and it is difficult to single out his best work. But I can pick two or three that stand out in my memory.

One titled A Bear in the Pacific shows a giant bear strumming a guitar, serenading a trio of Pacific Island leaders including the late Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. While these leaders are enjoying the music, standing in the corner are the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Robert Muldoon, looking not the least amused.

This cartoon captures the essence of the Russian overtures to the island leaders in the 1970s, much to the consternation of their bigger neighbours, Australia and New Zealand.

Another cartoon has a touch of genius. This one neatly sums up the political turmoil of April 1977 when the National Federation Party won an unlikely election victory but was denied the right to form a government. Instead, the Governor-General, Ratu Sir George Cakobau, invited the defeated incumbent, Ratu Sir Kaimisese Mara, to form a minority government.

Lai shows Ratu Mara steaming away at the helm of the "ship of state" while Siddiq Koya, the NFP leader and the hopeful prime minister, is left stranded on the jetty, tearing his hair off.

A word about the mascot in Lai's cartoons. Not many readers noticed the presence of a cat or kitten in an obscure part of the artwork. Its reaction to the event portrayed in the picture was probably reflective of Lai's own sentiment. I felt the cat or the kitten was an extension of his persona, silently commenting on the stupidity of humankind.

A former Fiji Times journalist, Seona Smiles, two years ago made an effort to compile a book containing some of Lai's best cartoons.

Unfortunately, this was not published because of lack of financial support. The Fiji Times should consider publishing it as a memorial to one of its most gifted contributors. The material is, I understand, ready for printing and Seona will no doubt be happy to see her effort does not go to waste.

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