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Being funny is hard. Being funny in India is harder. Being funny in India with provisions like Section 66A of the IT act is hardest. Justice Katju’s effortless hilarity is special. Rest of us in the 90 per cent struggle.
Why is it hard being funny in India? Is it because we are a depressed people? We have reason to be. Are we too embarrassed to smile because of our teeth? God (or Katju, if you’re a true believer) knows 90 per cent of Indians have very little grey matter between their ears and too much between their teeth. Legacy of the Raj, you say? Perhaps, but the British plaque has given way to American trophies like the FDI and the civil nuke deal thanks to Bush-loving Manmohan Singh. Not only would most Indians never make the cover of Dentistry Today magazine (except as a potential unflossed market), but most of our smiling faces would never be picked for a Colgate commercial. Manmohan Singh’s might (not that Coalgate, I’m talking Colgate!) but can’t say for sure because I’ve never seen his teeth. Seriously. If you have, tweet a picture. So will we never laugh or even smile at jokes, revealing pearly whites, until the UPA includes in its schemes a Right to Orthodontists?
It’s not just our teeth; we lack bite because we are a deeply reverential people. Reverence crossing into servility. And the problem with humour is that it suggests equality. A joke, a dig, a gag positions the wit and the subject as equals. No place for that where reverence and hierarchy rule. A hierarchy that is not just functional in a professional set-up but internalised, where rights, dignity and humour are functions of that hierarchy.
Remember the popular uncle when we were kids? The indulgent one who shared jokes with nieces and nephews? Popular because he acknowledged us as people, not irritating ambience. Treated us as equals and allowed us the same. Made jokes with us. At us. Allowed us to mock him. Now don’t go and try this to get popular with your nieces and nephews. Maybe you’re unpopular because you’re annoying and boring. You’ll just burden the little darlings.
Picture this. Two men, mid-thirties, sitting on a park bench. A little child walking a frolicking dog, leash gets tangled in the kid’s legs. Dog bolts, child falls. Men on bench laugh. Mean. Picture this. Old retired 70-year-old with the same frisky dog. Uncle/aunty fall. Men laugh. Incorrigible bastards. Scenario 3. Man, mid-thirties, walking the same stupid dog. Same routine. Man falls. Men on bench laugh. Man laughs with them, dusting off the grass from his pants. Not so bad huh? Power dynamic is even.
Humour is for equals. If you make a joke at someone less privileged, weak, insignificant, then you’re an obnoxious brute (which some of you may be anyway but then it would be established with certainty). If you laugh at jest aimed at someone higher, senior, important, older then you’re an insolent ass (which the rest of you may be but then it would be established with certainty).
Reverence and hierarchy of power, caste, gender, age and most importantly class ensure you won’t share a joke with the other. We all know our place and limits. Humour disturbs that house of cards.
A joke was aimed at an old senior leader. Not N.D. Tiwari. This one was still relevant. He was on top of the hierarchy chain. “Is it nice to make fun of such a senior person?” they said. Sure, if it has a great punchline, I thought, but I suppressed it. He fell sick. There’s no way I could have made a joke when he was old and sick. Time passed, the joke rumbled like gas that’s stifled. Protesting to break free. I waited. He died. Time enough passed for an ethnic group’s tragedy to become political history. The joke broke free and I blurted it out like a burp you can’t contain. “Is it nice to make fun of the dead?” they said. But, but the joke isn’t because he’s dead. I’m making a joke and he just happens to be dead. I tried when he was alive and it didn’t work then either. I’d thought it up way before he was even ill. Promise! Never mind. They’re not listening.
When the Italian marines row erupted, imagine the cabinet sitting hours on end trying to find a way out of the crisis. Imagine the marathon meeting breaking for lunch and Shinde trying to lighten the mood with “Of all the countries in the world, the marines had to be from... ha! ha!” You think Sonia would chuckle? No. I picture Shakaal’s den, the floor from under Shinde opening. A splash as he plunges into the tank. Sharks get lunch. Silence. Sound of crickets.
It’s everywhere. True story. Janlokpal agitation. Ramlila grounds. 13th day of Anna’s fast. Doctors worried. Concern bordering on panic in the volunteers tent. Everyone pleading. Please eat. Anna unmoved. All hoping something gives. Good news from the government. There will be a joint committee. Anna satisfied. Will break fast. A collective sigh of relief. High fives. Fists in the air. Slogans. Celebratory mood. Someone shouts “Juice lao”. I suggest, “Isi khushi mein daaru party!” Silence. Sound of crickets.
Abhinandan Sekhri is a TV satirist-turned-co-founder of the media website Newslaundry.com