May the joke always be on us

By Jug Suraiya


JUGWhen Khushwant Singh was editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, the publication sold more copies than ever before or after. One of the secrets of his success was a series of articles he commissioned on the various communities – the Punjabis, the Gujaratis, the Bengalis, et al – who go to make up the many-hued mosaic of the republic.


The series, which highlighted the foibles of each community, proved once again that what Indians most like to talk about, and joke about, are other Indians. If we all joke about each other we are laughing not at each other, but with each other. And who better than an eminent sardarji famous, among other things, for his Santa-Banta jokes to champion such a comedic camaraderie?


Being what might be called a professional joker, I’m often asked by po-faced interlocutors whether Indians have a sense of humour. A serious question to which I give the most serious answer I can think of. Which is that if we Indians don’t have a sense of humour, we’d better go and get ourselves one. Because it’s only a sense of humour which will enable so many people, of so many different castes, and creeds, and convictions to all live together and collectively call ourselves Indian.


Much more than officially approved mantras like ‘Unity in diversity’ it is the decidedly unofficial, and often politically incorrect, ethnic joke that helps to keep us together in the great fraternity of laughter.


It is a fraternity which today is more endangered than it has ever been, threatened by a surging tide of intolerance represented by regional and religious chauvinism, which often takes violent form. Intolerance – the greatest enemy of the fellowship of laughter – has many ugly faces, be it those of the racists who assault people from the northeast living in Delhi, or of Raj Thackeray’s goons who go on the rampage against ‘outsiders’ from Bihar, or of the bigots who intimidate publishers to withdraw from the market books which take a less than reverent view of Hindus and Hinduism.


If intolerance is the greatest enemy of laughter, laughter is the most effective antidote against intolerance. As Freud almost put it, the first person to hurl a quip instead of a stone at his adversary was the inventor of civilisation. Humour is the substitute stone without which no society worth its name can exist.


In his ponderous – and decidedly unfunny – treatise on the subject, Henri Bergson calls laughter “a social gesture”. Without using the term, he tends to liken the effect of laughter to what the ancient Greeks in the context of tragedy called catharsis: the purging of the negative emotions of hate and fear through the witnessing of tragic drama.


By juxtaposing opposites – the fat man and the thin man; the clever mouse and the stupid cat – humour reconciles polarities, not by ignoring them but by highlighting them to the level of absurdity and creating a mechanism for conflict resolution. By an extension of such logic, the more pluralist a society – the more varied the individuals it can accommodate – the richer must be its fund of ethnic humour.


Why are Sikhs the butt of so many jokes in India, with the Sikhs themselves – like Khushwant – cracking ‘surdee’ jokes with the greatest gusto? With their willingness to go anywhere and undertake anything (Remember the cartoon of Americans landing on the moon to discover a sardarji has set up a dhaba there?) Sikhs could represent potential competition on the employment market to local populations, in much the same way as the Irish, and latterly, the Poles and other East Europeans do in Britain. Such perceived ‘threats’ are rendered harmless by turning them into amiable clowns, with not much in the brains department.


The business-savvy Gujarati – exemplified by the resident of Antilia, the world’s most opulent private residence – is cut down to laughable size for his supposed fondness for eating ‘snakes’ between meals, and those who would shake hands with the canny Sindhi are advised to count their fingers after doing so.


The pushy Punjabi is put in his place by having it said of him that he has no culture except agriculture, and the intellectually snooty Bengali has his nose put out of joint by being parodied for his passion for ‘pheesh’ (fish) and ‘phootbaal’ (football) and the proclivity to burst into ‘Robindrosongeet’ without provocation. The ‘Mallu’ – the Sikh of the south, who’ll go anyway, work at anything – is lampooned for his spelling out of the word ‘banana’: Bee-yay-yen-yay-yen-yay’.


In all these cases, laughter is a left-handed compliment. We laugh at people whom we suspect can out-rival us in getting jobs, or making money, or being socially assertive, or showing off their cultural credentials.


Laughter whose subject is the underdog is cruel; laughter aimed at a self-proclaimed topdog is admirable – and is deemed to be so not least by the one who is the subject of such humour. If I’m worth making jokes about, I must be doing something right.


So, to rephrase that old national integration chestnut, the next time you see a snake and a Sindhi, please don’t kill either of them. Instead make up in a new joke about snakes and Sindhis – or whatever and whoever you like – and send it to be published as a Letter to the Editor in Open. It’ll help to show that, against all odds, India can still have the last laugh on – what else? – us Indians ourselves.

Jug Suraiya

Jug Suraiya

Jug Suraiya, writer and columnist, is the author of several books, the latest being JS & The Times of my life, a worm's-eye view of Indian journalism.