The world is a funny place; funny as in ‘strange’, not funny as in ‘ha ha’. Although, now that I think about it, the world is a funny place too; funny as in ‘ha ha’, not as in ‘strange’. But if you’re in the joke, it doesn’t always strike you as being funny (both ‘strange’ and ‘ha ha’). Which is why one would have thought that comedy would have been the most celebrated mode of transport in the exploration of human life. And yet, for some reason, the comic form, when dealing with serious things, isn’t taken seriously. Which to my mind is funny; funny as in ‘suspicious’, not funny as in ‘strange’ or ‘ha ha’.
So you can imagine how pleased I was when I heard about Howard Jacobson winning the Booker Prize for his novel, The Finkler Question, a book that deals with, among other extremely serious issues, the question: Is it better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all? All observed with a devastating comic eye.
Comic writing is seen by bushy-browed pundits — not to mention pencil-browed philistines who hang on to every word that bushy-browed pundits say so as to keep up with the latest cultural fashion — as something that by definition is lighthearted, like a cream puff or a pair of boxers or, like Jacobson, journalists writing novels ‘on the side’. Well, it certainly wasn’t always like that. As Jacobson wrote in the Guardian last week, “The novelist at his swelling best — a Dickens or a Dostoevsky, a Cervantes or a Kafka... — goes where Hamlet dares the skull of Yorick to go, straight to my painted lady’s chamber, rattling his bones and making her laugh at the terrible fate that awaits her. His comedy spares nothing and spares no one. And in the process asserts the stubbornness of life.”
The comic writer doesn’t see the world as a place for humorous banter. It’s quite the opposite actually. It’s a vicious place, the banality and terrors of which become obvious when seen in its sheer absurdity. For me, the primal force of the comic lies in one image: a man walking down the road slips on a banana skin and falls. We laugh at his misery. That’s the comic.
The great tragedies are shot through with comic laughter — whether it’s Kafka’s hero being turned into a giant insect and worrying about how to get to office in time, or Stanley Kubrick’s great ‘anti-war’ (?) film, Dr Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. As Quentin Tarantino, a man who knows the dark comic arts, said in an interview, “One of the things that I am trying to do is... to get you to laugh at things that aren’t funny... You might even be asking the question ‘Why am I laughing?’ But you are laughing anyway, so too bad!”
In our solemn way of appreciating good serious writers, we forget that gents like Sadaat Hasan Manto, Manohar Shyam Joshi and even Upamanyu Chatterjee have ploughed this comic field. Instead of trying to conjure up difficult yogic critical postures to make them be seen as unfunny serious writers, it’s time to see them as great serious comic writers. I would add Shibram Chakravorty, a personal favourite, to that list.
Known primarily even among Bengali readers as a writer of stories for kids, Chakravorty’s sense of irony and razor-sharp satire was the hallmark of his short stories and essays for ‘adults’. His Ishwar, Prithibi, Bhalobasha (God, World, Love), replete with searing wit, biting portraits and untrammelled irreverence, is one of the finest modern memoirs in any language. To not ‘recover’ or ‘discover’ Chakravorty as a great, radical modernist simply because he was a comic genius and didn’t go all ‘social realistic’ on us for his works to be considered ‘sahitya’, is a daylight scandal.
As the great capitalist Groucho Marx put it, “Yes, sir, this business of being funny is far too serious. Undertaking is much more the cheerful job of the two.” I’m thankful to Jacobson for winning the Booker and thereby allowing me to get this load off my chest. One more column on some guy’s sensibilities getting hurt because of someone cracking a ‘thoughtless’ joke and I would have slit my wrists. Which in turn would have made writing such a pain.