jolly good laugh. I’m not one of those humourless cheerleaders of humour who insist that we Indians don’t have a sense of humour. We’re just very aware — and if not, then are made to be very aware — that there’s a time and place to crack a joke, 3pm on Thursdays inside your nearest bookshop being that ideal time and place.
SMS jokes about Mohandas or Sonia or any non-secular deity are quite appreciated in private, going by the anecdotal evidence of such quips being exchanged in the textiverse and at dinner parties. But it’s a no-no to make these cracks in public fora, by which I mean spaces such as Ficci gatherings and newspaper middles — essentially anywhere where any self-appointed guardian of Good Taste© or loyalist of the protagonist of the joke may be lurking with a swatter. After all, it’s one thing for you to know that you are the product of your parents’ sexual congress, and quite another for them to tell you so. In this world of selective joke-telling and hyper-compartmentalised utterings of subversion and ridicule, there is a thick line dividing the private and the public.
It’s this thick line that gets frequently muddied, if not washed away, on social media platforms where the feel of a Facebook update or a Tweet or a blog is as intimate as a college canteen huddle, while it’s actually as public as Lok Sabha TV. So you share that nasty joke about Nitin Gadkari and his visit to the enema parlour with your Facebook friends. (If it wasn’t intimate, they would have been called ‘Facebook contacts’, right? Wrong!) But you don’t share it even at a Jantar Mantar soiree lest the wisecrack be construed as yet another sign of Arvind Kejriwal’s dastardly plans to steal all our firstborns and take over the world.
Suddenly, busybodies — and increasingly, it’s been bounty-hunting journos — have been getting bothered by fake PMO Twitter handles or cartoon depictions of politicians on the internet. Which then leads all of us to four experts and an anchor taking yet another prime-time stab on national television at that question: does India lack a sense of humour?
But what has irony and satire got to do with private-public humour and the discreet charm of even our liberal class being concerned about the ‘silly things’ on the internet and other mass communication devices? I’m not talking about the ditchwater of incendiary material on websites, Twitter pages, blogs etc that provide mill to the grist of psychos who should have been sedated by Ekta Kapoor serials anyway. I’m talking about the baby of satirical and rude content, of which thankfully there is plenty in zones where table manners don’t apply.
Irony and satire can be — and has been — used as choice ingredients for cooking potent opinions. Most of them aren’t ‘tasteful’ because ridicule isn’t supposed to be tasteful. But the fact is that not too many folks care to spot irony and satire even if the two were go-go dancing with ‘Irony’ and ‘Satire’ neon-embroidered on to their t-shirts.
So when these folks say that they don’t find an ironic or sarcastic observation funny at all but downright offensive — for instance, the rhetorical query of ‘How many mullahs does it take to change a lightbulb?’ — they really don’t ‘get’ the joke. They, poor things, are just left staring at something that’s in ‘very poor taste’. “‘Khushwant Jokes’, ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine’ in Reader’s Digest... now that’s what I call humour,” goes the general Gymkhana refrain from the wit-fitted. For pig-sticking purposes, however, such humour is ineffective as it doesn’t bother anyone.
Which is what the general character of the nation — not readily reflected in the public-private spaces of text messages, Facebook and Twitter insta-opinions — boils down to: a place where the ideal state of being is to not bother or be bothered by anyone. This sounds rather heavenly until you realise this also includes not bothering crooks, and experts in incompetence.
So while our favourite prophylactic, the Government of India Holding Co., considers taking frantic actions against deviants on the social media, the social media itself, and furry small creatures with massive front teeth that scurry up and down the electronic sewers across the nation, a large proportion of educated Indians are hoping for the official eradication of irony, nuanced thinking and satire in the public space.
Why else are so many rude jokes about holier-than-cows and the powers-that-be tolerated and enjoyed at gupshups, but become a dangerously devilish, nation-corrupting thing when they’re bandied about on our phones and our computers? That not everyone ‘gets’ bothersome satire isn’t good enough a reason to stop its circulation.