It’s the perfect summer in London. Warm and sunny, the grass at Wimbledon is singing and the economy steadily rising. Even the Scottish referendum in September holds out little threat. Most people believe Great Britain will remain intact.
Consequently, the summer of 2014 is a glorious moment to catch Blighty at its best. I’ve just spent a week, which is far too short for a holiday but more than enough to appreciate the qualities of this sceptred isle. This Sunday morning I want to write about one in particular and why I dearly wish we had it too!
The British have the most wonderful sense of humour. It’s both funny — peculiar as well as funny — ha ha. That is to say it spans wit and satire alongside ribaldry, pranks and silly jokes. The nicest part is that they laugh at themselves.
There is nothing the British cherish they will not also mock. A play called Handbagged deliciously illustrates this. It’s the story of the relationship between Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister and the longest-serving in the last century, and The Queen and it doesn’t hesitate to send them both up.
How different we in India are! We laugh at others but never at ourselves. The British have a sense of humour. We have a sense of self-importance. In fact, let’s be honest, we’re full of self-righteousness.
The Queen, as monarch, is both the epitome and the symbol of Britishness. Yet her subjects frequently parody her accent, her manners and her clothes. And she wouldn’t have it otherwise. For she knows that in such humour lies true affection. In contrast, if you joke about an Indian politician you could end up in jail. Our image is so fragile it can’t take a little good-natured mockery.
If you’re not convinced, let me offer another example. The Brits love their flag as much as we do. What’s undeniable is that theirs is older, its history richer and it has represented their Kingdom for longer. Yet you can buy underpants and socks with the Union Jack all over them in Piccadilly. Tourists love wearing them. No one in Britain objects whilst crafty cockney shopkeepers make a fair amount from such sales.
Now imagine what would happen if the old Tiranga were to be printed on socks and undies sold on Janpath. And think how we would respond if American tourists pranced around wearing them. The RSS wouldn’t be the only people to have a conniption.
The point I’m making is simple. You can laugh at someone and still respect them and love them. You can joke about them or mimic their behaviour without belittling them. Similarly, you can wear the flag as a shirt or boxer shorts without disrespecting it. It’s entirely to do with your attitude and perception.
The opposite is also true. Just because you are silent and stand at stiff attention doesn’t mean you respect the Prime Minister. Just because you bow and scrape doesn’t mean you like him. And no matter how prolific the ceremony that surrounds the national flag, such displays of formality don’t automatically amount to respect. They could be no more than just formality. Respect comes from the inside.
So the next time you visit London spend less time shopping and a little more time observing. There’s a lot we can learn from the Brits if only we would keep our eyes and ears open and our mind free of prejudice.
The views expressed by the author are personal