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All chip, no shoulder

india Updated: Jan 24, 2010 01:31 IST
Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Hindustan Times
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Last year, I became involved with a white woman. Friends of mine, from Bandra to Defence Colony, began congratulating me on my “achievement.” “Well done yaar,” they said, “How did you pull it off?”

It was pathetic. I wondered if the whites were congratulating my girlfriend about landing a brown man. Silly as the whole affair was, it revealed to me the deep sense of inferiority that runs through our middle class.

Indians have a precarious sense of self. That, coupled with the fact that 80 per cent of our population has amoebic cysts in their brains, renders us the most humourless people to inhabit this planet.

We are a nation of cranks, constantly running scared of ourselves. Anything from lingerie to a painting can get our goat. We whine, we sulk, we vandalise. We feel persecuted all the time. We are permanently upset. We are all chip and no shoulder.

Is it any wonder, then, that we have never learnt to laugh at ourselves? We turn humans into idols, install them in temples, erect barbwire fences; if you attempt to scale the wall you will only end up hurting yourself on a jagged piece of glass.

Which is why no one dares scale the wall. Our stand-up comedy, for instance, is hideously obsequious. Instead of pulling an icon’s pants down, the Indian stand-up seeks his blessings. Raju Srivastava regularly touches Amitji’s feet on national TV, “Sir, aap ki nakal karte karte main yahaan tak pahunch gaya. Sab aap hi ki kripa hai.”

Elsewhere, it is the job of the stand-up to walk around with a stack of pins and burst as many balloons as she can find. Every balloon is equal. No one is spared. Here, stand-up comedy is reduced to mere mimicry, imitating the mannerisms of a famous personality or spouting a well-known Bollywood dialogue. There are no gags. You never pull the rug from under anyone’s feet.

Contrast this with America in the 1950s. In a famous piece called ‘Frank Sinatra has a Cold’, Gay Talese writes about Sinatra and his cronies going to see a stand-up comic called Don Rickles. Rickles goes for him the moment he spots him, calling Sinatra a washed-up singer. He then picks on one of his sidekicks, Jilly: “How’s it feel to be Frank’s tractor? Yeah, Jilly keeps walking in front of Frank clearing the way.” Later, when Sinatra gets up to leave, Rickles flies at him again, “Shaddup and sit down. I’ve had to listen to you sing…” Sinatra loves it. Dean Martin, also in the audience, loves it so much he pours a bottle of whisky on his own head, and begins pounding the table like a madman.

Humour of this kind is unimaginable in 21st century India. Which is odd because we have had a long tradition of questioning our beliefs and sending up our holy cows, from the Carvaka philosophers onwards down to Kabir.

While the mainstream remains where it was sixty-three years ago, there is, however, for the first time, a new rumbling in the Indian underground. Young bands are putting out songs on the Internet that take on everything from our squeamishness about sex to joint families and religious tradition. Shor Bazaar’s ‘Savita Bhabhi’ goes, “Yehan ka tu native/ Society conservative! Aise in halaat mein/…Best to go online/Leke apne haath mein.” Another song called ‘Katil Sardar’ sends up the family. Referring to his two sons, the protagonist sings, “Pados de pind vich jake/ Apni maasi di kudiya nu f-karke ande si”, as well as the langar: “Tussi utthe aao/ Dus cup chai de piyo/ Te das saal da dope the langar free le jao.”)

Sanjay Rajoura, a rookie stand-up comic from Delhi, also belongs to this new breed of audacious young Indians who are willing to rip apart everything from Americans to themselves. It’s a clear and present sign that this generation is gaining in self-confidence and is slightly more secure of its place in the world than previous ones.

Rajoura’s favourite gag is about Jats, “I am a Jat. Let me tell you something about Jats. One-third of my community is in the police, one-third are DTC bus conductors and the rest are criminals.” I saw Rajoura at the Habitat Centre. The kids in the audience loved him but he managed to offend the fuddy-duddies, one of who stood up and boomed, “Let me tell you, young man, that the maximum number of gallantry awards every year go to Jats.” The old man might have missed the point completely. But the young man is certainly onto something. He has learnt to make fun of himself.

And in that gap between generations lies an inkling of hope. Maybe, just maybe, we will learn to laugh again.

(The writer is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of Recess: The Penguin Book of Schooldays.)