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Why so serious?

So the question’s not: What was Tharoor thinking when he made his ‘holy cows’ comment?! The question is: What was the Congress thinking when it got Tharoor on board?! Didn't anyone read his hilarious book before signing him up? asks Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Sep 19, 2009 23:14 IST
Indrajit Hazra

So we’ve got a funny guy among those Congress psycho fans. And his quips aren’t even that funny — unless, of course, you have a sense of humour that sticks to the common maximum plan: no cracks at party policies, no witty one-liners that can be construed as having a laugh at The Boss, no jokes about potential voters.

My notion of Shashi Tharoor Esq was largely formed in 2007 when he was working on his charm offensive to get the UN Secretary General’s job. Tharoor seemed to go about things as if he was pitching for the school prefectship rather than the head of the UN. He was awash with the kind of heavy-lidded arrogance that I’ve seen in child prodigies after they’ve reached middle-age. (His first story was published when he was six. His first wisecrack must have predated this event.) So he was a polished toff, the kind who pronounces 80 as ‘eight-tay’ and who made no bones about being smart.

Then earlier this year I saw him in his avatar as the Congress nominee from Thiruvananthapuram during the Lok Sabha elections. Well, Tharoor was still wiping the corner of his mouth with his handkerchief, but the voters clearly didn’t have a problem with his poshness. He won by a margin of over 100,000 votes, the biggest in Thiruvananthapuram in over 30 years. Heck, he was the smarter version of Rahul Gandhi, a babalog who was a crossover hit without having to resort to family brand equity.

That itself should explain why Tharoor is now being dragged across the coals for his “Absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!” Twitter comment — after being dragged out of the confines of a 5-star hotel earlier as part of Sonia Gandhi’s ‘garibi hatao’ programme. If someone like Lalu Yadav had cracked this joke, it would have been chortle time. But Tharoor doesn’t do earthy humour and probably clips his ear hair too. In fact, he’s as slick as Volcker oil. So pretty posh boy’s seen as making class-ist fun of the, er, upper middle class who fly economy class in between ploughing the land and working in factories.

But hang on.

Was it Tharoor’s use of the term ‘cattle class’ that’s really set aam aurats like Jayanti ‘Knock, knock. Who’s there? Austerity. Austerity who? Austerity Powers. Oh groovy baby, yeah!’ Natarajan to want to pluck the funny man’s legendary eyelashes out?

Methinks the rub lies in the ‘holy cows’ bit. The second half of his reply — “...out of solidarity with all our holy cows” — points to those who started this whole austerity shindig. If being jokingly critical of one’s party line is unfunny, having a dig at the Self-Righteous Ones is in the same league as cracking Holocaust jokes at a bar mitzvah party. Rahul Gandhi with a dimpled smile will get away with a line like that. Not Shashi Tharoor with his cleft on his chin.

But apart from the UN Tharoor and the Congress minister Tharoor, there’s another Tharoor. Some years ago, I had met the novelist Tharoor at a literary event where we briefly chatted about the virtues of ‘black comedy’. He struck me as someone who knew the wisdom in satirist P.J. O’Rourke's words: “Humour is, by its nature, more truthful than factual.”

In The Great Indian Novel, Tharoor wrote a thinly veiled history of India based on the Mahabharata. This 1989 classic not only satirises Congress leaders as the Kauravas, but also portrays Nehru as Dhritarashtra, has ‘Gangaji’ go on a ‘Great Mango March’, and shows Indira Gandhi as Priya Duryodhani, daughter of Dhritarasthtra (Nehru) and leader of the Kauravas (Congress).

Twenty years after the novel’s publication, its author joins the Kaurava Party and is made a minister.

So the question’s not: What was Tharoor thinking when he made his ‘holy cows’ comment?! The question is: What was the Congress thinking when it got Tharoor on board?! Didn't anyone read his hilarious book before signing him up?