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Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019

Now is a good time to be a satirist in India. A best-selling author tells you why

One way of looking at this flowering of funny is that the times are bad. Historically, bad times produce the best jokes.

books Updated: Jun 29, 2017 22:41 IST
Shovon Chowdhury
Shovon Chowdhury
People talk about intolerance a lot. But not too many comedians seem to be in jail.
People talk about intolerance a lot. But not too many comedians seem to be in jail.(Shutterstock)

The comical profession is very similar to the medical profession. Doctors have to perform on demand. They cannot say, ‘I’m not feeling very medical this afternoon,’ or ‘It’s Tuesday. On Tuesdays I get sluggish.’ They have to deliver. For people who are trying to be funny, it’s the same. We don’t get to choose the right time. In any case we don’t have a choice. It’s a form of compulsion, driven by the belief that there is no such thing as the wrong time for a joke, although Happy Hours do make everything funnier.

Nevertheless, like sailors and investors in SEZs, we are always grateful for favourable conditions. The nation has currently been seeing a prolonged period of favourable conditions. This comedy bull run started when Rahul Gandhi discovered politics, and received further stimulus from Uncle Manny, who may or may not have been replaced by a waxwork from Madame Tussaud’s, around mid way through his second term. If you observe videos from the time closely, there is hardly any movement, except occasionally for his lips, along with some mild blinking. This can be achieved simply through animatronics. I can further strengthen this theory by pointing out that the cameras never showed him from the back.

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandh at an event in New Delhi.
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandh at an event in New Delhi. ( PTI )

This was also an era of extreme and very heartfelt sycophancy, which is always entertaining. It began with grey-haired Congress veterans spending an entire day weeping and moaning in parliament, begging Sonia Gandhi to become the prime minister. She respectfully declined and gave us Uncle Manny instead. Subsequently, all government policy for over a decade was dictated by one simple rule, which was, ‘Please help my bambino, Rahul.’ The nation watched in awe as he stumbled through Dalit sleepovers, beehives and Jupiter, and through it all, he was worshipped. Salman Khurshid even promised to give his life for him, but sadly, he did not keep his word.

By any yardstick, RaGa was a gift to comedy, and his supporting cast wasn’t bad either. Kapil Sibal wrote poetry. ND Tiwari proved to be surprisingly active. Robert Vadra oiled up and posed with motorcycles. It was a golden age for comedy. When the Congress finally lost in a landslide, there were some us who felt a pang of regret. Was this the last we would see of RaGa? Should we not have been more kind to him? Why didn’t we think it through? Who would ever be able to fill the vast, gaping space in our hearts?

When the BJP came to power, we were apprehensive. But over time, we have been reassured. The PM has taken bold steps regarding kurta colour, for example, with shades such as lilac, fuchsia and periwinkle now part of the national discourse. He routinely delivers Independence Day speeches with what appears to be a Banarasi sari on his head. There is also something enduringly comical about a man who admires himself quite as much as he does, and soon we will be treated to the spectacle of government-financed MODI festivals across 120 cities. MODI actually stands for Making Of Developing India, an acronym dreamed up by an enthusiastic officer who is finally justifying all the time and effort that he put into passing the IAS exam. Of course, the Gandhi family has spent decades naming everything after each other, because no one else was really worthy, so we could call this one a draw. Either way, comedy wins.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Red Fort on the 70th Independence Day.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Red Fort on the 70th Independence Day. ( HT Photo )

Meanwhile, the RSS is conducting experiments with cow urine and testing techniques to avoid the birth of short, dark children. There was a bit of a setback when they gave up khaki knickers, which was a monumental loss for comedy. However, we still have our memories, and the ability to Google ‘Nitin Gadkari khaki shorts’ whenever we feel like. Viewer discretion is advised.

One way of looking at this flowering of funny is that the times are bad. Historically, bad times produce the best jokes. The late period Soviets were excellent. (Man standing in queue for vodka for hours says, ‘OK, that’s enough, I’m off to shoot Gorbachev.’ Returns, shortly, gets back in line. ‘How did it go?’ the others ask. ‘The line there was even longer than here.’ he says.) The Jews have been persecuted for millennia, and no one is funnier than them. Their jokes are driven by suffering (’My grandmother never got me many gifts. She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.’) and self loathing (’This gold watch is very dear to me. My grandpa sold it to me on his deathbed.’) Terrible ordeals have made them funny. Traditionally this has often been the case.

So while this national flowering of humour is very entertaining, and allows innocent comedians to put bread on the table, it could be a cause for concern. On the other hand, there is the rising tide of nationalism to consider. Could this hamper comedy in the future? People talk about intolerance a lot. Shooting rationalists in the back of the head certainly doesn’t seem to be very tolerant. Ganging up on Murugan wasn’t a very nice thing to do either.

But not too many comedians seem to be in jail. I imagine this must be because of potential embarrassments in court, such as the prosecutor saying, ‘Your Honour, here is Exhibit A, a certificate from Honda of Japan, categorically denying that they have at any point supplied the government of India with a battery operated android designed to resemble Dr Manmohan Singh, nor was there any dispute over the Annual Maintenance Contract, as claimed by the author.’ It looks bad, it demoralises the advocates, and the media would have a field day.

In the world of publishing, some people are yet to realise this. In my last novel, I was forced to change the name Kolkata Knight Riders to Kolkata Light Striders, because I had speculated on what would happen to them if they ever found themselves under Chinese management. It involved an inhuman amount of practice and frequent self-criticism. I begged my editor to reconsider. I asked him about free speech, but he laughed so hard, the coffee came out of his nose, and I could not understand his reply. I was upset at the time, and sulked for weeks, but now I’m more optimistic. This means that I can write an entire novel about how, as a result of a medical experiment gone horribly wrong, defective clones of a tall leader from Maharashtra roam across the land, trying to eat land and pick everyone’s pockets, so long as I call him Sharad Flower. As publishers will soon realise, this too makes court proceedings inherently embarrassing (“The defendant, hereafter referred to as ‘Flower’ ”).

So it looks like the good times for comedy will continue to roll. The RSS is improving our complexions. Rahul Gandhi continues to rule the Congress with an aluminum fist. Arnab has come back to us, and his hair is bitchin’. The material just keeps writing itself. As long as we avoid farragos of misrepresentation, and never, ever make jokes about Amit Shah, everything should be fine.

Shovon Chowdhury’s latest novel, Murder With Bengali Characteristics, was mostly inspired by newspapers.

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First Published: Jun 29, 2017 22:41 IST

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