Dead serious

What's so funny? Dour and touchy, Indians are quick to take offence and often find it hard to see humour in a situation. If only the British had left behind, along with a rail network, more of their sense of irony and self-deprecation, says Soumya Bhattacharya. Banned, banished, battered — recent victims of our 'offence culture'

columns Updated: Jan 29, 2012 08:43 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times

At the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2010, the writer Hanif Kureishi participated in an enthralling, irreverent session. He was self-mocking and sardonic in turns. Among other things, he said he couldn't afford to have writer's block because he needed the money he made from his writing to buy booze and drugs for his elder sons and PlayStations for his younger one. Kureishi's talk crackled with throwaway one liners and razor-sharp irony.

Afterwards, during the question-and-answer session, an elderly gentleman stood up. You could see that he disapproved of the road down which Kureishi had gone. It seemed to me that he felt short-changed. Here he was, at a serious literary event (free to all comers, unlike in other parts of the world), and he had been expecting a serious literary lecture. He wanted to talk about issues.

Earnest, unsmiling, he asked: "Sir, what is your view on circumcision? As a Muslim, are you circumcised?"

Kureishi's admirers - among whom this gentleman could safely not be counted - delight in his mordant wit. He is rarely found wanting for words. But the rare occasion had arrived. He looked at his interrogator. He looked at the sea of expectant faces. He paused for a couple of moments.

Then he said: "Blimey. What a country."

Blimey. What a country.

Being dour and humourless (as exemplified in the above incident) is one thing. Having skin as thin as to be porous is another. But who can tell that one is not related to the other?

In December last year, we, as a nation, took offence to Top Gear, a BBC motoring show filmed in India. So severe was our outrage at being slighted and patronised by our former rulers that the Indian High Commission in London officially complained to the BBC. The BBC stood by the show. It said that the show was self-mocking, and the jokes were actually on the presenters. (See below 'Banned...').

Then Jay Leno - an American talk show host who thrives on the kind of satire that is typical of American talk show hosts - upset us earlier this month. Leno riffed on one of the running themes in the US presidential race: the affluence of Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney. He said that the Romney's summer home could be the Golden Temple.

As gags go, it was a good one, and its target was Romney. But the Sikh community was affronted; and a joke threatened to turn into a diplomatic incident. The US said it would always protect the freedom of speech enshrined in the country's constitution, and that the show had only used the licence that satire is allowed. We were not amused.

And while l'affaire Rushdie in Jaipur this year had to do with lots of complex and grave matters - freedom of speech, political machinations, spinelessness, rabble-rousing, cultural regression - it did, initially, have to do with our propensity to take offence, our inability to appreciate wordplay and satire, our grim refusal to be able to laugh, or laugh at ourselves.

We could go back and back, but these are three incidents from the past six weeks. This is proof - as Rushdie said in a different context - of our "humourlessness, our philistinism, our offence culture".

Yes, our offence culture. Somewhere along the way, we have misplaced the ability to spot a joke. Pomposity and earnestness have usurped the cultural space that ought to be occupied by irreverence and humour.

When did we lose sight of our literature? Among our many so-called vernacular languages, I can only read Bengali. I am grateful for what I have been offered in that language by Sukumar Ray, Shibram Chattopadhyay, Narayan Gangopadhyay, Syed Mujtaba Ali, Rajsekhar Bose, and Premendra Mitra, among others. You could tell me of examples in other languages.

They could do comedy, the old masters. They could do satire. When being self-deprecating, they were in their elements. They showed us the profundity and humanity that comedy engenders.

Like Woody Allen (don't merely watch his films; read him if you want to understand what whimsy and being funny at one's own expense is), I don't pump iron, I pump irony.

So I only wish that the British had left behind to a much larger extent than they did, along with their rail network, their sense of humour and understatement, their irony and self-deprecation.

There. I have said it. Call me an Anglophile. Say I am Eurocentric. Try me for treason. You will, I know. I'll barricade my home. I'll hide away from the office (I'll enjoy that; I love getting paid without having to do any work). But I am certain you will find me in the end.

Now I don't believe in the cause of My Cigarette-Paper-Thin Skin Always Takes Offence And I'll Do Anything To Prevent Being Offended. So when you come to get me, I won't go with my head held high like a hero. I'll go cringing and cowering, screaming in terror.

I'm only a twit who loves to laugh at others, and at myself. And I know that there will be no laughter in the place in which you will put me.

Sukumar Ray immortalised that sort of place in his poem, Ramgorurer Chhana. It is the home of the strange creature called the Ramgorur. What is it like? Well, here it is, rendered in Sukanta Chaudhuri's unforgettable translation.

What can I be but petrified?


The Griffonling from birth
Is indisposed to mirth.
To laugh or grin he counts a sin
And shudders, 'Not on earth.'
He's always in a jitter
Lest you should laugh or titter
And peers around at every sound
With visage grim or bitter.
Lest dignity be marred,
He's always on his guard.
'If I should splutter or scream,' he'll mutter,
'My! I'll catch it hard.'
He won't go near the wood
Because he's understood
The tipsy breeze among the trees
May cheer his solemn mood.
And all the skyey vapours
Are merely feckless japers:
They mount the cloud with laughter loud
In swift celestial capers.
When night begins to wake,
In every bush and brake
The dancing gleams of glow-worm beams
In twinkling laughter shake.
The folk whose constant diet
Is thoughtless merry riot.
How can they bear to so impair
The Griffon's peace and quiet?
The Griffon's den lies hidden:
There cheerful thoughts are chidden.
He lines the walls with frowns and brawls
And laughter stands forbidden.

Banned, banished, battered — recent victims of our 'offence culture'

First Published: Jan 28, 2012 23:18 IST