The comic front

From life’s armoury, picking up a sense of humour and using a liberal dose of laughter can be wondrous, writes Gautham Machaiah

Highlights: 
Along with humour, we have also lost the art of being subtle. Often, even the harshest of words can be sugar-coated to send the message across without hurting anybody’s sentiments.

When former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev visited India, he was taken for a drive early morning by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. On the way, Brezhnev observed a row of people sitting by the roadside and wondered what they were up to. Nehru replied, “They are Indians answering the call of nature.” A few months later, Nehru visited Russia and while driving down with Brezhnev, they noticed a man defecating by the roadside. The Soviet leader immediately ordered his guard to shoot the man dead. When the guard returned, the task accomplished, Brezhnev asked, “Who was he and what was his nationality?” The guard replied, “Indian.”

This incident, obviously made up, was narrated by J H Patel, the then chief minister of Karnataka, when the legislature was in a heated debate on the apathy of the average Indian to his surroundings, and the tendency to defecate in the open. Patel, whose wit and sarcasm were unparalleled, had developed the art of diffusing even the most difficult situation with a dash of humour without offending anybody, something that the present-day politicians lack.

The best part about Patel was that he could laugh equally loud when the joke was on him. Once, he made a sarcastic remark on the way elections were held in Uttar Pradesh — “In UP, there is a community called Rigvedis — those who rig polls.” BJP member S Suresh Kumar, referring to Patel’s self-confessed love for wine, immediately shot back, “In Karnataka, we have a class called Pegvedis.” The chief minister took it in his stride and let out a hearty laugh.

But with negativity all-pervading in the society these days, even politicians who once settled scores with each other through humour without resorting to rancour, seem to have lost their funny bone. “These days I am afraid to crack a joke during debates in the legislature as it is most likely to be misunderstood. Black humour and cynicism have replaced lighthearted banter in political discourse,” says Suresh Kumar, who has always been known for his hilarious remarks.

Touch-me-not

Let alone politicians, even the common man has now become sensitive and is ready to explode at the slightest provocation. However, it is heartening that some communities like Sikhs and Parsis still retain a witty disposition. There was once a guy travelling in a bus full of Sardarjis. In order to break the monotony of the journey, somebody suggested that each person narrate a joke and our man almost had a nervous breakdown. The only joke he knew was about Sardars, and poking fun at a busload of them was sure to get him lynched.

When his turn came, the man quickly made up a non-Sardarji joke, but at the end of it, the whole bus pounced on him and beat him black and blue. “Are we all dead? How dare you insult us? Could you not find a single Sardarji joke to narrate?” they demanded.

Jasmine Arora, a proud Sardarni who grew up in Jalandhar, the heartland of Punjab, says, “From childhood we are taught to work hard and laugh harder. A Sardarji believes he need not worry about anything in life as the divine guru or Sacha Patshah is constantly watching over him. And at night, they gulp down a couple of pegs believing it will wash down life’s troubles, and damn, by morning it does! A popular Punjabi song aptly captures our ethos, ‘Khao, piyo, aish karo, mitro, dil par kise da duhkayo na’ (Eat, drink and make merry, but never hurt anybody).”

Her father B S Arora adds jocularly, “Oh, we do not object to Sardarji jokes because for the first few minutes we do not even realise the joke is on us.”

On a more serious note, he explains, “We Sardarjis have always been confident of ourselves. We believe we are what we are, not what others think we are. Hence, we are not unduly perturbed when others crack a joke on us.”

The Parsis, too, do not lag behind. On a travel and food show, the anchor complimented a sprightly restaurateur, “You are young at heart.” The Parsi gentleman who was in his late 80s immediately replied with a wink, “Why only in the heart, I am young in every part.” Perhaps, it is because of their contagious sense of humour that the Sikhs and Parsis are among the most loved communities.

“Laughter releases feel-good hormones,” says Karnataka’s most well-known funny man Srujan Lokesh, who produces and hosts a popular comedy show on a Kannada television channel. Recalling how Charlie Chaplin movies made people laugh during the gloomy days of World War II and the Great Depression, he adds, “Laughter gives you a complete sense of relaxation. There is a lot of power in humour. When you have a sense of humour, people like to be in your company and miss your absence at gatherings.”

Parents, he says, are responsible for the increasing negativity in the society today because they mould their children to be overly competitive. “Children are benchmarked against the achievements of others instead of their own potential, which often leads to a lack of confidence. They grow up with blinkers, with the aim of achieving certain targets set by their parents, and in the process fail to see the lighter side of life.”

It is possible to laugh under any situation, even during the death of a close family member. “Before my father C Lokesh, a popular actor, died, he had forbidden us from crying. As the body lay in the house ready to be donated to a hospital, I gathered all my relatives in a room and started cracking jokes. Instead of wallowing in sorrow, the house was drowned in laughter. It was the most beautiful and befitting farewell for a man who had entertained millions in his lifetime,” recalls Srujan.

Though everybody acknowledges the benefits of humour, pessimism is on the rise in the society and one of the reasons is the negativity peddled by news channels. “Research has shown that the content on news television is often aimed at spreading hate. The bombardment of negativity has affected the way people perceive things. Their thought process has undergone a drastic change and they fail to appreciate humour. People tend to take even simple things seriously, and are actually offended by wit and jest,” notes M S Sapna, assistant professor of journalism, Mysore University.

Social media, with its troll armies and intolerance, has also amply contributed to the growing negativity. “Sometimes I wonder if social media is actually making us anti-social,” says popular radio jockey Smitha, adding, “We are all so caught up being serious in life that we have to shake up people to make them aware of humour that is staring them in the face. We have reached a stage where we have to carry a disclaimer with humour because people can easily get outraged. We have become such fanatics that even a critical movie review opens an avalanche of attacks.”

The humour quotient is so low these days that cartoons, instead of evoking a smile, can arouse the collective anger of people who do not agree with the point of view. “As a political cartoonist, my duty is to take a critical look at the establishment, government and rulers without fear or favour. Cartoons mirror the society in a funny way and they have always been appreciated by the political class and their followers, but no longer so. People take everything to heart and are unable to laugh it off. I have been harassed, warned and threatened. Psychologically, the last few years have been hell for cartoonists. Humour seems to be dead,” laments cartoonist Satish Acharya.

Not too loud

Along with humour, we have also lost the art of being subtle. Often, even the harshest of words can be sugar-coated to send the message across without hurting anybody’s sentiments. Sample this. Much before he became a five-star Field Marshal, General K M Cariappa, who was on a flight, was served a cup of coffee that tasted awful. Instead of losing his cool, the celebrated General summoned the air-hostess and said with a smile in his typical British accent, “Madam, if this is coffee, please get me some tea… if this is tea, please get me some coffee.” The message was loud and clear, yet polite and humorous.

Today, July 1, which is celebrated across the world as International Joke Day, may be the right occasion for us to redeem ourselves from misery and shift gears towards a life of laughter and happiness. Humans have always enjoyed a good laugh with the first Comedy Club being set up in 350 BC in Greece. Much of our despair, unhappiness and ill-health are because we laugh out loud (LoL) or roll on the floor laughing (ROFL) only on chat messages or through emoticons, rather than in real life. As Victor Hugo would say, “Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.”

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