No country for humour:

February 3, 2021,  Pavan K Varma 

The writer is an author and former diplomat

My first posting as a diplomat was in Bulgaria in the late 1970s, when East Europe was under a dictatorial and failing Communist leadership. There was strict censorship, and no freedom of expression. In such a repressive regime, underground jokes were the only way to let out angst against the government. A popular joke of that time was of two policemen out on patrol. The first asks the other: ‘So brother, what do you think of the situation?’ The second replies: ‘What can I say brother, the same as you.’ At which the first says: ‘In that case brother you are under arrest.’

Much against the wishes of the government, such jokes spread like wildfire, and were on everybody’s lips. During my next posting in Romania, the regime under the infamous Ceausescu was even more despotic. But jokes aplenty still did the rounds. In one of them, Ceausescu supposedly falls madly in love with French actress Brigitte Bardot. In an intimate moment, Bardot requests Ceausescu to allow free emigration from Romania. The dictator blushes and says: ‘Darling, you are so romantic. You want to live all alone with me in Romania.’

India has always had a tradition of irreverent humour. Kataksha and vyang – satire, sarcasm, irony and poking fun – all rolled into one is an important rasa of our literature. The tradition is particularly robust in rural areas. Village minstrels, katha vachaks, rustic poets, Dalit singers, have always lampooned the powerful directly, or through double entendre, allegory and allusion. Modern India has an illustrious record of courageous cartoonists – Shankar Pillai, RK Laxman, Abu Abraham, OV Vijayan, Sudhir Dar, Sudhir Tailang, and even Bal Thackeray. Our films have cheekily caricatured the powerful, exposing their expedient morality and venality.

But today, our political masters and their lumpen foot soldiers have become increasingly intolerant to such irreverence. Anti-corruption cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested in 2011 in Mumbai on charges of sedition – of all things – and put in prison. The brilliant Vir Das was charged with defamation for his Hasmukh series on Netflix. Talented stand-up comics like Varun Grover, Kunal Kamra, Aditi Mittal, Sanjay Rajoura – to name but a few – are perennially under attack by the right-wing troll army, threatened by violence and even death. Munawar Faruqui is in jail in anticipation of a joke he did not crack!

Why are some people pushing us to become such an unsmiling, humourless, prickly, insecure, abrasive and oversensitive society? First, they believe that the ruling dispensation alone has a monopoly on public good and national interest. Such simplistic and undemocratic reductionism leads to blind aggression against those who question this usurpation.

Second, they have an authoritarian bent of mind, intolerant to critique and dissent, which dubs those who don’t comply as anti-national and seditionist. Third, they think they are the ordained protectors of Hinduism, of which they know very little. And, finally, they have fixed notions of artistic creativity: ‘patriotic’, sanitised, supportive of ruling biases, and ‘well-behaved’.

True, humour, like other freedoms, is not unlimited. Faith is a sensitive issue, and has produced angry reactions among the faithful worldwide. Salman Rushdie’s gratuitous satire on the Prophet in The Satanic Verses produced outrage among Muslims. Christians took to the barricades when Christ was portrayed as a charlatan in the film, The Passover Plot. Hindus are no exception, and understandably so.

But should stand-up comedian Sanjay Rajoura have a case slapped against him for questioning the assertion that Ganeshji’s elephant trunk is proof of advanced plastic surgery in ancient times? Lord Ganesh stands for wisdom, auspiciousness, and well-being. His iconographic form – half human half elephant – is Hinduism’s way of projecting the infinitude of the Absolute, beyond conventional limitations. However, to reduce this metaphorical grandeur by asinine claims that he represents proof of plastic surgery, is an insult to Hinduism and its civilisational refinements, and should be made fun of by all right minded Hindus.

Adi Shankaracharya, in the 8th century, could laugh at the so-called holy: Jatilo mundi lunchitakeshah kasayambarabahukritaveshavah, pashyannapi cha na pashyati mudho udaranimitto bahukriteshavah – Many are those whose locks are matted, heads closely shaved, who pluck out all their hair, wear robes of ochre, but do so only for their stomach’s sake. And, Mirza Ghalib could joke about religious sermonisers: Kahan maikhane ka darwaza Ghalib, aur kahan vayiz, par itna jaante hain kal vo jaata tha ki hum nikle – The tavern’s door and the sermoniser are really poles apart, but all I know is that he was going in when I was about to depart.

Today, both of them could be targeted by touchy religious evangelists for hurting religious sentiment. In the past, a king’s court would always have a vidushak, the court jester. His job was to make fun of the king, mock his decisions, even mimic him. The purpose of the barbs was to make the king question his actions, and get feedback which his courtiers were afraid to give. The temperament of a democracy is a fragile thing. Societies that stop laughing at themselves become monochromatic, and leaders who do not laugh – and learn – along with those who make fun of them, become autocratic. Humour is an indispensable safety valve for a free society. We need more vidushaks, not less.