The Importance of Not Being Earnest

The larger implications of a country that takes itself too seriously

01 August, 2010

NOBODY REALLY DOUBTS that the Indian public has a great sense of humour. Toothless grandmothers sing ribald wedding songs about sex, nautanki and street performers deliver biting satires about politicians and tycoons, and everyone tells sardarji jokes—which may be lame, and paralleled all over the world (“An Irishman, an Englishman and a Pole walk into a bar…”) but at least demonstrate a willingness to mock one’s own. The Indian sense of humour is sophisticated, nuanced, and referenced across a vast array of comedy-rich social and cultural cues, much of it universally accessible, much of it unmistakably rooted in the Indian context. Possibly only an Indian can fully appreciate why it’s so funny when a young man calls another young man ‘aunty.’

Public India, on the other hand, seems to have no sense of humour at all. The mainstream media space—where public figures such as politicians and movie stars shape the national dialogue—is where fun goes to die. Here, in both the English and the vernacular spaces, people seem unwilling or unable to give or take a gentle ribbing, let alone attempt sarcasm and other sharper kinds of humour.

Typical example: a couple of years ago, Indo-Canadian comedian Russell Peters came to India and, in the course of his sold-out show, mentioned Aishwarya Rai. “She’s a stunning, beautiful woman, but she can’t act for shit!” he said. This was not particularly funny, merely true. What made the jam-packed hall shriek with laughter was the sheer delight of watching someone dare to take a bite out of a much-revered Bollywood VIP. The newspapers, on the other hand, instead of laughing with Peters, gathered outraged reactions from Rai’s friends and admirers. (“Russell Peters has no business coming to India!” and “Who does he think he is?”) This is also funny, but unintentionally so.

Corpulent BJP pres Gadkari faints during a march. HINDUSTAN TIMES

To take another example, while one wishes BJP President Nitin Gadkari the best of health, it was hard to keep a straight face when he fainted during a march protesting rising food prices. It’s funny enough to see a fat man lead the starving proletariat. It’s even funnier that he wasn’t even walking at the time—he was riding in a little chariot. Apparently, the vehicle was just not up to his usual standards because they had to bundle him into a car and drive to the endpoint of the march.

Comic opportunities are passed by 50 times a day in this country. It looks as if by and large our journalists are prissy, our columnists prim, our television hosts laboured, our reviewers timid, our ‘candid camera’ shows no more than slapstick. Few people will risk a laugh. Why is that?

At the heart of most comedy is a kernel of truth. Humour is a form—often a devastating form—of criticism, and the more self-important we are, the more unable and unwilling we are to take criticism, and therefore, naturally, the more we cry out to be deflated. In India, self-importance is so rampant (for the most part for no discernible reason) that if you poke fun at someone, chances are that they’ll react with righteous indignation. For humour to work it must be treated as humour; and if the butt of the joke won’t play along, at least the rest of the audience must. But most public figures are incapable of laughing at themselves; and most people have too complicated a relationship with perceived authority to be caught laughing at it. As a result, much of the smiling on display remains of the smug or ingratiating variety.

Henri-Louis Bergson pointed to a core feature of comedy in his essay, ‘Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic.’ He speaks of the absence of feeling which usually accompanies laughter:

It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion. […] highly emotional souls, in tune and unison with life, in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter.

To a dispassionate eye, he says, “many a drama will turn into comedy; the comic demands something like a momentary anaesthesia of the heart. Its appeal is to intelligence, pure and simple.”

Indians are probably the most emotional people in the world, and the most expressive. (Italians are famously volatile too, but it was Indians who had to develop great schools of meditation that seek to rule the storms of heart and mind.) Is it possible that we simply have no capacity for being dispassionate? This super-sensitivity is reinforced by the fact that we’re incredibly hierarchical. We carefully socialise our children to be respectful of hierarchies—to fiercely resist any takedown of their own position, keep those lower down in their place, and be scrupulously deferential to those higher up.

As at home, so on the world stage. Few nations are as image-obsessed as ours. We routinely use phrases like ‘tarnish the national image’ without a shadow of irony. Neither the desired national image nor what constitutes tarnish has ever been defined; but if an alien were to read nothing but our newspapers, and listen to nothing but our public figures, it would report to its leader that all our woes stem from a conspiracy to make India look small in the eyes of the world. The national image and national pride are constantly reported to be under threat by many things—though not by many you’d expect. The rape of foreign women—but not of Indian women. The detention and questioning of Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan at an American airport—but not the laughable punishment, equivalent to traffic accident penalties, handed out to the accused parties in the Bhopal gas tragedy case. The presence of beggars on the streets of the capital during a major international sporting event—but not the lack of public bathrooms that causes men to pee directly onto walls and sidewalks, and women to hold it in until their kidneys explode. We love to honk on about our ‘emerging superpower status’ but suffer a meltdown if anyone mentions 300 million people going to bed hungry every day, egregious corruption that is a sanctioned part of business as usual, and daily commissions of caste and gender atrocities.

Domestic critics aren’t appreciated. But our national nostrils quiver with particular rage should the disparagement come from foreign quarters. It’s like bitching about one’s family—family members can just about get away with it, but non-relatives had better not agree. We know all about the awful corruption and the abysmal efficiency, but we aren’t ashamed of it until an outsider points it out. The truth is that we couldn’t seek outside approval more, nor bristle more when we don’t get it.

It all smells of chronically low self-esteem and a nagging desperation about the state of the nation. No wonder, then, that our instincts are to be either stuffy or god-bothering. We live in a society comprised of unequal power relationships, in gender, age, caste and experience—inequalities so deeply ingrained that they self-perpetuate smoothly. A woman brought up to believe that her husband has a right to beat her is unlikely to tell her daughter to stand up for herself. A man who has never dared to express disagreement with an older man will not tolerate insubordination from his son. A student who was raised not to question her teacher will be remain intellectually docile and never innovate. A Dalit who believes in the Brahmin’s right to boss him around will obey orders.

Not for nothing did India generate the term ‘sacred cows.’ Our propensities are to conflate the important and the beloved with the sacred. Religiosity is one of those hyper-passionate states that least tolerates challenge or iconoclasm, so the sacred is seen as untouchable. Our public figures are treated not as famous people but as ‘icons’—think Sachin Tendulkar or MG Ramachandran—and we react badly to perceived disrespect. The belief gap is an abyss that, by its nature, no amount of rationality or logic can bridge; there are penalties, both threatened and actual, for irreverence.

And humour is, of course, the archenemy of reverence. Its purpose is to let the air out of overinflated balloons. Its engine is disruption and subversion, generated by surprise, paradox, absurdity, contradiction or incongruity; it lives largely by touching the untouchable. The more rules and protocols there are, the more scope there is for humour.

Sometimes, references to sacred cows really do mean sacred cows, like this bovine in a Varanasi textile shop. GETTY IMAGES

You would think, therefore, that India would be positively bursting with comedians, jesters, gadflies and satirists. You’d think that we’d have at least one Jon Stewart—smart and funny and taking the piss out of everyone from the construction labourer to the prime minister. You would think that we’d have at least one Indian version of the widely read satirical American ‘fake news’ online paper, The Onion, whose deadpan style shadows real news closely enough to be really biting. Instead, surrounded by some of the world’s richest comic material, the best we have is CNN-IBN’s rather flat The Week That Wasn’t hosted by Cyrus Broacha, which is a step in an interesting direction but with miles to go; and The Great Indian Tamasha show on NDTV, which has great puppets but a script that is nothing short of embarrassing.

Humour is language weaponised and aimed at a tender spot. And yet, its net effect is to disarm. Getting a joke that is aimed at you involves laying down your own weapons and tipping your hat at the funny thing that was said, acknowledging that you were bested that round. Thereafter, you’re free to respond in kind. It’s a kind of gallantry, a kind of fair play—emphasis on play.

The humourless have no sense of fair play, and that lies at the heart of the problem. Public figures, thanks to their aforesaid insecurity, have no stomach for being taken down in any way. They respond by crying foul or, worse, dismembering the joke and taking its component parts seriously. (“Humour,” said EB White, “can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”)

When there’s an underlying agenda, as in politics, no joke is too trivial to be thus tortured to death. The fuss that followed Shashi Tharoor’s tweet about travelling “cattle class, in accordance with all our holy cows” is a case in point: the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, thundered that Tharoor should tender his resignation. Even Tharoor’s own party spokesperson, Jayanthi Natarajan, said, “These remarks are unacceptable given the sensitivity of all Indians and not in sync with our political culture. Thousands of people travel by economy class.”

For a country with no shortage of real issues to have national debates about—dire poverty, honour killings, terrorism—we invariably choose to focus on the least relevant ones. (American politicians pull similar publicity stunts, but they have John Stewart to take them down a peg.)

Post-9/11 India has—along with the rest of the world—become even less tolerant, if that’s possible, of humorous dissent; in other words, grown more boringly earnest. Hunkering down into safety-first mode, we are all much less prepared to stand up for the right to joke. As a result exclusivist, intolerant extremist movements get more floor space and less ridicule than they deserve. So much more to joke about, and so much less space to do it in. The political correctness of the 1980s and 90s has ossified into outright timidity. When someone does make a joke about anything sensitive, you can cut the tension with a knife.

And yet gelotologists, who study laughter, point out that it is one of the best ways in which humans defuse tension; laughing calms the physiological fight-or-flight responses that build with perceived confrontation or surprise. The comic may be, according to Bergson, a suspension of emotion, but laughter is rooted in the ancient limbic system of the brain related to emotional arousal: structures like the amygdala and the hippocampus, which rule, among other things, memory, fear and aggression. Laughter also involves the hypothalamus and the frontal cortex area related to speech. The theory is that the brain processes “lower functions in higher areas”; that laughter generated by humour is a highly evolved version of the laughter induced by physical tickling—a kind of “psychological tickling.” (Cardoso, Our Ancient Laughing Brain [2000]). It’s a social phenomenon that can be either bonding or hostile or both; but it’s part of the social glue.

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Quite apart from the fact that it’s good for us, frankly, the right to make jokes about public people publicly is part of our freedom of expression. One should be free to laugh and be provocative (and, mostly, truthful) with the knowledge that the Indian state will deal decisively with anyone who takes the law into their own hands and threatens or commits acts of physical violence or intimidation. This, the Indian state has failed to do with tedious consistency—sometimes even leading the reactionary charge, as it did when it pre-emptively banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses all those years ago. Not long ago it failed to protect MF Husain from the self-appointed custodians of moral values who vandalised his exhibitions, and we thereby lost one of our most talented artists to self-imposed exile and, eventually, Qatari citizenship. Think about that: Husain figured he’d get more artistic freedom in a Gulf kingdom.

The constitution is the great agent that is supposed to benignly hold together all the diverse ethnicities, religions, cultures, philosophies, economies and personal expressions that constitute India. The law and order apparatus is supposed to be the constitution’s hands and feet; but for the most part, it doesn’t work. Time and again the police wink at violence, and time and again citizens are advised to hold their tongues, rather than guaranteed their rights.

Realistically, you might see the wisdom in not taking the risk of verbally offending people whose reaction to perceived offence is a club to the back of the head. But surely this is a lamentable state of affairs, and surely we should applaud those few efforts that are being made, even if they’re peaky at best. Take, for instance, stand-up comedians, who still only inhabit a kind of half-baked fame. There’s, well, Vir Das. In his act on sex education he points out that Manmohan Singh would be a bad teacher on the subject, “because if you’re going to teach someone about sex, you have to be just a little bit sexy… Not that many women look at Manmohan Singh and go, mm-hm!” This is not the funniest thing that has ever been said, and his delivery is stilted, but it does in one fell swoop break two unspoken taboos: mocking an important person, and talking about sex. At some feeble level, that’s heartening.

Russell Peters’ great advantage, in joking about Indians, is that he has an outsider’s eye—Bergson’s disinterested eye. The disinterested comedian, much like the dispassionate writer, gets closer to certain difficult truths, and is therefore more likely to wound, but also more likely to see the contradictions and absurdities that generate humour. Both humour and truth, by their nature, evoke strong reactions and in both cases, you win some, you lose some.

But are there things so wrenching that you cannot joke about them—starvation, for instance, or loss, or violence? These are issues that engage the emotions at a visceral level. You could argue that India wrestles with the kind of terrible, serious problems that it would be tasteless to make fun of. Yet, that is the root of black—and gallows—humour. It is possible to be genuinely anguished by starvation and still smile when someone says, “How many Ethiopians can you fit in a bathtub? None, they keep slipping down the drain.” (Too far from home? Replace Ethiopian with the starving Indian of your choice. There are lots to choose from.) It is possible to tell a joke about a dead guy, or about an axe murderer. It is seen as more acceptable for a Dalit to make fun of a Brahmin; but it should also be possible for the joke to go the other way. It is possible to do these things when the cool eye puts the warm heart on hold, temporarily, and can see inherently funny paradoxes. It isn’t a permanent condition; it’s not the death of compassion; it’s not because of a fundamental lack of empathy. It’s Bergson’s “temporary anaesthesia of the heart.”

The final frontier is the ability to laugh at ourselves, not as a community, but as individuals. Self-deprecation is a form of humour that has not exactly taken off, partly because of insecurity, and partly because of a genuine lack of self-awareness. Like fat people who jeer at other people for being fat, we excel at throwing stones at glass houses and not even noticing that the whole edifice has come crashing down around us, so we often miss the biggest joke of all, which is staring out from the mirror.

Are we to imagine that the frontal cortex of public India is out of order? It seems more likely that we simply have a gigantic ego problem backed by a gigantic law and order deficit that encourages and defends earnestness; that people who are in a position to shut down voices they don’t like, either by virtue of personal clout or by using violent mob mentality, are allowed to do so. It’s untrue that Indians don’t have the capacity for criticism through humour in private; but it is true that they aren’t confident of the public space to voice it. Our national humourlessness is merely an outcrop of our national anti-democratic streak.

India is a good case for John Stuart Mill-style free speech absolutism. It already has a wealth of pluralistic communities living side by side that are able to see, if nothing else, each other’s foibles as well as their own, and the social changes being wrought by globalisation are such that there are increasing amounts of contradictions and frictions spread over many more groups of people engaging with many more contentious issues. You cannot talk of ‘Indian values,’ or about ‘Indian culture’—there are far too many different sets of each. They should, at the very least, be allowed to poke fun at each other

With any luck, globalisation, the engine of India’s economic growth, will also serve as the hormones that get it to grow up in other ways. All we have now are baby steps. Hopefully, we will eventually fully rediscover the joys of irreverence, irony, satire and insult. It’s important to be earnest. But it’s also crucial not to be earnest.

Meanwhile, the Incredible India campaign should be re-scripted as follows: “India: We Have Many Sentiments, And They All Hurt.”