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No laughing matter, this

Zac O Yeah | Updated on: Mar 31, 2018

A firang’s guide to finding the funny bone of a country of easily hurt sentiments

Okay, so I was sitting with this friend. I do have friends. We were in this place, not a very top-class bar but also not terribly seedy. She’s a Punjabi from Delhi, but lives and works down south, so one could say that she represents all of India. Or, at least, everything between the Walled City and UB City. Or perhaps upwards 50 per cent of those that a razor-sharp line, between those two points, might cut through. So, let’s think of her as a slice of life.

Anyway, demographics is not my area of expertise. I don’t even know what the word means, so I’ll get back to the point instead. I was telling Madam Slice-of-Life (*name changed), an entertainment industry professional, what I must have told her umpteen times before. But she is, luckily, very susceptible to beer, which is abundant in Bengaluru. It unfailingly induces amnesia in her with the result that the next time we meet is always the first. Which is a sort of perfect human condition, especially if one has to hang out with boorish bores like me. It also makes her the ideal agony aunty since she never remembers what I told her the last time.

After less than seven pints, I am halfway through my saga. Or she would call it a rant, but as long as I keep the pitchers coming she listens. I had clinched my first book deal in India and after the initial elation, I got scared. What is there to be so afraid of, you might wonder. She at least does.

She burps, “So, what’s your problem?”

Well, I had been super-duper-happy that my publisher found my novel funny enough to publish. Then she sent me a contract full of indemnity clauses that basically suggested I might go to jail for writing what I had. I ignored the warning bells and celebrated with a beer or, you know me, maybe 13 too many. It was only as I was sobering up, tossing upon the cot, that I started to think. Essentially, a publishing house called Indian Hatchet (*name changed) was going to pay me a fistful of rupees and print my humorous book, while making pots of money for themselves, but if the curry hit the fan then that fan was going to be speed-posted to me.

“So… what’s your problem?” my friend repeats. “Sounds like home delivery food to me.”

Well, yours is a truly incredible country full of incredibly incredible people, but it is also the republic of hurt sentiments, the kingdom of trolls, the geographical space with the most number of riots per minute. One person is a potential mutiny, two is a debate programme on TV, and three a separatist movement. Would you want all that in your inbox, post box or lunchbox?

“Why would you worry about that?” she says. “Shall we order lunch by the way?”

Because my book is… uh… funny. I attempted to write a tribute to Indian humour. Do you know what that means?

“Yes, I do. I have heard the word. It is the kind of humour where we Indians make a laughing stock of ourselves. So, you could say that it is the national sport of India.”

I can’t believe what she is saying. To me Indian humour seems to be, basically, of two kinds. There’s the gentle, traditional style, best exemplified by RK Narayan’s novels — such as the starving guru in The Guide dreaming of the bonda balls from one particular shop and thinking to himself, “although he probably fried it in anything; he was the sort of vendor who would not hesitate to fry a thing in kerosene, if it worked out cheaper. With all that, he made delicious stuff…’’, or the American-returned son in The Vendor of Sweets with his phoney novel-writing machine, a scam project through which the author takes gentle but delightful pot-shots at the literary industry. The jokes are never in your face, or bawdy, and it took me some amount of reflection before I even understood that it was humour.

The other kind is the one coloured by Bollywood and which is perhaps slightly less toned down, or let us say, more akin to loud-mouthed slapstick, and which I also enjoy immensely. It is taken to its most extreme in the coprophiliac jokebooks exemplified by the scripts of films like standup comedian Vir Das-starrer Delhi Belly with its latrine laughs, and Piku, in which Amitabh Bachchan has constant constipation and travels with a potty tied to the roof of his car.

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The bandwidth would appear to be rather wide when it comes to what is viewed as funny or what can be made fun of in India. Yet one keeps reading about alleged cases being slapped this way and that on those who allegedly might redistribute an allegedly innocuous caricature on Facebook or allegedly forward something allegedly funny on email, and the alleged perpetrators allegedly land up in jail and are allegedly never heard of again. All this flashes through my mind like a DTDC courier on amphetamines.

Madam, I say, I am red-eared to hear what you are allegedly saying, but how does a foreign gentleman of semi-refined sensibilities deal with this without for example hurting the alleged sentiments of your good alleged self?

“So as far as I can see, the only way around it is to get yourself some health insurance.”

Meaning, madam? Can I make down-payment right now, I ask and wave for another pitcher.

“You insure yourself by anticipating and incorporating the offended reactions into your book itself — say, by warning readers that they are solely responsible for choosing to read something written by a deracinated firang who doesn’t know his IKEA from his elbow. And stop using the word alleged.” She orders a plate of chicken. What chicken? asks the hotel boy. Any as long as it is dead and doesn’t cackle at our jokes, she tells.

She’s joking, I think to myself, but aloud I say: Would you still say that non-Indians should indulge in humour, madam- ji ? Is it worth the trouble to have fun in this country?

“It’s a call you have to take. I was of course being flippant in my definition of Indian humour. I should have asked you first if this is supposed to be a serious conversation? Or just a topic we should enjoy for fun? If you are being serious, I am going to deny that there is such a thing as “Indian” humour. There may be Sardar- ji jokes, and Mallu comedy, and Gujju entertainment, but I really have no idea what “Indian humour” is unlike, say, British humour, which we know differs from the American, or various branches thereof like Jewish humour, and so on.”

My heart sinks and I have to look for it at the bottom of my pint: Now this is getting very academic, ma’m- ji . My main concern is to figure out how safe it would be for a foreigner to let us say, laugh in India? Or to try crack a joke? For example, when it comes to preventing malaria, one can put the Odomos, but is there a condom for humour-related problems?

She broods about this in that moody social-media-star way of hers, while she empties yet another pitcher at my cost and I worry that she is going to forget my question. Meanwhile I think of how, in the writing classes I teach, which are actually on no-nonsense subjects such as suspense and travelogue and other not-so-funny topics, aspiring writers often ask if I can teach them humour writing instead. At this, I have developed one stock reply. “But I am not funny.” They usually laugh and say, “That was very funny.” As it turns out it is difficult for them to comprehend a simple sentence like that, so I end up giving lengthy explanations of how good humour, especially mine, provided that it can be said that I have some, is never intentional. Being intentionally fun is almost impossible, all things considered. Being intentionally hurt, is much easier. It is the simplest thing to get one’s sentiments hurt. One just needs to open a newspaper such as this one.

But then the umpteenth pitcher arrives and Madam Thrice-as-Nice (*name changed again) seems to wake up from her trance.

“If I understand you correctly,” she starts.

Don’t misunderstand wrongly, I counter.

“But of course there are condoms for humour in India,” she says as she waves a tandoori chicken bone in the air.

I feel relieved and am about to order more beer so that we can go on kidding, until I hear her name innumerable numbers of influential politicians and political organisations that are detrimental to a nation’s sense of humour, which results in me paling and sobering and calling for the bill and a taxi to Nepal. But she goes on, “You could probably joke about many things if you are on stage and it is intended to be a funny show, but not in conversation in a social setting like this. You might hurt my sentiments. So, for you it might be wiser to focus on laughing heartily at jokes cracked by me and other Indians, rather than cracking your own jokes. Come to think of it, apart from you, I cannot recall meeting a single foreigner in India who dares to crack jokes.”

Okay, got it, I say and by then luckily my taxi to south of Colombo via Mount Everest has arrived. I escape before Madam Wise-as-Lies (*name changed once more) starts a riot. Though I can’t be too sure that she’s my friend any more. On the other hand, like I pointed out, her memory is always wiped out by the 19th beer, so maybe by the time we meet again she will have forgotten what-all nonsense we said tonight. Anyway, in my own case, I am going to erase this file from my hard drive before I press the send button. Oops, wrong button.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist

Published on March 30, 2018
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