A hat-tip to Khushwant Singh’s humour

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on March 06, 2020

A few laughs: Singh is being feted for all that he held close - R V Moorthy   -  The Hindu

A festival doffs its cap to Khushwant Singh, the writer-editor who believed in the supreme power of humour

“Jat risky after whisky!” — among the many popular bumper stickers found on cars and motorbikes in the Capital, this one stands out for its cheekiness. Much like the man associated with it — Khushwant Singh, the journalist and author of Train to Pakistan and other novels who became a household name with his in-your-face humour.

The man who directed his biting humour towards all — taking potshots at everyone from powerful politicians to pious pontiffs — is the star of the first edition of a unique comic festival jointly curated by comedian Maheep Singh and his family. The Khushwant Singh Humour Fest is called ‘With Malice’, a spin-off from the author’s erstwhile column ‘With malice towards one and all’, published in multiple dailies in his lifetime.

“The idea is to bring people together, irrespective of their age or background, and share a laugh,” says Rahul Singh, the author’s son, a former editor. And Delhi, where Singh spent a chunk of his life, appeared to be the perfect venue for the three-day festival which started on Thursday and ends on Saturday.

The festival has been celebrating the kind of humour Singh, who edited The Illustrated Weekly and the Hindustan Times, enjoyed –— and was known for. The jokes that he shared with readers in his columns were sharp, often bawdy — and always funny. Not surprisingly, his publishers stress that Singh’s joke books (he compiled quite a few) still sell well.

Singh, who loved his glass of Scotch, is being feted for all that he held close. The ‘8 pm bottoms up club’, as his circle of friends and family was informally called, is marking its presence at the festival, sharing anecdotes and funny stories from the man’s life. Several stand-up comedians — such as Amit Tandon, Neeti Palta, Anubhav Singh Bassi, Rajneesh Kapoor, Gursimran Khamba, Atul Khatri and Zakir Khan — are a part of the fest, too.

Palta, who gleefully talks about her unconventional upbringing in Almost Sanskaari, an Amazon Prime web-series, draws parallels between Singh and PG Wodehouse, the British humorist. “My father was a huge fan of Khushwant Singh, who was in the same league as PG Wodehouse. One of my earliest memories is of my father laughing, reading Singh’s columns,” says Palta, who performed on the opening day. “I think we need more of the Khushwant Singh brand of humour now more than ever. He was often self-effacing, but what shone through was his honesty,” she adds.

At a time when humour is largely absent from public discourse, the festival places it right at the centre — fair and square.

So panel discussions zero in on the place of humour in media — and a few unlikely subjects such as ‘Humour in Law’ and ‘History of Delhi through the eyes of Humour’.

Ladkiyan Funny Nahi Hoti, curated by Preeti Das, focuses on the sexism that dominates the comedy scene. Das, co-founder of the Gujarat Mahila Manch — a civil rights organisation — and her team have been looking at gender equality, body shaming, sexual pleasure, body positivity and the #MeToo movement.

Maheep Singh, festival director, points out that stand-up comedy is also a male-dominated sphere. “Here we seek to criticise the inherent sexism through humour,” the director says.

Humour isn’t necessarily doled out as neatly-packaged jokes. Instead, it can be found in all aspects of life. The fest, therefore, has scooped together diverse kinds of performances and activities.

Danish Husain, who presented the qissagoi, a form of storytelling in Urdu, at the festival, feels that humour is fundamental in everything, especially as a counterfoil to oppression. “When society has too much discipline and too many regimented structures, humour is necessary for freeing people and criticising injustice,” says Husain, who believes that humour is also a significant part of qissagoi.

The Capital, ravaged as it has been by the recent riots, desperately seeks a pick-me-up at this point. A festival that celebrates one of the country’s finest humorists who also witnessed the Partition and was a vocal advocate of secularism and peaceful coexistence can be just the right antidote to strife. Khushwant Singh, who died at the age of 99 in 2014, always believed in the power of humour. “I think humour can be a very lethal weapon. You make somebody a laughing stock and you kill him. But most journalists don’t do it. They get angry, which doesn’t serve the purpose,” he had once noted.

The times may be grim, but it is as good as any for a laugh or two, maybe more so now. As Palta points out, “When I posted about the festival on social media, a person asked how we could laugh in times such as these. I replied, ‘I can’t think of a better way forward than love and laughter for people and societies to heal’.”

Editor's note: The last two days of the Khushwant Singh Humour Fest have been called off in view of the coronavirus threat. The organisers conveyed this information to us after the newspaper went to press.


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Published on March 05, 2020
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