The one commodity we Indians are never short of – natural gas.

What a lamp post is to a dog, a wall is to an Indian.

Jaat risky, after whisky.

— – Khushwant Singh’s Joke Book 8 (2008)

Whether it was one-liners like these, or more elaborate jokes, anecdotes or riddles that would go on for several paragraphs, Khushwant Singh could keep a reader amused for hours. The writer once wrote that “laughter is evidently the elixir of life, the best tonic in the world to ensure a long and happy life”.

Most book shops in Delhi have a collection of Singh’s joke books the majority of which have been published by Orient Paperbacks. Singh began writing for Orient in 1990 when Khushwant Singh Joke Book 1 was published. He wrote eight more such collections for Orient. The last one was published in 2012, two years before Singh died at the age of 99.

Referred to as the “dirty old man of Indian journalism”, Singh pioneered the joke book genre in India, and even though it has been two years since he passed away, his books continue to rule the market in this segment. In fact, they still sell at a time when most publishers are giving up on the format.

"We were lucky to have a big personality like him writing for us," said Sudhir Malhotra, owner, Orient Publishing. "Nobody handled humour better than Singh. He was the modern-day Birbal and Tenali Ram. He knew how to narrate a joke. He did it with finesse and grace while being cheeky at the same time.”

Khushwant Singh.
Khushwant Singh.

Beating the trend

Each of Singh’s joke books has had at least a dozen reprints.

Khushwant Singh's name is a brand in itself, said Sumit Sharma of Amrit Book Co. in Delhi's Connaught Place.

“Nobody is interested in buying joke books anymore, especially if not written by Khushwant Singh,” said Sharma pointing to a stack of books titled Modern Joke Books published by Rohan Book Company collecting dust next to a pile of joke books authored by Singh.

Sharma added: "Several weeks can go by before someone asks to be led to the joke books shelf in the store, and when they do they are mostly looking for Singh's work."

Sanjeev Sinha of Central Delhi’s Jain Book Depot had a similar story. “A Khushwant Singh title sells every second or third day,” said Sinha. “However, a book by any other author rarely sells. Orient recently published a collection of jokes by Sudhir Mudgal but we have hardly sold any copies. If anyone asks me to show them joke books, I show them a few different ones, and most choose Khushwant Singh.”

It’s like what writer Nilanjana Roy was told when she was working on an article on Khushwant Singh for Tehelka: “His name would sell a phonebook”.

A vanishing genre

While the oldest recorded joke perhaps dates to 1900 BCE, the oldest surviving joke book, Philogelos, is believed to be from the 4th or 5th century CE.

Joke books were popular in India till even a decade ago. Simple stories or a few lines of reading could provide big laughs and therein lay the charm of the joke book.

People read them to pass time during bus or train journeys or memorised their favourite ones for social situations. Joke books by Khushwant Singh and PS Sood were extremely popular.

Book shops, pavement booksellers, railway station book stalls would all have a healthy collection of such compilations. Each book would cater to specific tastes. Some were about classroom fun, while others were jokes about tension between spouses like the Shrimanji and Shrimatiji jokes. Books containing so-called non-veg jokes, a polite way to refer to anything bawdy in India, were also popular.

With the advent of SMS and email, several new genres emerged as publishers capitalised on the new trend of sharing jokes. Pocket books full of riddles and jokes had jokes that could be typed up and sent to friends via text messages. Each joke was a neat little package of a premise and punch line within 160 characters.

But publishers say the genre is not commercially viable any more. Publishing houses like Ramesh Publishers, Pustak Mahal and Rohan Book Company, which published numerous joke compilations in the past, have all but abandoned the genre.

“Joke books are completely vanishing,” said Alok Gupta of Ramesh Publishing House in Daryaganj, which has previously published more than 20 compilations of jokes with titles like Hilarious Jokes, Adult Jokes, Chatpatey SMS and Teasing SMS.

"India is a vast country and these books might still sell in smaller towns or cities, but they are mostly obsolete now," said Gupta. He added that Ramesh Publishing House had not commissioned a joke book or issued reprints in almost five to six years.

Gupta said: "We had freelancers who used to compile these for us, but they have all moved on. There is just no market for it anymore."

"It barely has an audience anymore,” said Daya Krishna, editor, Pustak Mahal. “We have rejected a few offers in the last year from freelancers willing to work on a joke book."

One writer who has compiled such jokes in the past for Pustak Mahal is Deepu Paul. One of his books, School Time Jokes (2013), is a slim volume containing jokes that he had started collecting since his college days. "When in college, I felt classes were more lively when lecturers tickled our sense of humour,” he said. “Hence, one title is exclusively on campus and students."

The other book, Adult Jokes, is a compilation of the aforementioned so-called non-veg jokes.

Paul, who has also written inspirational titles like as 100 Powerful Ideas to Improve Your Personality and 365 Inspiring And Motivational Ideas said he would not be returning to the joke book genre anytime soon.

However, Malhotra of Orient hopes that the joke book and internet will survive simultaneously.

“There is an innate need in people to laugh and be happy,” said Malhotra. “Humour is a part of life, which is why we are seeing it coming into the mainstream more and more. But I don’t know where the joke book stands in this scenario. I hope this is not the end.”