Opinion: Why can’t India take a joke anymore?

Today, laughter has become anti-Indian and anti-national.

Sometimes, as I sit and watch Delhi, I am weighed down by the gravitas of scholars, bureaucrats and politicians. They reduce administration to a dismal science which they label policy. This greyness is compounded by a radical critique which is as heavy and, as a scholar, I keep wondering where all the laughter gone has. Laughter today wears so many corsets. It cannot offend anyone, it cannot disturb law and order, it has to be politically correct, if not constitutional. It is as if between regime and civil society laughter has been squeezed out as anti-Indian and anti-national.

I contrasted this intellectual greyness with the years before World War I, when Surrealism and French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry’s Pataphysics were created. Marcel Duchamp rethought art by working endlessly on one painting, mounting a urinal at an exhibition and insisting it was a work of art. Laughter here was subversive and creative and its texture and taste survived the years. Laughter was a commons sustained by conversation between physicists, artists, philosophers as their metaphors like happy sacraments traversed the globe. It is not as if these men and women did not face the tragedy before them. They, in fact, realised that the violence to come made laughter even more precious. They used laughter as a carnivalesque metaphor to sustain civilizational fragments or create transformation in perspective that offered new insights or led to new paradigms.

Yet, as I watch India all I see is a fog of political correctness. It is as if language has decided it cannot afford laughter. What goes for a joke is a kind of caricatured and stylized viciousness. Narendra Modi is an example of it; the way he deals with Rahul Gandhi or Mani Shanker Iyer turns his laughter into something derisive, even inquisitorial. It is as if every group is wearing its identity as a chastity belt and is determined to guard it even from imaginary assaults like Padmavati. Laughter needs a sense of distortion, caricature, a playfulness which allows for creative possibilities. But ours is now a procrustean society where we panopticonise each other even on imaginary insults. At one time our stereotypes humanised us and made the neighbourhood a more comfortable place. But today a joke can instigate a riot and a cartoon a civil war. The conversation that laughter created, that archaic sense of equalisation is lost. It is as if the current regime has decided every concept is official and must wear a uniform. To design a concept or to lampoon it summons the law. Laughter literally demands the imposition of Section 14A as if the idea of six people laughing together shakes the very foundations of society. An anthropologist wryly told me it is not only language that is a declining species, jokes too are disappearing. He cited the example of the proliferation of Sardarji jokes, pushed by sardars like Khushwant Singh. Today, one would not dare to utter them in public.

The last great humorist

There is an irony to the absence of laughter. A friend of mine, a theologian, once told me that in India ethics was the last remaining domain of laughter. He went on to contend that Gandhi was not just the last great ethicist, he was also the last great humorist. He was not including cartoonists such as OV Vijayan, Shankar or RK Laxman, he said, as they were observers. Gandhi sensed that ethics needed humour and his jokes, juvenile or deadpan, set the stage for his ethics. In fact, Gandhi knew one common secret of ethics and humour – to never confuse the ascetic and the puritan. Puritanism turns ethics into a demanding religiosity, creating a coerciveness all around. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad encapsulate this puritanism as much as the Muslim or Christian cleric. Asceticism has a lightness of being. It imposes on itself, creating a discipline out of harmony and voluntarism. There is an ease about the ascetic that the puritan cannot display. It was because of his sense of ethics and laughter that Gandhi could bring down an empire.

The biggest tragedy of the absence of laughter today is childhood. At least between the ages of five and 12, childhood has become almost a form of militarism and school a form of imposed duty. The regime of competitive exams and the myth of IIT has done more to destroy childhood and laughter than any policy regime. In the fear of failure, the inability to learn from mistakes and lack of playfulness, children lose the culture of laughter. Today Charlie Brown, Asterix, Tenali Raman or even Dennis the Menace look like alien figures as we are losing our classic sense of laughter.

There is tremendous laughter even in science, a carry-over from childhood. We understand this better when we read Primo Levi’s essays on science, especially his essay on the difficulty of reinventing animals. Evolution, he says, has proved more intelligent than human beings in inventing animals and even the monsters that literature has invented are predictable. Our chimera, our centaurs, even the best of Jorge Luis Borges’ Manual of Fantastic Zoology find it difficult to create a truly original animal. The composite animals of myth are no match for the inventions of science and even as we laugh at the monsters we have created, we admit they are no match for nature’s inventiveness.

A celebration of difference

An anthropologist friend of mine complained that the university as a knowledge system is becoming a dismal set of sciences. Firstly, he insisted the need for policy, for the immediacy of relevance has reduced what Milan Kundera called the “lightness of being”. The worst criminal he felt was economics. He said all the development and millennial indicators, even the Bhutanese indicators, have a sense of laughter and humour. Welfare and well-being have a Jesuitical gravitas which is difficult to comprehend. He said if economists learnt to laugh, they would know the joke was on them. But then I realised it is not only the problem of economics but of its sibling science, management. When I watch the alleged leadership training courses, I sense the absence of laughter, the huge carnivalesque laughter of François Rabelais or even the slapstick laughter that Charlie Chaplin turned into a fine art. Laughter seems almost an admission of defeat. Worse, laughter is instrumentalised, loses its tectonic spontaneity and becomes a project, a rocket science where the laugh is to be fired with precision. Our contemporary sense of leadership has a sense of power which devalues the anarchy of laughter. In fact, it is not Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe or even Modi who provide our sense of laughter but the Pope dismissing the pomposity of G-7 or the Dalai Lama. Sometimes as we listen to them, we understand how even pain can underwrite the poignancy of a joke. The Dalai Lama was a master of such a retort. I remember one of my favourite quotes was his wry comment that when George Bush talks, “he brings out the Muslim in me”.

The monk’s comment shows how a sophisticated joke displays the balance between self and other that we have lost. I feel humour can only survive when diversity survives for humour as a ritual is a celebration of difference, allowing the play of mimicry, caricature and difference. We have to realise humour in its silences, in its tacit understandings goes beyond the joke. The joke is only a verbal symptom, a sign of this deeper understanding of life because humour even understands death-in-life situations, as concentration camp humour testified. It is an assertion that humanity, even as a fragment or morsel, survives the Gulag and the dictatorship.

We began with the celebratory power of humour, but let us come down to its essential subversiveness which I find more and more attractive. I remember walking with an old relative of mine who greeted life with a twinkle in his eye. He told me my battle or opposition to Modi mimicked Modi, policy for policy, ideology for ideology. Sadly, he claimed, we looked like mirror images of each other, only Modi appeared like a juggernaut inevitable in his power while I faded into an impotent marginality. He suggested that Modi and the RSS can only be destroyed by laughter, the realisation that majoritarian democracy is a sad joke on us, on democracy itself. He added that Modi is a symptom that middle class India has forgotten to laugh at itself. This is why it takes concepts like security and patriotism seriously. He suggested that just a few jokes can dissolve the regime. The pity with your opposition is that it laughs less than the regime. We are suffering from a sense burden. Laughter, only laughter can save democracy. The clown, the jester and the trickster can do more to soften the regime than all your heavy editorials. He warned almost presciently that Modi’s first great mistake will appear timed to this moment of laughter.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School, and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, OP Jindal Global University.

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