No country for humour

The prime minister’s observation echoes the disheartening ebb in Indian wit. Question is who is to blame?


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark in an interview this week to Times Now TV channel that “there is no humour left in (Indian) public life”, is like good comic timing. Photo: Hindustan Times
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark in an interview this week to Times Now TV channel that “there is no humour left in (Indian) public life”, is like good comic timing. Photo: Hindustan Times

I think I will advise her to keep her mobile phone on—she may be in the shadow cabinet by the end of the day,” said David Cameron, addressing the British House of Commons three days after he quit as prime minister of the UK. He was speaking about the newly elected Labour member of Parliament Rosena Allin-Khan. With Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn facing mass resignations from the shadow cabinet, Cameron’s remark evoked hearty laughter. He waited for it to die down before adding: “And I thought I was having a bad day,” even as Corbyn kept a grim face.

Counter-poised against the fondly documented pile of Winston Churchill’s witty repartees and the manner in which US President Barack Obama uses satire in his communication is the state of humour in India.

That’s why Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark in an interview this week to Times Now TV channel that “there is no humour left in (Indian) public life”, is like good comic timing. “In this era of 24x7 news channels, anybody can lift a small word and make a big issue out of it. But I will tell you the truth; the reason for the absence of humour in public life is this fear. Everyone is scared. I am not conscious. I am in fear. My speeches used to be humorous earlier. I see it in Parliament, that humour is finished there, too. It is a matter of concern,” the PM said.

But if the media is manufacturing outrage from “small words”, much of this grim and sceptical mood owes itself to the bristling political atmosphere in the country. Gone are the days of the once-famous wits of the Indian Parliament who would use well-worded quotes, meaningful poetry and couplets as witty comebacks to political jibes. It included the brilliant wit of Piloo Mody, the founder-member of the Swatantra Party, the power of socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia’s speeches, the compelling oratory of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who sprinkled his speeches with poetry or even the dry humour of Mahatma Gandhi.

In response to criticism for going to Buckingham Palace in a loincloth to meet the King-Emperor, Gandhi had famously retorted, “His Majesty had enough clothes on for both of us.” Sarojini Naidu’s wry comment about Gandhi’s frugal lifestyle remains unforgettable, too. “If only he knew how much it costs us to keep him in poverty,” she had said, pointing out the irony of Gandhi’s ideals.

In his book The Elephant, The Tiger and The Cellphone: Reflections on India in the 21st Century, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor recounts an anecdote about P. Upendra, a Telugu Desam MP who was the leader of the Opposition in the lower House for a short stint. “On one occasion when Rajiv Gandhi appeared in the Lok Sabha on his return from yet another foreign trip, Upendra ceremoniously began a speech by saying, ‘I would like to welcome the prime minister on one of his rare visits to New Delhi,’” writes Tharoor.

Now consider this rhyme from parliamentarian Bhudeo Choudhary. He used it to conclude his criticism of the general budget on 9 March 2011. “If you drive a car, I will tax the street. If you try to sit, I will tax the seat. If you get too cold, I will tax the heat. If you take a walk, I will tax your feet.” Not bad, you think? However, instead of acerbic irreverence, political debates are today broadly about confrontation. Rajya Sabha member and Bharatiya Janata Party politician Subramanian Swamy’s comments about anyone and everyone in public life who is the target of his ire is the antithesis of good humour in political life.

While wit is about wisdom and erudition, humour is a mindset. A mindset that enables the questioning of authority while nurturing an ability to be self-deprecating. You can’t credit the human resource development minister Smriti Irani with that. She recently launched a vehement Twitter attack on Bihar minister Ashok Choudhary for calling her “dear” in a letter. How much then can you blame the likes of comedian Tanmay Bhat for his unfunny jokes on singing doyen Lata Mangeshkar and “god” of Indian cricket Sachin Tendulkar?

Yet, if you really must know why a brief history of Indian political satire can’t be written any time soon, visit the Lok Sabha website http://loksabha.nic.in. Under ‘Debates’, there is section called ‘Wit and Humour’. Open any Parliament session and read the grain and texture of what’s listed. The gem is a repeatedly recurring footnote:

“On hearing this, there was thumping of desks from all sides of the House.”

That juvenile thumping that Indian Parliament should be embarrassed about is seen here as the ultimate proof of wit. It’s laughable.

Mr Prime Minister: a bottom-rung vacancy you may not have paid attention to is that of a humour clerk to manage this website. You may also need a humour coach for the cabinet.

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