When English poet John Dryden wrote Absalom And Achitophel in 1681, I’m pretty sure he knew that his satirical verse would serve as an apt metaphor across kingdoms, and perhaps even across times. Dryden’s mock heroic and fictional poem about the revolt of Absalom, aided by a plotting Achitophel against King David was a political treatise and reflected the poet laureate’s own deeply conservative anxieties about order, peace, stability and monarchy. Dryden didn’t like plotting power brokers and upstarts who wanted to become monarchs but the satire he wrote was masterful, even if its intent wasn’t very inspired.

“In pious times, ‘ere priestcraft did begin, Before polygamy was made a sin/ When man on many multiplied his kind, Ere one to one was cursedly confined/ When nature prompted, and no law denied, Promiscuous use of concubine and bride/ Then Israel’s monarch after heaven’s own heart, His vigorous warmth did variously impart/ To wives and slaves; and, wide as his command/ Scattered his Maker’s image through the land."

Of David’s numerous sons then was Absalom: “So beautiful, so brave, as Absalom/ Whether inspired by some diviner lust/ His father got him with a greater gust."

We wonder if ever Dryden had written a poem that condoned the overthrow of a king, would his head have rolled like Absalom’s?

In these times we’re living in, a lot of people are losing their heads. Some, like a Mumbai-based law professor and a CID officer from Pune are so offended by vulgarity that they approached the Bombay high court and the Bund Garden police respectively, against the comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB), for a recent show that was soaked in satire, insult comedy and ribald humour. The petition to the high court was emphatic about the effect of that satire: It would “adversely affect the young minds (and) have an unfathomable sweeping effect on the social fabric of the nation." The petition has also demanded action against YouTube because, you see, it can. Some others have taken umbrage at the actions of an editor of an Urdu daily, because of which she and her two children have been forced to go underground. six cases have been filed against Shirin Dalvi, who published a cartoon by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in her paper, Avadhnama. Charlie Hebdo’s office was attacked in Paris last month when two armed men opened fire and killed 12 people. Dalvi printed an apology—in Avadhnama and in other papers—but the outrage continued and the paper has shut down.

What other than satire could be the appropriate response to this, because satire itself is a product of outrage? Satire is not a collection of baseless allegations; it comes with a “this way up" arrow of a worldview. For Dryden, it was that the king must never be overthrown. For Charlie Hebdo, it was that every figure of authority, real or imagined, ought to be punctured just a little. At the AIB event, the satire dreamt up a world where Bollywood could take insults on its chin, and scatological humour (a staple of satire) could be understood ironically. The world that satire dreams up may be deeply radical, or deeply conservative, or somewhere in between. Either way, satire is important precisely because of its power to reimagine the world.

Satire is critique. And therefore, satire is essential. Satire takes down holy cows. Satire pushes the limit of what we allow ourselves to think and say. It isn’t about being right or wrong at all.

“When the ‘real’ world is so absurd, parody can be a powerful medium," say the organizers, whose satire critiques several things at one go. Not just the Mahasabha’s hegemonic and misogynistic attitude towards religion, caste and gender, but also its upholding of the very institution of marriage. “This is not about defending the right to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but about creatively fighting against forces that seek to undermine our rights to love, to choose, to move and to occupy public spaces. We register our protest against this politics of hate, oppression and violence—that constructs notions of ‘love-jihad’, conducts forced conversions and shudikarans, threatens to force people into the patriarchal institution of marriage, (and) launches aggressive attempts to control women and queer lives and bodies," says a post on their Facebook page, which invites “All struggling lovers of the world" to “gather in heartfelt gratitude outside the Hindu Mahasabha’s head office this Valentine’s Day for the most EPIC mass marriage ceremony Delhi will ever see."

For lovers who belong to unacceptable love relationships (unacceptable because they are the “wrong" sexuality, or caste, or religion or gender), marriage is a radical form of protest against social strictures that determine who ought to love whom. For some of us, marriage may be an institution to critique but for many others, it’s an imagined world that redeems the bleakest situations, allowing for the right way up to be two lovers together, finally, without strife.

Can the “right way up" of a particular piece of satire accommodate everyone? Certainly not. And there will be people who will be offended and sentiments that will get hurt. But in this very real world of ours, creating satire is nothing short of an act of courage.

Close