Learn to Laugh

On Sunday I heard a discussion on television about whether Harvinder Chowdhury, a lawyer, and the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, should have moved a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on websites spreading jokes about sardars. As in all such typically obstreperous discussions, nobody agreed with anybody. Some panelists were in favour of total freedom for comedians and wits, some called for restraint and a belligerent few, among them the very angry Ms Chowdhury, wanted a total ban on laughing at sardars.

If I were face to face with Ms Chowdhury with no TV anchor interrupting me, this is what I would say: “Dear Ms Chowdhury, people who tell sardar jokes aren’t really laughing at sardars as specific members of a specific community. They are merely using the word sardar as a peg to hang a joke on. Let me explain. When somebody posts a sardar joke on the net, do you think s/he has you or any of your glum-looking DSGMC companions in mind? No. As a matter of fact this person has probably never seen a sardar at close quarters. S/he has probably only seen pictures of our illustrious ex-PM Dr Manmohan Singh or of Khushwant Singh or of Bishen Singh Bedi. For the internet wit, sardar is a generic term for anybody whose logic is a little off-kilter. For instance, a sardar is asked where he was born. He says in India. He is asked, which part? He says no single part. All of me. Don’t you see that the joke is not about a member of your community but about the ambiguities of language? If your community were economically or socially weak, comedians would not use the word sardar generically. Normally they don’t hit below the belt. But if you decide to wear your belt around your chest and cry foul, they will think up a funnier joke to spread around. Instead, try laughing at a sardar joke. That way, you’ll do a great service to your own health and simultaneously the health of this country which is being systematically poisoned by humourlessness, lies, bombast and hurt sentiments.

The sad fact is, we can’t laugh at ourselves. Even our gods and goddesses -- human and otherwise -- can’t. The Tenali Rama story is a case in point. A sanyasi, impressed by the sharpness of young Rama’s wit, gave him a mantra to recite three million times in the Kali temple. The goddess would then appear to him and grant him his wish, provided he wasn’t afraid of her. Off Rama went, recited the mantra three million times and waited for Kali to appear. She did, with her thousand faces and two arms. Far from being afraid, Rama burst out laughing. The furious Kali asked him what made him laugh. Rama said, “When we mortals have a cold, it is all we can do to keep our single nose dry with two hands. How do you manage a thousand runny noses with only two?” Beside herself with rage, the goddess cursed Rama: “You will be a jester all your life.” Rama couldn’t have asked for more.  

It is one of the regrets of my life that wits have not discovered the endearing foibles of my community, only our funny surnames. “What is the Marathi manus who makes refrigerators called? Kul-karni”. Guess fear and anger don’t make fertile soil for wit. A Gujju, a Bihari and a Madrassi [sic], stand before Chitragupt and Yama waiting to be allotted accommodation in heaven. Each pleads in his own mother-tongue, “Put me anywhere except next to a Marathi. Down on earth, these people burnt our shops, beat us up and threatened to strip us of our lungis.” Yama is furious. He says to Chitragupt, “Aayla Chitrya. Hya saglyanchya filee gheun ye re! Baghato ekekala" (Bloody hell, Chitrya, go get these fellows’ files. I’ll fix every one of them.)

Jokes apart, Ms Chowdhury’s PIL has put the august Supreme Court in a quandary. “Even if we were to say that it is unfair to comment or make such jokes since they (Sikhs and Sardars) have done so much for the country and are second to none, the real point is how do we enforce our orders? Suppose we say don’t crack such jokes and tomorrow you are sitting with your colleagues when one of them makes such a joke and you also laugh. Will we be issuing contempt in that case?”

Fair question, impossible to answer. Right Ms Chowdhury?

Published On : 04-01-2017