Who do we laugh at and who do we laugh with? Avay Shukla, an ‘unserious’ writer, has a clear vision of what has been going off-track in India in the past decade. And he says it all with clarity and a biting humour. Here is an excerpt from his book PolyTicks, DeMoKrazy & Mumbo Jumbo: Babus, Mantris and Netas (Un)Making Our Nation.
I belong to a generation that was weaned on the Reader’s Di- gest feature “Laughter, the best medicine”, MAD comics, PUNCH magazine, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Groucho Marx and quotations from a mysterious “Confucius” (“a man who be both a fool and an arsehole is an ignoranus”) who bears no resemblance to the original sage. Armed with the understanding of human character acquired from these astute observers I have gone through life realising that humour is the ultimate gift of expression that relieves, criticises, elevates, weeps, embraces. But most important, it always teaches, whether it be by the understatement, the mimicry, the pun, the satire, the suggestio falsi, the paraprosdokian or even the humble limerick. There is no more effective (but civilised) commentary on the times, and no more perceptive (but amiable) assessment of individuals. Societies and civilisations which espouse humour are tolerant. sensitive to public opinion, unbigoted and open-minded. By the same definition, those which seek to curb humour, either by legal fiat or street violence, are just the opposite, destined either for fascism or anarchy.
India today seems to be headed in this latter direction. Powerful groups – both state and non-state actors, to use a preferred phrase – who brook no criticism, and mis-guided bleeding hearts or seekers of the two minute fame appear to have launched a war against all forms of humour in this country under the specious banner of “political correctness.” It began with Sashi Tharoor’s “cattle class” comment: in the ensuing din it is still not clear who was more offended – the champions of the poor who did not like the poor being “bovined”, as it were; or the Hindutva brigade who resented the disparaging reference to the cow.
Then came the arrest in Mumbai of the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi who dared to publish a caricatured version of the Ashoka Pillar, in order to show how our polity had been debased, distorted and corrupted over time. Cases were slapped against him for sedition and under the provisions of the Information Technology Act and Prevention of Insult to National Honours Act. One could be forgiven for thinking that he is a member of ISIS! Some time later a once-glamorous member of Parliament complained in the House how lawmakers were being made fun of in the media, and demand- ed steps to curb this tendency – she received a bi-partisan support that has not been seen since. Thereafter the Information and Broad- casting Ministry wrote to all TV channels not to make light of the Prime Minister’s sombre image, and to show more respect for his position. Last year this intolerance continued as criminal cases were registered against the entire team of AIB (All India Bakchod) and the presenters for staging the “Roast” show. There was even a demand to rope in some of the more prominent members of the audience. And this when everybody who watched the show had a rollicking good time and no one had complained!
And things are getting worse. Just yesterday a comedian, Kiku Sharda (a regular on the Kapil Sharma show) was arrested and sent to jail for mimicking – hold your breath – Baba Ram Rahim Insan of Sachha Sauda fame! The charge? (Hold your breath again) – hurting the religious feelings of his followers! (Sec. 295A of the IPC). It’s bad enough when this antiquated law is applied to any of the 33 crore Gods in the Hindu pantheon; now it is being used to protect even so called God men. Asa Ram’s lawyers must be watching these developments keenly – maybe the same argument can be used to spring him from jail.
Avay Shukla is a much-needed contemporary voice. His book tackles difficult topics with nuance and an acerbic sharpness.