In 2013, our Parliament erupted in near-unanimous indignation over a 1954 cartoon by Shankar portraying Nehru and Ambedkar.
A joke is a joke in private. But in public, it is an insult. Isn’t this ironic, to see a joke in two different ways, one ennobling and the other demeaning?
Governance is a serious business, and by no means an easy task. In a large, vibrant, and often raucous democracy like ours, the excitement and satisfaction of serving constituents is often tempered by the frustrations, delays and setbacks one faces while getting things done. This makes it all the more important to retain a sense of humour and take a few moments to laugh.
Unfortunately in our politically charged contemporary India, irony or humour seems to be lost. Instead there is always someone or the other waiting to get offended. This ‘right to be offended’ is a new national characteristic that makes humour unsafe for many to resort to, for fear of attracting lawsuits and worse. With this increasing trend of highly vocal righteous indignation, Indians are fast acquiring a reputation for lacking a sense of humour. In our private lives, most Indians enjoy a good joke. But in public life the political class no longer seems to have the sense to see that a joke, however weak it may be, is a joke.
Sadly, issues are created out of comments that deserve nothing more than a grin or smile. On other occasions, comments are completely misunderstood. I can say this somewhat ruefully from personal experience of the needless controversy created by my now infamous “cattle class” comment, which was unduly blown out of proportion. During the 2009 austerity drive by the Government, a BJP-leaning journalist asked me on Twitter, “Tell us Mr Minister, next time you travel to Kerala, will it be cattle class?” And I responded using the same expression — which in my experience has been commonplace for decades, and is clearly understood throughout the English-speaking world to refer not to the passengers, but to the airlines herding people into economy class like cattle: “Yes, I will travel cattle-class in solidarity with all our holy cows!” In the days that followed, however, the comment was maliciously taken out of context, made front page news for days and literally translated into so many Indian languages that by the end most people thought I had called Indian economy travellers cattle! The misinterpretation of that unfortunate attempt at humour is still flung at me several times a day.
Consequently, in a country of multiple languages and multiple political agendas, I have learnt the wisdom of Shakespeare’s sage observation that the success of a jest lies in the ear of the hearer, not the tongue of the teller. For politicians, it’s less important what you intended to say than what people think they heard.
Our new culture of offence-taking betrays our own great tradition of humour. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, enjoyed a chuckle, though his puckish sense of humour has not been inherited by his political heirs. Asked once what he thought of western civilisation, the Mahatma replied, “It would be a good idea.” Upbraided for going to Buckingham Palace in his loincloth for an audience with the King-Emperor, Gandhi retorted, ‘His Majesty had on enough clothes for the two of us.’
Among the Mahatma’s contemporaries during the national movement, the poet Sarojini Naidu, “the nightingale of India”, came up with a couple of good cracks: her classic comment about Mahatma Gandhi’s frugal lifestyle and his army of aides — “if only he knew how much it costs us to keep him in poverty” — is one of the great one-liners of the independence struggle. Some also ascribe to her a crack about Sardar Patel: ‘The only culture he knows is agriculture.’ Today that would cause degrees of offence that one shudders to contemplate. Gandhiji and Sarojini Naidu were perhaps exceptions: the Indian nationalist leaders and the politicians who followed them were in general a pretty humourless lot. I yield to no one in my admiration for the extraordinary intellect of Jawaharlal Nehru, but dig deep into his writings and speeches and you would be hard-pressed to come up with a good joke. The best might be the one classic epigram that he uttered. Reacting with undisguised culture-shock to his discovery of America after a trip there in 1949, Nehru said, ‘One should never visit America for the first time.’
But Nehruji could take a good joke, even when he was the target of it. When Nehru was caricatured by the inimitable R.K. Laxman after the Sino-Indian war in 1962 he did not react as our present rulers are reacting to criticism of their politicisation of the recent flare-up with Pakistan. Instead of being attacked by trolls or hired goons, R.K. Laxman was pleasantly surprised by a phone call from Jawaharlal Nehru. The Prime Minister said to him, “Mr Laxman, I so enjoyed your cartoon this morning. Can I have a signed enlarged copy to frame?”
In 2013, our Parliament erupted in near-unanimous indignation over a 1954 cartoon by Shankar portraying Nehru and Ambedkar. Yet neither man was offended when the cartoon originally appeared, and Nehru went on to give Shankar no less an honour than the Padma Vibhushan, the nation’s second highest award. His famous line to the often critical cartoonist was “Don’t spare me, Shankar!”
In a parliamentary debate on the war with China in 1962, he told Parliament that Aksai Chin, which the Chinese had occupied, was an area where “not a blade of grass grows”. Thereupon Mahavir Tyagi, a senior Congress MP, pointed to his own bald pate and exclaimed: “Not a hair grows on my head. Does it mean that it should be cut off and given to China too”?
Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was not much known for her humour, but there are a few examples that reflect well on her wit. She once remarked about Indian businessmen, “our private enterprise is usually more private than enterprising.” Sharper still was her answer to an American journalist in 1971 about why she had refused to meet with Pakistan’s General Yahya Khan: “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.” Both these remarks have the merit of provoking thought beyond the immediate reaction to their cleverness.
In his shoddy Reminiscences of the Nehru Age, the former secretary to our first prime minister, M.O. Mathai, cited one anecdote that revealed Mrs Gandhi’s sharp wit. When Nehru and Indira expressed astonishment that Mathai had slept so soundly after the death of his mother, he apparently replied, “That shows I have a clear conscience.” To which Indiraji retorted, “It can also mean that you have none.”
Natwar Singh told me another story about Indira Gandhi’s sense of humour. When he left the Indian Foreign Service to enter politics, he wore a Western suit to his swearing-in and said apologetically to the PM, “Madam, I’ll get some bandhgalas stitched”. To which she pointedly replied, “In politics, Natwar, you’d better grow a thicker skin.”
Aside from her, the few examples of political humour one can find in post-Independence politics come, alas, from the minor political figures. Piloo Mody is often cited for examples like his reaction to Mrs Gandhi’s charges of being destabilised by foreign intelligence agencies: he promptly pinned an “I am a CIA Agent” button on his pet poodle. I am sure Mody did better than that in parliamentary repartee, but no memorable examples come to mind. One story I enjoyed features the now-forgotten P. Upendra, a (then) Telugu Desam MP who, when Rajiv Gandhi appeared in the Lok Sabha on his return from yet another foreign trip, ceremoniously began a speech by saying, “I would like to welcome the prime minister on one of his rare visits to New Delhi.”
There is also the sharp-tongued Krishna Menon’s cutting comment when American arms aid to Pakistan was described as not being directed at India: “I am yet to come across a vegetarian tiger.” During a debate on the Indian automobile industry, an Opposition member declared, “The only part of an Indian car which does not make a noise is the horn.” Full marks for wit but not, I believe (given the deafening klaxons that are always an integral part of Indian traffic jams) for accuracy.
Indian literature and mythology offer plenty of material for humour, but few have mined them to good effect. When in the early 1970s Karan Singh, as minister for health, proved slow to act during a junior doctors’ strike in New Delhi, posters went up on the streets asking, “Are you Karan or Kumbhakaran [the mythological figure who slept six months a year]?” But no MP thought of expressing such an idea in the Lok Sabha. Some of the best-remembered jokes are the most savage ones. When Panampilly Govinda Menon was chief minister of Travancore-Cochin (the forerunner of Kerala state) in the early 1950s, he pointed to the chief minister’s chair in the Assembly and told the ambitious leader of the Opposition, T.V. Thomas, “For you to sit in this chair you will have to be reborn as a bug.”
For us to enjoy a good joke in this life, however, we will have to look beyond politics. Today, in these hyper-sensitive times, our humour cupboard is bare.
(The author is Congress MP, orator, writer and former UN Under Secretary General)