By Dev Nadkarni
Do we Indians take ourselves too damn seriously? Do we lack a sense of humour particularly when the joke’s on us? Some months ago, a visiting westerner friend, when asked what struck her most about her India visit said that it was our people’s ability to laugh. Despite the poverty, deprivation and bleak circumstances, smiling, laughing faces stared her in the face, said this firang friend. And it intrigued her. She wondered what gives us the strength to smile and laugh at ourselves amidst all the gloom. “You guys have a terrific god-given sense of humour,” she said.
I don’t know if laughing at ourselves in gloomy circumstances is a good thing or a bad thing but I know for certain that we can laugh at ourselves. Indiana jokes that have done the rounds of the Net in recent years and grown so much to encompass virtually every Indian community has long removed the Sardar monopoly. Twelve o’clock jokes are passé. We now have jokes for round the clock laughter! Mallu jokes are enjoyed all over as much as Maharashtrian or Gujju or Tamil or Bengali ones. In fact these jokes, I would say, work effectively as national integrators. Why, the cross-border popularity of Indian and Paki jokes amongst the two peoples could qualify as a potent weapon for defusing all this mindless tension. One of them talks of swapping Laloo and Bihar for Benazir and their fast bowlers!
But our elected representatives and the great big administration in New Delhi have shown completely antipodal behaviour. Comments about our dear prime minister in an American newsmagazine have apparently pulled the rug from under the administration’s feet. The comments on the premier’s health have been seen variously as a slur on his great personage and even an insult to the nation. The administration has gone hammer and tongs at the magazine and the writer of the piece. Why is Babudom so scared about laughing at it itself? Compare this with what happens in other democracies that function better than ours.
When Clinton and Monica were hot, the US media went to town with red-hot Clinton jokes. The Americans laughed. The world laughed. Our own Babudom laughed. Right now, there is a weekly show on American television with a guy who superbly impersonates George Bush and says amazingly stupid things as if the president himself was mouthing those ludicrous statements. Nobody objects. Least of all, the president and his White House staff. Blair is similarly lampooned even in his nation’s “propah” press. We all laugh. So what’s with our administration?
Our bureaucracy suffers from tunnel vision when it comes to matters of national identity. It equates an individual with the entire nation. So what if a few comments were made about our PM’s health? Does that make the whole nation weak-kneed and half-sleepy? Must they make statements that inflame party workers so that they burn copies of the mag? Given such knee-jerk reactions one begins to worry about the administration’s mental health more than the premier’s sleepiness.