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Humour in the Time of COVID-19

Thursday 18 February 2021, by Sumanta Banerjee

Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote his novel `Love in the Time of Cholera’ in 1985. It ends with the tale of a couple of elderly lovers persuading the captain of the ship by which they were travelling to continue their love-journey along the rivers without being interrupted by landing at any port. The captain carried out their wish , by waving the yellow flag which was a symbol of ships carrying cholera patients. This made the officials of every port that their ship reached, get into panic, and they hurriedly despatched them away - thus prolonging the love journey of the couple!

It is about time today that another Marquez of our times writes a new novel, entitled `Humour in the Time of COVID-19.’ The pandemic of COVID-19 may offer similar excuses for many people today for escapades. Humour could be one such excuse. But even the safety valve of laughter can end up in fatalities - as evident from the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy. To go back to the cause of the spree of the present killings in different parts of the world, it started with the publication of a cartoon depicting the Prophet (whose portrayal is not allowed according to Islamic scriptures) in a ridiculous manner in the French satirical weekly `Charlie Hebdo’ in 2015. Protestors who felt that their religious feelings were hurt, raided the office of the weekly, and killed twelve people, including the publishing director and other prominent cartoonists. The deadly form of protests has not died down even after five years - as evident from the killing of a French school teacher, who perhaps used that old cartoon for display, to educate his students in the sense of humour! Some can argue why did he choose that particular religiously controversial cartoon, which he should have known would provoke protests? But then, we can argue - why shouldn’t we be allowed to question religious authoritarianism through the non-violent means of humour?

Throttling of dissent and laughter in India

The violent manifestation of religious intolerance is not peculiar to the Islamist fundamentalists, but is shared by their compatriots among the Hindu religious fanatics in India. While the continuing killings of dissidents by Islamist fanatics over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the West have drawn international attention and condemnation, similar cases of killings of dissidents and rationalists by the ultra-zealous followers of Hindutva in India, remain ignored by the global media. Yet, during the last few years, there were at least four prominent Indian personalities who paid for their lives by challenging the hegemony of Hindu religious superstitions - Narendra Dhabolkar and Govind Pansare in Maharashtra, and M. M. Kulbargi and Gauri Lankesh in Karnataka. They were killed by members of Hindu fanatical groups which are closely aligned with the ruling BJP government at the Centre, and are members of its parent network known as the `Sangh Parivar.’

Encouraged by their patrons in the present government, these groups are now targeting (in addition to their murderous list of rationalist academics and journalists) - yet another sphere of our cultural milieu. It is the sphere of humour. They are pouncing upon comedians and cartoonists, who dare to lampoon the present regime and its judiciary. These artistes are carrying on the tradition of that voice raised by a child, many years ago , in Hans Andersen’s tale of `The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ who blurted out the truth - “But, the Emperor is wearing nothing!” Some of our Indian humourists - the stand up comedians and cartoonists - are undressing and exposing the Modi regime and its hired judiciary, both of which seek to hide behind the magnificent clothing provided by the tailors who are known as the `Godi media’ channels. This term invented by wags, lampoons those channels whose anchors sit on the `godi’, the laps of the ruling powers, and bark and growl at their masters’ commands.

Let us take a few recent cases of assault on these comic expressions of dissent against the ruling powers, which also target a judiciary which is increasingly being found to be subservient to these powers. Kunal Kamra, a stand up comedian has been hauled up on the charge of contempt of court, for mocking at Supreme Court judges. The same judges let off a TV channel anchor (accused of cheating a family leading to their suicide) at the drop of a hat, while keeping cases that require urgent justice pending for years. The next target of the judiciary was the cartoonist Rachita Taneja. The Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal gave consent to contempt proceedings against her. Her fault was that she merely depicted in her cartoon the face of the BJP on the one side and that of the Supreme Court on the other, looking down threateningly on a frightened face of an Indian citizen in between them - with a caption on the top: “Tu Jaanta Nahi Mera Baap Kaun Hai?” (‘Don’t you know who’s my father?‘ - a common saying used by musclemen to threaten citizens by invoking the names of their political patrons, some MLAs or MPs). The cartoon was a humorous comment on some of the recent verdicts passed by the apex court, which were suspiciously close to the views of the ruling BJP (e.g. allowing the construction of a Rama temple on the debris of Babri Masjid destroyed by the followers of the BJP) - thus, both the judiciary and the ruling party becoming the common `Baap’! The other target is the comedian Munawar Farooqui, who was jailed by the Madhya Pradesh government for his snide remarks against the BJP government. If I ever have a chance of meeting the Supreme Court Chief Justice - whose permanently fixed smirk on his face, greets us in the newspaper columns and TV channels - I’ll greet him with the words: “Come on, man, learn to take a joke!”

Yet, we in India have had a robust tradition of cartoons and the comic that had always been critical of prevailing regimes and their leaders. The inimitable Shankar (Keshav Shankar Pillai) was the pioneer of political cartooning in post-Independence India, when he in his `Shankar’s Weekly,’ dared to make fun of even the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru in his generosity and tolerance of humour, responded by telling Shankar: “Don’t spare me !” Later, Nehru elaborated on the subject: “Shankar has that rare gift ….he points out, with an artist’s skill, the weaknesses and foibles of those who display themselves on the public stage. It is good to have the veil of our conceit torn occasionally.” (Re: Rachel John’s article `Shankar, the political cartoonist…’ in The Print, 26 December, 2019).

Can we expect such tolerance of humour from our present prime minister, and his acolytes who file cases against anyone who dares to make fun of Narendra Modi?

The comic tradition in the history of Islam

While the modern propagandists of the present varieties of Islam and Hinduism keep on insisting on the observance of oppressive and divisive social practices in their respective communities, the proponents of the two religions in the past showed a lot of tolerance for humorous dissent.

To start with the Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad is known to have made jokes and aroused laughter among his followers, that are mentioned in the Hadith. The following anecdote is an illustration of his sense of humour. A man broke his fast during Ramadan. The Prophet, ordered him to show his repentance, either by emancipating a slave, or by fasting for two months, or by feeding sixty poor men. When the man expressed his inability to carry out any of those orders, the Prophet brought a huge basket of dates, and ordered him to give them away as `sadaqa’ (charity) to the poor. The man wailed: “O Messenger of God, there is no one poorer than I.” The Prophet broke out into laughter and said: “Eat it yourself.” (Hadith 2386, translated by Sunan Abu Dawud, quoted in Islam Information News, Life Style and Profiles. November 30, 2011, published by munirulula) .

While the Islamist fundamentalists defend the assassination of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists on the ground that they insulted their Prophet, the Prophet himself had a sense of humour which allowed him to laugh at himself, and a sense of compassion which led him to forgive even his severest critics. Here is another anecdote from the ancient records. There was a Jewish woman who used to insult the Prophet by throwing garbage on him whenever he passed her house. Muhammad ignored by shrugging it off his shoulders. One day, he found that the garbage - his daily due - was not poured down. He stopped at her house, and on making inquiries found out that the woman had fallen ill. The Prophet straightaway went up to see her, and gave her his blessings. The woman felt ashamed of misbehaving with such a person and immediately embraced Islam. (Re: Ashgar Ali Engineer `Blasphemy Law - How much religion and how much politics?’ in `Secular Perspective’, 16-31 January 2015 )

There are other examples of the Prophet’s advice for compassion. Referring to the expatriates who did not follow Islam, Suhra 5:13 says: “But because of their breach of their Covenant, we cursed them and made their hearts grow hard….but forgive them and overlook (their misdeeds), for Allah loveth who are kind.” ( Al-Maida, translated by Yusuf Ali ). Another verse says: “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error…” (Surah 2-256 - Al- Baqara, translated by Yusuf Ali ).

But the best comic representative in Islamic literature is Mullah Nasiruddin - a Muslim humourist who emerged in the late middle ages - and whose jokes are still popular among the people. One of his jokes runs as follows: Nasiruddin goes to a tailor to get his `kurta’ repaired. The tailor asks him to come back after a week when it will be stitched, and adds the words: “InshAllah” (God willing). He goes back to the tailor after a week, and is told that the job is not yet finished, so he is asked to come back the next week, the tailor again adding the words: “InshAllah.” So then Nasiruddin requests him: “Please can you give me back my `kurta’, and give me `Allah’s address so that I can go direct to him with my `kurta’ for its mending?”

Comic blasphemy against Hindu divinities

Similarly, in the folk culture among Hindus in certain parts of India, Ram had been a butt of jokes of sorts. In Bengali popular oral tradition for instance, the following saying ridicules Ram’s victory with the help of his monkey brigade led by Hanuman:
“Kala khelo jato bandor/Rajyo pelo Ram- chandor”
(The monkeys ate the bananas, and Ramchandra in exchange gained the throne)

Note the comic rhyming of `bandor’ (monkeys) and `chandor’ (a Bengali variant of the Sanskrit surname `chandra’). Unlike the Hindi-Hindu heartland, where the monkey-god Hanuman is worshipped as a god, and the monkeys are fed by the devotees, in Bengal the monkeys are treated with contempt. The term `bandor’ is used for a person to dismiss him as a bumpkin, or a nuisance.

Or, take another old proverb, directed against hypocrites swearing by the name of Ram: “Ram-nam mukhe/Chhuri rekhey bukey” (Uttering the name of Rama, while poking the dagger at your chest ) - a saying very appropriate to describe the behaviour of today’s Ram-bhakts who force Muslims to shout the slogan `Jai Shri Ram ! (Both the above quotes are from the Bengali book entitled: Bangla Probad , compiled Sushil Kumar Dey. Calcutta. 1945)

But the most defiant rejection of Ram was voiced by the nineteenth century Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt, who in a letter to a friend wrote: “I despise Ram and his rabble, but the idea of Ravan elevates and kindles my imagination; he was a grand fellow.” It was written during the time when Dutt was composing his epic poem `Meghanadvadya Kavya’ (The slaying of Meghnada), which was published in 1861. (Re: Jogindranath Bosu’s Michael Madhusudan Dutt-er Jeebon Chorit . Calcutta. 1925). Ravan, incidentally, has been lauded as a hero in several versions of the Ramayana in south India, and is still worshipped by many Dalit communities there, as well as other parts of India. (Readers interested in the topic can consult the well-documented collection of essays titled Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia . Edited by Paula Richman. OUP. New Delhi. 2013).

Following our comic tradition of repartees , let me therefore greet those raising the slogan `Jai Shri Ram,’ with the slogan `Jai Shri Ravan’ !