BY SAEED NAQVI

There is a saying in Hindi: Apna khana, apna gaana. In other words, we can transcend habits picked up from our childhood, except the ones concerning food and music. To these add one more: humour. True, humour can be universal, but a great deal of it is extremely parochial, conditioned by local inflections and attitudes.

The first Christmas programme I saw in London in the 60s is etched on my mind. A pair of polka-dotted panties cover the screen. A voice asks: “You’d wonder what these have to do with Christmas?” Pause. “Well, these are Carol’s”. Canned laughter. The pun on Christmas carols and Carol’s panties was supposed to induce laughter. It didn’t, in me.

In fact, the doggerel that followed left me worried that all reserves of humour in me had probably dried up:
“If every day was Christmas
By some fantastic trick,
If every day was Christmas
We’d all be bloody sick”

Here was British irreverence in the swinging 60s. But would the BBC risk such humour, say, in Northern Ireland, when just about this period, Terence O’Neill had resigned as the Protestant Prime Minister of Northern Ireland? BBC offices would have been gutted by Catholics and Protestants with equal fervour.

Nor would this humour go down well in the Bible belt of the American south or the varied Christian enclaves of India stretching from Kerala to the North East. In other words, Christmas, a day of universal festivities, is treated with varying shades of reverence by segments of the Christian church spread across the globe.

Irreverence, it turns out, is an essential ingredient in humour. And yet the capacity to cope with irreverence varies from culture to culture, class to class.

Every time the late M.G. Ramachandran fell ill, with high fever, a number of people immolated themselves. What to me was apotheosis of the bogus was to MGR’s fans a simple deification of the sublime. Even criticism of MGR’s government would result in government advertisements being withdrawn from my newspaper. Publish cartoons lampooning MGR in Tamil Nadu and the state would break out in a riot.

There is tremendous wit and humour, quip and repartee in Tamil. But the Dravida movement, of which MGR, his guru Annadurai, contemporary K. Karunanidhi, were all leaders, had just emerged from the shadows of Brahmin domination. It had not yet developed the self confidence for self deprecating humour in the presence of its former tormentors. A lampoon in a non Dravida publication would register as an insult, a deliberate desire to put down the Dravida.

The emancipation of the Dalit is an even more recent phenomenon in North India. Hence the inability to stomach any comical casting of the solitary Dalit icon, B.R. Ambedkar.

The question, of course, is why this hullabaloo about a cartoon published 63 years ago? Because that was prior to Dalit emancipation, when Ambedkar was not seen in sectarian terms but rather as a brilliant author of India’s constitution. It just so happened that he had the origins of a Dalit.

There is another fact we tend to lose sight of. Democracy in a society shackled for generations in a triple hierarchy of feudalism, classes brought about by Macaulay’s education policies and a millennia old varna systems or caste structure, is compulsorily accompanied by egalitarianism. The Dalit who 63 years ago had no voice, is today a muscular electoral presence.

The Dalit who had to be careful not to let his shadow fall on the upper castes six decades ago, has today been able to create an icon he worships. The need for the icon will decline in direct proportion to the creation of a coherent Dalit elite. But until that phase of its evolution, the group will reserve the right to throw a ginger fit at any hint of its icon being laughed at.

The surprise is not at Dalit unease, but at UPA stalwarts vying with each other to drop cartoons from NCERT text books. This is attributable to one fact: a state of funk after the recent election results.

The release of Mushirul Hasan’s Pickings from Parsee Punch was almost custom made for a situation in which cartoons are an issue. Parsee Punch is essentially a sectarian replica of the Awadh Punch which derived from the Punch of London. Punch represented the highest level of British wit and satire, replete as it was with some of the greatest cartoons and satirical writings. The sophisticated elite of Lucknow paid the British back in their coin.

Instead of pelting stones at the British, the elite of Awadh (Oudh), who in their sophistication, style and diction, remain unparalleled, borrowed the title of London’s Punch to create a platform to attack the British. They published from mid 19th century to early 20th century the Awadh Punch in which poets like Akbar Allahabadi wrote their finest satire.

Here was a level of sophistication where even God and his abode were not spared:
“Sidharen Sheikh Kaabê ko
Hum Inglistan dekhenge.
Who dekhen ghar khuda ka
Ham khuda ki shaan dekhenge!”

(Let the Sheikh proceed to Mecca. I shall leave for London. Let him see the House of God. I shall see His wonders!) The spoof is on both, the Mullah as well as the new London crazy elite.

A great deal of the humour of Awadh Punch was distinctly elitist, meant for what Sir Sayyid Ahmad called the “Ashraf” or elite.

In fact those outside the pale were also a butt of Awadh Punch humour:
“Council mein bahut Saiyid
Masjid mein faqat jumman”

(The viceroy’s executive council is full of high caste Saiyyids and the mosques are full of Jumman, a disparaging name for the caste of weavers). If only the authors of Awadh Punch were around today they would rue the day they ignored the Jumman, who has pushed the “Ashraf” into the Margins. Indeed, in communal politics he calls the shots today.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)