There’s been too much fuss made about our MPs attacking a 1949 cartoon showing Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar in a Class Nine textbook.
The general feeling seems to be that the MPs’ behaviour shows how intolerant we’ve become. It’s seen as a sign of a deep cultural and intellectual malaise. Oh, for those good old days, critics seem to suggest, when our politicians were sophisticated gentlemen who enjoyed a joke against themselves. Like Jawaharlal Nehru, who said “Don’t spare me” to the legendary Shankar Pillai who drew the controversial Ambedkar cartoon.
Indeed, some people have even claimed that Indians don’t have a sense of humour, and that this will hamper our progress.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that if I were an MP, I’d have been screaming against the cartoon too. Nor have I sent HRD Minister Kapil Sibal a congratulatory e-mail for withdrawing the textbook. In fact, I’d like the book thrown at the men who trashed the office of Professor Suhas Palshikar, one of the consultants to the text.
What I’d like to propose instead is that we look calmly at our fears.
First, that old chestnut—Indians don’t have a sense of humour. When I was editor of this magazine, innumerable readers regularly submitted jokes to us for publication. That hasn’t changed one bit, as my successor will testify. In fact, it may be that Indians probably submit more jokes to Reader’s Digest than any other nationality in the magazine’s worldwide family.
And when Reader’s Digest polls its readers to find out what they most enjoyed in an issue, “Laughter, the Best Medicine” usually tops the list.
To double-check, I googled Do Indians have a sense of humour? I came up with millions of entries. That certainly suggests that the subject is alive and well and that Indians are serious about laughing.
But what kind of jokes do Indians like? Jokes about the foibles of our various communities rank very high. For example, the non-hirsute love jokes on silly Sardarjis; northerners laugh at the spoken English of “Madrasis”; non-Bengalis crack up retailing how the “Bongs” have fallen for yet another story of Subhas Chandra Bose being alive and meditating in a Himalayan cave.
But it’s also true that most Indians don’t appreciate jokes against themselves and the communities they belong to.
Is that so strange? Is the ability to laugh at oneself that widespread, even among those who are supposed to be its exemplars?
Let’s look at Prime Minister David Cameron, a sophisticated, upper-class Englishman. What does he think of cartoons lampooning him? While campaigning in the last UK general election, Cameron ran into Steve Bell, a cartoonist who normally portrays Cameron with a condom unrolled over his head.
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