Suddenly the joke is on us
V Shoba | 25 Dec, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
Why did the doctor break into a bout of laughter? He ran out of jokes.
It was 6 pm on a Friday evening when I cagily accepted Dr Madan Kataria’s Zoom invite. I had been advised to expect no comedy and great peals of laughter, but nothing could have prepared me for page after page of scenes from around the world, ringing with cacophonous laughs, deliberate and gratuitous. These quivering portraits, set in plain living rooms, a Latvian hair salon, a library in Nashik with colour-coded shelves, a geriatric bedroom, an art studio in Greece, a teen’s study, were answering a desperate call for joy and laughter in response to the vagaries of life. Clearly, the German sociologist Norbert Elias was wrong to propose that laughter had come to be civilised over the years and lost much of its demonic edge. The mirthless, manic laughter emanating from my screen was demonic because it seemed to echo the true chaos of actual events. Surely the young Latvian hairstylist had had a lean year, even if she was now masked up and curling a customer’s hair while laughing and miming at her Zoom window. The Punjabi septuagenarian in a hand-knit sweater who was throwing her hands up in the air, likely spent a lonely summer indoors. Why, we could all use a laugh. And laughter by preternaturally smart comic would so hit the spot at a time when formulaic jokes no longer seem kosher, nor does the rash generality of ethnic slurs on Sardars who are out on the streets protesting the farm bills.
Being po-faced is just not an option for some people. “We are not leaving laughter to chance,” says Dr Kataria, founder of the ‘laughter yoga’ movement, a breathing exercise-based wellness programme that turns the Hobbesian edict of laughter being an infirmity of human nature on its head. Science has shown that laughter—the body doesn’t seem to care if it is real or simulated—indeed releases endorphins and serotonin and has an anti-inflammatory effect on the heart and the lungs. “Naturally induced laughter barely lasts three-four seconds. You need to laugh heartily for much longer to reap the benefits. You need to tire yourself out,” Dr Kataria tells me. For 25 years now—starting with a laughter club in a park in Lokhandwala, Mumbai—he has manufactured laughter to ‘heal’ people, and he has done it by separating the event of laughter from the cause. That laughter acquires a life of its own, like a reptilian tail that continues to wiggle after being detached from the body. If you have never had a close encounter with the delusive optimism of a neighbourhood laughter club, you haven’t experienced middle-class India. “Humour can turn negative. Simulated laughter is a physical exercise—and you can practise it to keep your spirits high when there is nothing to laugh about.” In 2020, in particular, when it was okay to go sappy, to share playlists, to embrace ‘self-care’ trends, and to meditate on meditation, laughter was another leap of faith—a harmless contagion to mitigate the one that was in the air. Friedrich Nietzsche, in all his tragic wisdom, would have ROFL’d through the year. “Over 2.5 lakh people in India laugh in public parks, beaches, health clubs and fitness centres—and now on Zoom. The best kind of laughter originates in the body and repairs the mind. This is also the essence of the tradition of ananda in Indian culture, where joy and laughter stem mostly from celebrating togetherness with song and dance. Indian laughter comes from the body, not from the mind,” Dr Kataria offers.
The Indian idea of laughter is more diverse, complex and twisted than that. Consider these lines from a cryptic hymn to frogs we find in the Rig Veda, wedged between weighty odes to the gods:
They who lay quiet for a year, the Brahmans who fulfil their vows, The frogs have lifted up their voice, the voice Parjanya hath inspired…
As the Brahmans, sitting round the brimful vessel talk at the Soma rite of Atiratra,
So, frogs, ye gather round the pool to honour this day of all the year, the first of rain-time.
The parody on the unceasing chanting of Brahmins momentarily redistributes power by equating the highest echelons of society with pond-dwelling creatures, and may well have got ancient Indians croaking with laughter. A standard comic trope in Sanskrit drama of an exchange of souls between a Brahmin and a courtesan achieves the same effect, while Valmiki’s viciously funny description of Surpanakha as ‘the abominable one’, too ugly, fat and old to desire Rama, reinforces power relations and plumbs the depths of body-shaming. However, more than the laughter of superiority—Plato’s schadenfreude—it is laughter that sees through deceptions which rings through Indian literature. The chicanery of holy men and the facade of dignity surrounding royalty are exposed by court jesters who spare no one, least of all the king. In a chapter titled ‘Laughter’ in her book Time Pieces, historian Nayanjot Lahiri cites an episode from Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam, where the much-married King Dushyanta falls headlong in love with Shakuntala, a hermit’s daughter. Madhavya, the vidushaka (court jester), tells him: ‘For a man who has overdosed on dates, the sourness of the tamarind has its attractions—and you, having gorged yourself on beautiful women, want this girl.’ It is one of many beautiful taunts that serve as comic relief in a heavily sentimental work. If the Ramayana, that most tragic of Indian epics, employs the antics of the monkey army as comic relief, the Mahabharata abounds in ludicrous improprieties—from a cross-dressing Arjuna pretend-struggling with his weapons to the braggart prince Uttara who claims he will decimate the Kaurava army all by himsef, only to attempt to flee the scene of battle later. “For me, hasya or camatkara, is like punctuation, a pause in the serious action of art, perhaps a technique to humanise the divine creative act. Or in modern parlance, a way to ‘keep it real’ and not take yourself too seriously,” says Sanskrit and Telugu scholar and musician Srinivas Reddy.
Comics served as Indian society’s truth tellers and came in all shapes and colours: they were satirists and mystics, mythic pranksters, village idiots—‘You must have one, just as you must have a well. You cannot be a self-respecting village without one,’ writes American novelist Lee Siegel in his 1987 book Laughing Matters, where he explores the comic tradition in India—and most commonly, court jesters who hid their wisdom behind their deformities and used the sotto voce of comedy to point out the vice and folly of rulers the way ‘one inserts a needle into a plantain’. The most popular rulers could laugh at themselves and at the deeply flawed society they had built. A beloved act from the Sanskrit tradition of the prahasana—a farcical drama—is the Pallava king Mahendravarman I’s Mattavilasa (the sport of drunkards), a commentary on the ‘degenerate’ religious sects of 7th century CE that rings true to this day. The equivalent today would be a witty press conference of the sort Vladimir Putin pulled off in 2014, unleashing joke after joke, including, when a journalist asked about billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky wanting to run for president, replying, dead pan, “Of what country?” Irony died a wintry death as the king of meme nation and a muzzler of creative freedoms flaunted his funny bone.
Science has shown that laughter—the body doesn’t seem to care if it is real or simulated—indeed releases endorphins and serotonin and has an anti-inflammatory effect on the heart and the lungs. But in 2020, laughter was another leap of faith
At the heart of Indian comedy is an incongruous disregard for the most powerful beings, including kings and gods. In Sanskrit literature, Shiva, with his immense laughter (attahasa), is like Democritus, the ‘laughing philosopher’ who first proposed a theory of atoms and was irrepressibly bemused ‘at the useless seriousness of human beings’. And yet, the same Shiva, whose laughter birthed Ganesha, himself becomes a comic victim of Kama; and in a Tamil song by Papavinasa Mudaliar, is imagined as a cripple hobbling about on one foot. Thus levity, the handmaiden of reverence, renders the divine human in the Bhakti-era paradigm of the ninda-stuti—praise in the form of censure.
When Bharata, in the Natyasastra, deemed the comic sentiment to be ‘primarily the prerogative of women and low-class people’, he was being disingenuous. Lord Shiva’s raucous laughter continues to echo through the Indian comedy scene, or at least it did until the coronavirus shut down our clubs and our sense of humour. “Indians tend to laugh loudly,” says stand-up comic Anuvab Pal, 45, who has come to acknowledge the magic of live performance after 10 months of talking to virtual audiences. The best laughter is the kind that comes from a sense of belonging—when we are laughing with someone, and usually at someone. Any number of Netflix specials and OTT shows—Pal wrote a divorce comedy for Amazon Prime during the lockdown, called Wakalat from Home—cannot replace it. “In March and April, there was panic in my voice. I didn’t know what would happen to storytelling. I was defeatist—who would want comedy at a time like this? And yet, I have conducted two comedy workshops, besides doing Zoom shows, podcasts and collaborations with other creators,” Pal says. “In the early days of the pandemic, we had to request people to keep their cameras on. By now, I have looked into more Indian homes than I care to. There is a lovely level of disrespect that has kept me grounded. Once, there was a man who ate a whole chicken while watching the show, and another who had the TV on while I was a side act he glanced at every now and then.” Pal says he is not a sentimental person, yet, when people reached out on social media to thank him for providing a service and making a bad year better, he felt like he had “fulfilled a kind of responsibility”. Like Bob Hope entertaining American soldiers in World War II, I venture, except Hope sidled up to the establishment and stood disconnected from reality. “This year has been a wake-up call for Indian comics. We have only seen peacetime and we are a lazy, disgusting, spoilt generation—at least I knew a pre-liberalisation India when it was hard to get a Fiat car,” Pal says. If humour is all about the element of surprise—an involuntary cry against automatism–the coronavirus crisis has scored one back on comics. They, in turn, have recovered from the initial shock and made it part of their repertoire, for no humour works as well as hypercontextualised humour and the universe, for the first time in ages, has the same context.
The lives of singles in 2020 would make great fodder for akam (love) poetry. In Tamil literature, while humour may not be the main rasa— the twin pillars of sringaram (beauty) and veeram (courage) find pride of place—it is like water that makes all the other dishes palatable, says S Raghuraman, a scholar of Tamil literature and dance. “In Sangam poetry, humour is an important faculty of conversation between lovers. Without it, romance would be all longing and lament,” he says. Tholkappiam, the Sangam-era treatise on grammar and poetry, cites four reasons for laughter: ellal (ridicule), ilamai (youthful mirth), pedhamai (superiority) and madam (stupidity). But like Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy, much of this remains in the realm of literary theory, with the real humour spilling into the streets in the form of folk theatre (therukoothu), wandering poets like Kalamegha Pulavar (15th century CE) whose snark knew no bounds, devotional poetry that was meant to be recited, and hilarious pallavis that lit a spark in the most prim of classical music halls. The spontaneity that is so important to humour resides in an 8th-century poem by the Tamil saint Sundarar about how Shiva, whom he addresses as a friend, betrays him in his dalliance with a farmer’s daughter he is then forced to marry; it is the sharp tongue of Kalamegham who, when pressed to compose a poem after being offered a much-needed drink of buttermilk, sings of the origin of water and likens it to the dilute concoction. Latter-day literature and art have largely forsaken humour and refused to celebrate the imperfect human being.
In Sanskrit literature, Shiva, with his immense laughter (attahasa), is like Democritus, the ‘laughing philosopher’ who was bemused ‘at the useless seriousness of human beings’. And yet, the same Shiva, whose laughter birthed Ganesha, himself becomes a comic victim of Kama
“As children, we laugh about 140 times a day and as adults, it falls to about 15. In a hospital, it is almost zero,” says Rohini Rau, a 34-year-old doctor at the Department of Internal Medicine, Kauvery Hospital, Chennai. Rau is the force behind the hospital clowning project of The Little Theatre group, and as the name suggests, makes it her business to make patients at government hospital wards laugh. “Laughter is not the main goal. The goal is to get control back to the patient, who often tends to feel like he or she is at the beck and call of doctors and nurses. Clowning breaks the status quo between doctors, nurses and patients. It gives them something other than their troubles to talk about,” says Dr Rau, whose troupe of 13 is the only one in India trained in a three-level module that includes CPR training, entertainment techniques and understanding the pulse of a hospital ward. “We go in knowing that it is not a cooperative audience. We can’t impose on them, but we can play to the child in everyone using techniques like magic, jokes, singing, dancing and theatre. We go in pairs, without expecting reactions, and if someone doesn’t want to participate, we play in the corridor by ourselves.” The Government Children’s Hospital in Egmore, Chennai, had been hosting the troupe once or twice a week until Covid-19 struck. Ironically, at a time when patients most crave laughter, the wards are out of bounds for hospital clowns. Dr Rau misses the secret handshake they shared with the security guards, and the children miss the imaginary ball rolling down the crowded ward. It is said that there is no laughter without a victim. Laughter itself is the victim in this joke that has been played on mankind.