By Altaf Tyrewala
October 21, 2014
In a novel I’ve been reading for the past couple of weeks, the vice president of a television channel informs a comedian — or at least that’s who she thinks he is — that Jews are not a laughing matter. The comedian agrees. The novel’s satire hinges on the misunderstanding underlying this exchange. The woman means that poking fun at Jews is no longer kosher. The performer, on the other hand, is implying that Jews are really too much of a pain in the neck to be laughing about.
‘Love jihad’ became a tool of open political mobilisation in the Uttar Pradesh by polls in September.
The novel, German writer Timur Vermes’s bestselling Look Who’s Back, is set in modern-day Berlin. The comedian is Adolf Hitler, who the channel producers believe is a method actor impersonating the long-dead Fuhrer. But readers know that this is no actor, this is the Fuhrer, who magically comes alive one afternoon and finds himself lying in a park dressed in Nazi uniform and smelling of petrol.
In the novel, Hitler is himself — whiny, megalomaniac, deluded and spewing venom — but the Germany he finds himself in, the Deutschland of 2011, is a gentle, chastised nation, where the only acceptable reason to channel the Dictator is to poke fun at him and his murderous politics. The breeziness of the novel and its sanitised milieu — the newly returned Hitler’s “Hitler act” goes viral — belies the unbearable price Germany has paid, and in many ways continues to pay, for having once come under the sway of the Nazi regime. Germany may find Hitler funny now, but in the middle of the 20th century, millions of Germans voluntarily took lives, and laid down their own, in obeisance to their racist and genocidal leader.
Germany could have saved itself, and the world, a mountain of trouble if it had begun mocking its future Fuhrer at his very first sighting, during his political ascent, when he aired his expansionist delusions, and each time he attacked the Jews, Slavs, gays, gypsies, communists and the handicapped. The popularity of Look Who’s Back in Germany is possible proof that the nation has learned the lessons of its gruesome history so well that it is coming around to having fun with it. Anyone who has spent some time with Germans will aver that the dour lot could do with some cathartic humour.
In the months leading up to the general elections in May this year, it seemed that India was indulging in some cathartic humour of its own. Among the hundreds of memes targeting the incumbent government, one image was particularly cruel: The faces of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh photoshopped onto the bodies of a ragged Adivasi couple. “Manmohan, Yeh Tuney Kya Kiya?” the Adivasi Sonia asks, a pile of firewood balanced on her head. “Madam, Wohi Kiya Joh Aap Ne Kaha,” the Adivasi Manmohan replies. The image reflected the absolute ruination believed to have been brought about by the Congress-led government.
The looming BJP-led government wasn’t immune to this welter of mockery either: Kuttey Ka Baccha under the Car? Ab Ki Baar…
The elections in question have come and gone, the “someone” that Sharad Pawar referred to in his infamous Hitler tweet is now India’s prime minister, and India has suddenly replaced its ever-reliable critical eye with a wide-eyed, unblinking gaze of adoration for its new government. The only anti-government memes that emerge these days are from online groups like Truth of Gujarat and Stop Fascist Modi from Ruling Us. But there are few takers for such mischief.
It’s possible that there isn’t much to laugh about in these early days. The war-cry against “love jihad”, the banning of Muslims from Garba celebrations, the under-reported communal riots that continue to break out in pockets of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, the sabre-rattling against Pakistan and the inevitable questioning of the loyalty of India’s Muslims that follows… None of this is remotely funny, at least not to India’s minorities, inter-communal couples, sickularists, libtards and the 69 per cent of voters who did not elect the BJP.
Surprisingly, there is little sense of humour on display among the rah-rah ranks of the 31 per cent who did vote for the BJP’s style of right-wing politics.
The tone of almost all that is said these days is either shrill opposition or obstinate acceptance. Maybe our PM still seems to be in campaign mode because we Indians are still as polarised as we were before the elections. This needs to stop.
We need to get off each other’s throats and get back at the government’s. Any democratically elected government, no matter how widespread its support needs to be watched closely. No matter how beloved our prime minister, we still need to scrutinise his policies and statements, including those uttered under his watch. And when we spot a governmental slip-up, we owe it to our nation to play it up however we can: by writing about it, by discussing it, by filing cases against it, and if nothing else, by cracking jokes about it.
So will the floodgates of puns and mirth targeting the country’s ruling forces be thrown open any time soon? Unlikely. There is the very real possibility that somebody’s funny-seeming post on a social media site could lead to, for instance, the death of an innocent IT professional on the outskirts of a tier-two city (Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh, Pune, June 2014). In such menacing times, most of us are choosing to temper our words, bite down on our criticism and chuckle inwardly at the political wisecracks bubbling up like heartburn. While we don a respectful-seeming demeanour to conceal our fear, the offences against our nation’s democratic and inclusive fabric are growing more brazen by the day.
The world will still laugh, if not with us then at us, as comedy show host John Oliver did during our PM’s trip to New York.
As a self-respecting nation, we need to restart our critical joke factories and recover our constitutional right to freedom of expression. I hereby declare open season on “love jihad”.
A Hindu-Muslim couple walks into a bar…
Finish it, make India proud, and may the phorce be with you.
Tyrewala is the author of ‘No God in Sight’