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Can’t Indians Take a Joke

Learning to ignore or letting-it-go, seems totally alien to India’s political class and compulsive agitators

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Can’t Indians Take a Joke

In recent years the inhabitants of the world’s largest democracy and the second fastest growing economy seem to have earned the dubious distinction of being world-class bristlers. From Jay Leno’s corny wisecrack regarding Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s lifestyle, in which he depicted Amritsar’s Golden Temple as his Summer Palace; Top Gear anchor Jeremy Clarkson’s silly jibe about going around India in a Jaguar fitted with a commode; a Kiwi TV anchor’s tasteless twist on Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit’s name … no one was amused. Protests, editorials, TV panel discussions prodded the Indian government to even step in to demand apologies.

Indians can’t seem to take a joke, bogged down by what one critic described as “our humourlessness, philistinism and most importantly our famous … offense culture!” India-born English Comic Rafiq Iqbal’s one-liner “India is a humourless society waiting desperately to laugh” suddenly zooms centre-stage. In India, as respected columnist-architect Gautam Bhatia points out, “Life is inherently unfunny. It is as if a different aspect of your personality must be awakened to become receptive to humor. Life is a deathly serious daily refrain filled with despair and tragedy. To laugh in its face is grossly disrespectful of the tragic demands of daily life.”


Hence, learning to ignore or letting-it-go, seems totally alien to India’s political class and compulsive agitators. Queries a former diplomat: “Why on earth is the government being so prickly? They really have no business to get involved in matters that should be tackled by civil society. It is their misplaced sense of commitment to the agitational tactics of certain groups and individuals that prompts these embarrassing situations. At the end of the day, are we ourselves not becoming a joke by constantly over-reacting to these silly, frivolous and inane non-issues?”

Is our collective ego so fragile and insecure to constantly react in such immature manner? Journalist, columnist, author and acknowledged humorist Jug Suraiya says: “Instead of brushing them off as the non-events they are, India reacts with the moral outrage of a juvenile hero who, instead of the promised ice-cream, has been a tight slap across the face! How dare those infamous foreigners treat us so shabbily? How dare they not take us as seriously as we ought to be taken? Call their ambassador and give him a bollocking! Cut off diplomatic ties! Burn their national flag!” Suraiya believes that like a child dressed up in grown-up clothes, India can’t bear to be laughed at. At least official India, can’t. Ironically unofficial India can, as represented by their greatest and most iconic citizen. When asked how he had dared to present himself in nothing more than a loincloth at Buckingham Palace, Mahatma Gandhi famously replied, with his typically impish humor, “The King was wearing enough clothes for both of us.”

NRIs head this offense culture brigade demonstrating their desi outrage with a fierce passion. Time magazine columnist Joel Stein was excorciated last year for a whining column on the Indian influx in New Jersey. Designer Manish Arora’s decision to use Shiva images on leggings and harem pants attracted NRI ire as well, as did the Play Station 2 game Hanuman: Boy Warrior, which offended Hindus in Kiwiland, because “it makes me mad when I see my friends play a game where they can control the god’s movements with a joystick!”

What’s their problem? Why are they so prickly, touchy and hyper? Indian actor-model Lavrenti Lopes says: “Many of them are stuck in a time-warp. When they moved to their new countries, they found the value system alien. So they lived in isolation, holding on fiercely to the value systems they grew up with, cherished and brought — values, alas, that no longer exist in India! Why? Because India has probably changed more in the last 20 years than the last 200 years!”

There is another aspect of the NRI discomfort too: dealing with pointed and uncomfortable questions from the relocated land — “Do you people really burn widows? Do you guys actually sacrifice humans? Do you truly have modern plumbing? “While some of these stereotypes come from curiosity and ignorance, others are products of racial, cultural and superiority broadsides and that can be as humiliating as maddening because it’s all bullshit,” says a disgusted Indian NRI engineer based in New Jersey. Result? They spend valuable time and energy educating and correcting this “dumb racial stereotyping.”

This takes on critical dimensions, in many cases, “because otherwise it results in NRIs being mistreated by host communities, going beyond ‘personal’ issue to a ‘social’ one. It widens the cultural gap between the host and immigrant communities,” says V. Gangan, managing editor of the Global Indian magazine. It also explains why NRIs and immigrants are vulnerable and extra-sensitive about movies like Slumdog Millionaire, which seems to project sublime-bliss-amidst-filth images. Frequently it leads to cruel and merciless ribbing, jibes and taunts about their “dirty, unclean origins,” which in turn leads to hatred for India and their crazily obsessed I-love-my-India parents!

One wishes that the British had left behind, along with their rail network, a tinge of humor, understated irony (“I don’t pump Iron; I pump, Irony!”) and self-deprecation. Or perhaps, far beyond air-conditioned malls, multiplexes, fancy limousines and designer lives, the simple loincloth of laughter is the most effective, comforting, glorious and life-transforming antidote to India’s thin-skin prickly heat.

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Commentary | April 2012

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