Acid in the funny bone

Topics BOOK REVIEW | Coronavirus | Lockdown

This lockdown thing hasn’t been good for people who read books. Most of them ran out of things to read in the first two weeks. 

I have been more prudent. I have enough to last me a year. It’s because I was left high and dry not once but twice.

When I pointed out my cleverness to a friend — who reads more than she eats — she grumbled a bit and said, in an ill-tempered way, that I should write about funny books. She didn’t explain why. 

So, folks, here goes. Back in 1964 my father was posted to Jabalpur. Before that we had been in Delhi where books were easily available. But they were very scarce in Jabalpur. 

So imagine my relief and delight when, my father was transferred to Bhopal. There I found a brand new British Council, air conditioned, library.

Bhopal had three distinct parts then. One was the old Bhopal by the two lakes most imaginatively named bada talab  and chota talab. The second was the BHEL township on the other side of the railway line. 

The third was the babu-mantri colony called 74 Bunglay. It is tucked into a tiny valley. (The babus were chased off in 1980 to a hill deliciously —originally — named Chor Imli!)

The folks in old Bhopal, when they read, seemed to prefer non-English books. BHEL was too far away from the library. But the babu-mantri complex was very close. 

Most people who used the library took home either serious books or magazines. But I was fixed upon 
P G Wodehouse. There were 66 volumes there. 

All were published by Herbert Jenkins. All were brand new. All were covered in thin plastic. In all but a few cases I was the first borrower. 

Clearly, someone in the foreign office in London thought that Wodehouse was a good way of keeping the natives from becoming restless. I had a whale of a time reading all 66 novels in the 80 weeks my father served there.

Since then, however, I have not read a single Wodehouse book. This isn’t because the books are no longer available. They are.

It’s because I stopped finding Wodehouse funny, which is my fault I am sure. But when I asked an English friend about him, she said “who”? That about summed him up. 

Regardless of his absurd verbal imagery, Wodehouse was period slapstick in print. He appealed to the juvenile in us. I said as much to a Wodehouse fan who wanted to know what non-period, non-slapstick humour in print was, is and could be. 

Spite is necessary

This set me thinking. I thought of all the books I had thought were funny and I think I have a clear idea now: Humour in print has to be cruel to be funny. Not cruel as in torture but just socially vicious. 

The British are the best at it because verbal cruelty comes very naturally to them. You have to only read their dourest humorists, past and present. There are dozens and they are devastatingly funny because they are so utterly unmindful of others’ feelings. 

Oddly enough, Mark Twain aside, I am yet to come across a mildly funny American writer. I wonder why. Is excessive political correctness the reason? 

Anyway if you know of a good American humour writer, do tell me.  After all they are so good in the 
other genres. 

Indians do far better, I think, albeit not in English. In fact, Indians who attempt humour in English are pathetic because quite often they copy Wodehouse. They just aren’t able to rustle up the acid that’s necessary to be truly funny. Wodehouse aimed his acid at the upper class and it worked. 

Indian humour

I haven’t read much in any Indian language but the little that I have is in Hindi, which has been outstanding. In spite of my grand Tamil name, I can’t read or write it. I’m told by those who can that I have really missed out.   

Hindi humour is not spiteful in the way British humour is. Indian humour writers use sarcasm and irony as their vehicles for high-end humour. Also, the vyangya,  as it’s known, is not aimed at people but the state — government, politicians, judiciary, bureaucrats and so on. 

And, of course, humour doesn’t work at all in translation. English simply isn’t rich enough. The nuances and the contexts both get lost. I mean imagine Wodehouse in Bengali.

As he would say, the mind boggles — or, in this case, bongles. 

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