“If you can’t change it, laugh about it”. That seems to be the mantra of the average person on the street as he grapples with the myriad challenges of daily life. The support groups that form as a result are sometimes normal and, at other times, decidedly oddball.
A very depressed young man, who feels that everything in his life is going wrong, goes to a palmist.
The palmist inspects the lines on his palm very closely, shakes his head sadly and says, “You will suffer and have a really bad time until you turn 40 years old”.
The young man is crestfallen, but then looks up hopefully and asks, “Will it get better after I turn 40?”
The palmist replies, “Not really. But you’ll get used to it, and it won’t matter so much any more.”
This story sums up the attitude of many Indians in the face of daily struggles – a carefully calibrated mix of fatalism and humour. The joke, the wry comment, the sarcastic one-liner – there is no shortage of these little spoonfuls of sugar to help the bitter pill of reality go down.
Fate has dealt the average Indian a hand that is heavy with discomfort and disappointments. From the everyday to The Armour of Humour the bigger canvas of life itself, the aam janta’s reality is a series of compromises and adjustments. The rallying cry of the Indian public is ‘Chalta hai’ or its close cousin, ‘Please adjust’.
In fact, there is a little linguistic formula that you can use across India. String together these three words: the local word for ‘little’ + adjust + local word for ‘do’ and you will get a phrase that is familiar to any Indian anywhere in the country – ‘Solpa adjust madi’ (Kannada), ‘Konjam adjust pannu’ (Tamil), ‘Thoda adjust karo’ (Hindi). It works wonders everywhere. The formula. As well as the attitude.
The adjustment – whether it is squeezing into a crowded train or squeezing the most out of the monthly budget – is borne with a shrug and a weary smile. It usually helps that there are enough co-sufferers around to take the bite out of the situation. A misery shared, of course, is a misery halved. And a misery that can be laughed at, along with someone else? Well, there’s no fraction for that.
While political shenanigans may form the most common fodder for the wit next door, there is almost no occasion or news event that cannot be milked for a chuckle. A lackluster performance by the Indian cricket team may trigger the observation that the only time a team member can add runs on the scoreboard is when he is bowling. A ride in a jam-packed Mumbai train is alleviated with comments like, “Just think, people pay to be sandwiched like this in Thailand.” And the lampooning of celebrities the rich and famous? Well, that could be declared the real national sport.
The tradition of using laughter as a lubricant to slip unpleasant truths across is not new. Folk theatre and art forms of India have always used humour, both as a carrot to lure the masses to the performance as well as a stick to beat up the social ills of the day. Folk art forms have a tradition of being more ribald and ‘earthy’ than most mainstream entertainment. Here, the comic actors function as social auditors who highlight the problems people face through satire and broad-brush comedy. And in most cases, they are able to do it without fear of repercussion since the humour effectively insulates them from the wrath of the powers that be.
Today, those in positions of petty power are often at the receiving end of a disproportionate number of barbs. Employees in government offices, traffic policemen, bank employees… the list goes on. But in many of these cases, the barb does not really find its way to the intended recipient. Which brings out another aspect of Indian humour – the ‘wish-I-could-say-that-aloud’ joke.
These stay in the joke teller’s mind and while he or she might be guffawing internally at the witticism, you would never suspect it from the poker face on display. The price of expressing what they are really thinking in such a situation is too high. And Indians are nothing if not pragmatic. They know that there will always be a lot more time and a more receptive audience when they leave the paan-stained premises.
Apart from all this, to add a dash of zaniness to the situation, there is that strange tribe of people who do not need anything funny to smile. In fact, they do not stop at smiling. They guffaw, they convulse, they chortle and whoop and howl and roar. All over nothing. Just for the cathartic experience of laughing out loud, and, perhaps, for the facial workout it offers.
Laughter clubs have been springing up all over India for some time now. And the funny thing is, the sight of a group of people standing around in public and laughing their heads off for no apparent reason does not merit a second glance in India. Except from the occasional passerby who wonders if they are cracking up or they have just finally cracked.
In India, the line between what is purely funny and what is funny in an idiosyncratically Indian way is sometimes blurred and, at other times, non-existent. Phrases like ‘it happens only here’ and ‘we are like this only’ illustrate the national tolerance for nuisance and hassles.
As someone once said, ‘You can cry about it. Or see the absurdity of it all and laugh it off.’ If you decide to laugh, there will probably be a lot more people joining you. And you’ll realize that laughter is not just the best medicine. It is, very often, also the best defense.