Indians can laugh at themselves, just not at their rulers

Shortly before his 2004 suicide, the wry American monologist Spalding Gray was asked after a New York show how his humor was received overseas. He recalled a presentation he’d recently given in Europe that hadn’t received a single chuckle over a two-hour period — ouch! — after which he’d overheard two audience members remark, “My, those Americans sure like talking about themselves.”

Humor may be easily lost in translation, but sociologists, artists and political pundits say it also offers insight into how an individual or society sees itself.

India has a long tradition of humor, from toothless grandmothers singing ribald wedding songs to street performers delivering biting satires. Indian humor, particularly in films and on television, tends to involve a lot of slapstick, practical jokes and double meanings — “not very subtle,” said policy expert Mohan Guruswamy.

But when it comes to Indian politicians, few will publicly crack a joke. And when it comes to the Indian public, few feel empowered to crack a joke about politicians.

From Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi to the present, Indian leaders have tended to take themselves rather seriously, said Ramachandra Guha, author of “India After Gandhi,” and to speak “more in the pompous style.”

The annual White House correspondents dinner in Washington, where the president often displays a self-deprecating style, would be unthinkable in India, said a recent column in the Hindustan Times, bemoaning the poor state of Indian political satire.

“Our skins are getting thinner and thinner,” echoed writer Rajkrishnan Menon, who grew up in southern Kerala state and recently moved to New Delhi.

One possible reason for the dearth of joking, suggests Guha and others, is the longstanding cultural view that leaders are sages who bestow wisdom upon their charges, not people who seek to seem accessible by talking about their shortcomings or bad golf game.

Those who forget the script can suffer. Shashi Tharoor, a parliamentarian and former top U.N. official, earned a trip to the woodshed last year after Twittering that he’d be flying economy class in keeping with a government austerity drive: “In cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!” Critics howled until Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointed out that it was a joke.

Despite centuries of British rule, parliamentary debates here, while often emotional, animated and flowery, tend to exhibit little of the sarcastic back-and-forth seen in the House of Commons.

An exception is the former rail minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav, known for a rustic, folksy persona that some have compared to that of President Reagan. “Indian Railways is the responsibility of Lord Vishwakarma,” he once said, referring to the Hindu god of divine engineering, referring to mounting train accidents. “So is the safety of passengers.”

It wasn’t always that way here. Birbal, the advisor and court jester to Akbar the Great (1542-1605), repeatedly poked fun at the Mughal emperor and his cronies, said Rochona Majumdar, a language and culture specialist at the University of Chicago. It’s a part of history that remains in the national psyche.

Mahatma Gandhi was also known, seriously, for his wit. After meeting George V at Buckingham Palace in 1931, he was asked the appropriateness of wearing sandals and a loincloth. “The king was wearing enough for both of us,” he responded with a smile.

In another noted exchange, the Mahatma was queried on his view of Western civilization: “I think it would be a very good idea,” he said.

These days, a handful of satirists appear to have license to poke fun at India’s high and mighty. Among them are cartoonist R.K. Laxman and the columnist Khushwant Singh, who joked this month at a book launch that the prime minister’s wife had crashed the party.

Their free passes may have something to do with their lengthy time on the public scene, not to mention their ages. Both are 95.

“They’re perceived as government-approved,” said Jug Suraiya, another satirist. “Still, the message is, don’t the rest of you try it.”

The public may refrain from joking about politicians, said writer Mitali Saran, partly because getting things done in India often involves pulling strings to bypass the country’s infamous bureaucracy and humor can offend the powerful, who may deny favors.

“Humor is a form — often a devastating form — of criticism, and the more self-important we are, the more unable and unwilling we are to take criticism,” Saran wrote in a recent essay. “We love to honk on about our ‘emerging superpower status’ but suffer a meltdown if anyone mentions 300 million people going to bed hungry every day.”

On the other hand, said University of Michigan professor Arun Agrawal, Indians have a far greater ability than Americans to laugh, at a personal level, when things go unexpectedly wrong. It’s a function, he said, of living in a land with constant power outages and other challenges.

People “develop different ways of coping,” he said, “and humor is probably one of the more effective ones.”