The Indian politicians would do well to take themselves a little more lightly.
“Ramgarurer chhaanaa haaste taader maanaa.” Translated, this opening line of a Bengali poem, means: Ramgarur's kids are forbidden to laugh.
Ramgarur is one of the many creatures imagined by Sukumar Ray, a humourist-poet beyond compare. The father of film-maker Satyajit Ray, he believed that people wanted to laugh, needed only pretexts and he could provide them. In his lifetime (a brief 36 years) he created a Nonsense Club with his friends looking for literary fun. For posterity he left behind humorist compositions — prose and poetry — with, most famous of them all a collection of nonsense rhymes in a slim volume titled Aabol Taabol. “Ramgarurer Chhaanaa” is one of the best known from Aabol Taabol. Nobody ever complained that any of Sukumar Ray's hilarious characters had been drawn to ridicule anyone.
Yet, with humour drying up before the rampaging sands of politically opportunist ultra-sensitivity nearly a century after Sukumar Ray's death, one cannot be sure that someone will not pop up in our Parliament or in a law court, asking for a ban on Aabol Taabol.
Pay to sneeze
Almost anything is possible these days. Did Sukumar Ray have a premonition himself? The Indian polity today is showing signs of emulating “God Shiva's own country” of his imagination. In that realm “the laws and bye-laws are catastrophic”. If anyone slips and falls on the road, a guard grabs him and he is fined Rs.21 after a trial in a Qazi's court. In that country you need a ticket to sneeze before six in the evening. And so on. Who knows someone may consider it his duty to save God Shiva from continuing insult by asking for a ban on this poem.
A cartoon of Nehru and Ambedkar over the perceived snail's pace of India's Constitution-making more than 60 years ago, has been berated in the Lok Sabha as an insult to Ambedkar. Had he been alive today, Sukumar Ray might have added laughing or smiling over this cartoon to one of the many no-nos of Ramgarur's tribe. The others are listed in the following admittedly inadequate (the rhymes are missing) translation of Ray's poem:
Ramgarur's kids are forbidden to laugh./ If they hear anything funny/ they say, no laughing for us — no, no, no./ They are worried all the time —/ there, somebody may be laughing;/ they look furtively here and there/ with blinking eyes./ None of them sleeps,/ keep warning themselves/ dare you laugh, we'll thrash you./ They don't go near a forest/ or under trees/ lest the southerly breeze caresses them into smiling./ They are never at ease —/ they listen warily to the laughter/ steaming up to the edges of the clouds./ Near the hedges in the darkness of night/ glow-worms light up/ in step with laughters./ Those who cannot stop laughing/ can't they feel the pain they cause/ to Ramgarur's kids?/ Ramgarur's home/ Is packed with threats.
Even translating and publishing “Ramgarur's Kids” may be risky. Some honourable member of our Parliament may come out with a formal notice of a breach of privilege. Or someone may file a public interest petition in a law court. The cause of action? That some august personality has been brought into the same league with a Ramgarur kid —even if only by implication. There is a grim warning already from Kolkata. A Jadavpur University professor had to spend a night in a police lock-up for e-mailing a cartoon with a single word from a Satyajit Ray film.
The erudite Pranab Mukherjee joined in lambasting the 62-year-old cartoon. To the UPA's troubleshooter-in-chief the reproduction of the ancient Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon seemed to have looked like a threat to his much-battered unsteady government. Any gust of political wind makes the Congress leaders jumpy. Evidently Pranab Babu never heard of Nehru's words of encouragement to the cartoonist, Shankar. The Prime Minister's express instruction to the cartoonist was not to spare him: “Bring us down by a notch or two.” But that was six decades ago.
Today Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal is working on a decree banning all cartoons — old or new, irrespective of their age Methuselah downwards — must not find a place in any text book.
Laughter in education? No, no, no, says the worthy Minister.
The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist.