Humour is a bulletless gun, an anger dousing foam, a tension reliever, a face-saving shield, a pin to prick bloated egos

In primitive days, nations settled their disputes only through wars. In feudal times, gentlemen settled all their quarrels with gun duels as if bullets could decide the justice or otherwise of things. In all dictatorships the army and suppression are of critical importance to the survival of the regime. Modern man tries to settle differences through the more civilised ways of diplomacy and dialogue. In his arsenal of non-lethal weapons humour occupies the prime place in negotiating potholes in both the public domain and private lives. For the civilised man a sense of proportion of things and a razor-sharp intellect replace the savage’s fist of fury. Perhaps like our shrinking integrity in public life, our sense of humour is taking a beating and intolerance is becoming pervasive and shooting up by the day. Like the paradoxical common sense it is becoming rare to find.

Humour is a bulletless gun, an anger dousing foam, a tension reliever, a face-saving shield, a survival tool in the face of grim oppression, a social friction lubricant, a pin to prick bloated egos. So it is heartily loathed and outlawed by dictators who ban all cartoons. But it is the refuge of the underdog, and the unfailing weapon of debaters. It is the essence of the democratic spirit. Autocrats dread and proscribe it since they cannot silence ideas with bullets.

Great men and women possessed it in abundance. They never attempted to cage or muzzle it. Wise kings of old kept court fools who had the freedom to jest about imperial follies. We see a number of such ‘wise fools’ in Shakespearean plays. Even in the circus we have clowns who ape the artists clumsily, arousing peals of laughter, thereby relieving the tension of the high-strung trapeze artists.

Winston Churchill, who successfully led England through two world wars, was an exceptionally witty man. Once a society lady insulted him saying if he were her husband she would poison him. He coolly quipped that if she were his wife he would drink it.

Another time dramatist Bernard Shaw attempted the snob game with him saying. “I invite you to the first performance of my play and bring a friend … if you have one.” Pat came his blistering reply: “Impossible to be present for the first performance. Will attend the second … if there is one.”

When Gandhiji was visiting King George in London he made no change in his sparse attire, with no shirt to his back. A palace officer condescendingly dropped a hint, “Mr. Gandhi, do you think you are sufficiently dressed for the occasion? “ On the instant came his unfazed reply. “His majesty has enough clothes for both of us”.

Pomposity and petty jealousies can be seen even in religious circles. Once a hushed dispute arose among the close disciples of Jesus over who was the greatest among them. The wise master called a child and, placing it in the centre of their circle, said: “Unless you become like this little child, you will not enter the kingdom of God.” Their egos then shrank to healthy dimensions.

John Paul II, while fighting communist oppression in Poland when he was a young bishop, was forbidden by the government from holding the annual traditional procession with the picture of the famous Black Madonna. He did not despair. He held the procession all the same with just the frame of the picture and the knowing huge crowd of devotees gallantly joined in. The bamboozled authorities were at their wits’ end at this out-of-the-box thinking coming from the unlikely quarter of a churchman.

Once an emperor was visiting prisoners in a crowded jail and he asked each of them his life and crimes. All of them protested their innocence and blamed the government and the courts for their plight. One man alone confessed his crime honestly and had no complaints against the authorities. The emperor ordered his immediate release and told the rest that the presence of such a criminal would be undesirable among so many innocents.

We can see this subtle irony in Shakespeare in the classic speech of Mark Antony after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Not even once did he speak disrespectfully of the chief conspirator Brutus but he rubbed in layers of irony with his repeated epithets of ‘honourable’ and ‘noble Brutus.’ When wit takes a back seat, then the powers that be order arrests and detentions. Great statesmen like Nehru never objected to any cartoons and, in fact, looked forward to be amused by the great cartoons of R.K. Laxman.

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A life of laughter April 21, 2013

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