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Those ABSURD jokes

Have all the Sardarji jokes died with a suave Sardar becoming our PM? Or haven't they, wonders BAGESHREE S.

The best Sardarji jokes come from within the community itself. — Photo: AP

"ONCE ZAIL Singh went to... " That's how every other joke went in the Eighties. The former President, a quiet and scholarly man, was the butt of seven out of 10 jokes. And the remaining three revolved around Santa Singh and Banta Singh. Some clever and some dumb. And many that would be considered offensive by even those who are not sticklers for political correctness; even by the standards of those years when people didn't get fired for cracking racial jokes in an office.

Now that we have a Sardar for a Prime Minister, logically, we should have had a million "Once Manmohan Singh went to... " variety of jokes. But anybody heard anything of that kind of late? Hmmm? That unanimous "No" leaves us with one old and one new question: how does it feel for a community to be constantly at the receiving end of jokes? And hey, have all those jokes suddenly disappeared?

"Now that we have an `intelligent Sardar' for Prime Minister there seem to be no more jokes!" laughs Kanchan Kaur, mediaperson. "Now, did I say `intelligent sardar'? You think that qualifies for an oxymoron?" she asks, with a heartier laugh. She recalls her late father's remark about Sardarji jokes dying a quiet death when Manmohan Singh became Finance Minister. "The best thing about the community, anyway, is that they can laugh at themselves. The best Sardarji jokes I've heard are from my own father and brother." Her father, in fact, would put Santa-Banta characters in Irish jokes and turn them into Sardarji jokes. "Come to think of it, I haven't met a single Sardarji who seriously minds being laughed at." And who could have cracked more jokes than that Sardar of all Sardars, Khushwant Singh?

Ask Kuldip Singh Rekhi, President, Karnataka Punjabi Welfare Association and General Secretary of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha (Ulsoor Gurdwara), to consider the two grave questions, and he seems tickled. "Who told you there are no more Sardarji jokes?" he asks. "There will be no jokes left on this earth when Sardarji jokes stop doing the rounds." Point out to him that there are no jokes on Manmohan Singh, and he urges you to be patient. "The man has not revealed his qualities yet. Wait and trust Jaspal Bhatti to come up with some fantastic ones!" Describing Sikhs as a "jolly community", he echoes Kanchan when he says that he is yet to meet a Sardar who gets offended by these jokes. "We work hard and laugh harder," he says, with unmistakable pride. Preetam Singh, who runs an industry, says that it is by God's grace they are made the way they are. "Aaap tho khush hue na? Good if you are giving everyone happiness," he says. Concurs Chiranjeev Singh, the soft-spoken Development Commissioner of North Karnataka. "The community has a tremendous capacity to laugh at itself," he says. "They may not like the malicious ones, but a good number of them (the jokes) come from within the community! It actually speaks of its maturity." And on Manmohan Singh, he doesn't share Rekhi's views: "Well, what can you say about such a decent, honest, and learned man?" Kanchan, on the other hand, wonders if the trend has something to do with people, on the whole, taking life more seriously than they ought to. "Tell me, do we any longer have a decent humour column even in any newspaper?"

Interesting what Khushwant Singh himself has to say about Sardarji jokes in an article on Manmohan Singh: "... I look forward to a new brand of Sardarji jokes following Manmohan Singh's prime ministership. So far they have been the butt of humour as a simple-minded naοve community. Though Zail Singh was himself a man of great wit, his lack of sophistication was grist to the mill of Sardarji baiters. They will find it impossible to pick on Manmohan Singh as a Sardarji stereotype. All said and done, his promotion to the top position does fulfil the prophecy of the Gurus repeated at the end of every Sikh prayer: Raaj Karega Khalsa. (The Khalsa shall rule.) Not with the kirpan though, but with a ball-point pen."

With the opinions divided, we can only wait and see if they will be able to pick on Manmohan Singh — suave, English-speaking, the father of globalised Indian economy. And yet, a Sardar. If they don't, it would prove that there is a typical middle-class mindset operating behind all jokes. If they do, in all likelihood, we would have Manmohan Singh himself laughing along, maybe even adding his own. After all, every Sikh this correspondent spoke to ended his/her conversation with what he/she considers the best Sardarji joke!

The Gurbani, we are told, emphasises that the worst enemy of every human is "humain" or "I am" — Humain deerag rog hai/ Daaroo thi iss mahein (The ego is a foul disease, its cure is also in it.) That the community can laugh at itself so heartily is proof of how seriously it takes this dictum.

The Belgians too...

CHRISTIE DAVIES, University of Reading, England, offers a serious take on Sardarji jokes. The scholar, who specialises in morality and humour, studied them when he was a visiting lecturer in India in the Seventies, and talks about their socio-cultural origins in his book, Ethnic Humor Around the World: A Comparative Analysis.

Davies says, in an e-mail chat with MetroPlus: "All stupidity jokes are told about people who are like us but live on the edge of our culture. For example, the Irish in U.K., the Belgians in France, the Sikhs in India. Just look at the map. The Irish speak English, but differently. The Belgians speak French, but differently. They are not real foreigners but cousins who seem to be a funny version of ourselves." The same applies to Sardars in India. Their distinctive characteristics such as not cutting their hair and carrying a sword are woven into jokes, he says. "Otherwise, the stupidity jokes are the same as elsewhere."

Talking about the decline of Sardarji jokes, he says: "There are fewer stupidity jokes generally than in the 1970s and 1980s not just in India, but everywhere. It is just fashion, nothing to do with politics. You might ask, though, whether the jokes stopped being told in the weeks after the massacre at the Golden Temple and Mrs. Gandhi's subsequent assassination. I have heard conflicting accounts."

* * *

In a paper titled Why does everyone laugh at the Belgians, Davies makes some interesting observations about the Belgians being the butt of jokes for two reasons — their language and their religion. A nation that has no language of its own, it is divided by the languages of two of its neighbours. Flemish is close to Dutch and the Waloons speak French. Davies observes that from the point of view of the Dutch and the French, the Belgians speak a "stupid" version of their own language. And Belgians look to the Netherlands or to Paris for the "correct", "sophisticated" version of their own language. "Even the brilliant Hercule Poirot wished to learn `proper' French," he writes. And the stupidity jokes are also reinforced by the fact that it is a Roman Catholic nation — in contrast to Calvinist Holland and the Secular Republicanism of France. "Catholics are more likely to be the butt of stupidity jokes as in the case of the Irish, Poles, Slovaks, Portuguese, Pastusos, etc.," writes Davies.

And he makes a reference to the Sardarji jokes in the same vein: "It might be worth noting that the other main group to be the butt of stupidity jokes in more than one country, namely the Sikhs (Sardarji jokes), are a people defined in religious terms."

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