The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August 26, 2001
Lead Article

I muse to amuse
Rajnish Wattas

WHENEVER I get the blues, my usual ‘pick-me-up’ (if that’s the word I want) is a P.G. Wodehouse rib-tickler. It helps me chuckle away the dark clouds and rediscover the rainbows. Thank you, Jeeves.

There is a perception that humorous prose is not as significant as serious writing. Also, that stories which make one laugh cannot be as great as stories that make one cry. This is unfortunate and also untrue. Don’t we read fiction to be amused and to be transported elsewhere —"into a cleaner, brighter world than we live in"?

Humour relieves tensions. It is said that President Abraham Lincoln lightened the grimness of cabinet meetings during the Civil War with comical stories and readings. "When I lose my power to laugh," he said, "my heart will break." I couldn’t agree with him more.

Khushwant Singh, noted writer — whom one humorist described as the modern-day Birbal —, however, finds most of contemporary Indian writing as deadpan or too serious. Whether it’s books, magazines or newspapers, it’s hard to come across humour .Joke books apart, are we Indians too dry and humourless souls or too ponderous? Going by the preferences of our editors and publishers, most certainly! And the irony is that this happening in the land of Birbal, Tenali Ram and Mullah Nasiruddin where a vibrant tradition of earthy, rustic humour and ethnic jokes has flourished for long.


Perhaps, the situation is not so grim. After all, we do have our brilliant cartoonists — creating another kind of humour — like R.K. Laxman, Mario Miranda, Sudhir Dhar and, the doyen, the late Keshav Shankar Pillai, who ran the famous humour magazine Shankar’s Weekly. Let’s also not forget contemporary writers like Anurag Mathur of The Inscrutable Americans fame, columnists like Jug Suraiya, and the late ‘Busybee’ Behram Contractor.There is also a large and dedicated legion of newspaper ‘middle’ writers, who lighten the load of enduring the everyday gravitas of political analysis and lofty editorials.

"Humour writing is spontaneous, it cannot be contrived or forced. Humour must create the situation and the situation must lend itself to humour," says Sridhar Balan, talking about the most comprehensive book on the subject, The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose. Compiled by Frank Muir, it is a classic celebration of humour and this genre of prose-writing. Muir’s tour de force covers five centuries of humourous prose ranging from William Caxton to P.G. Wodehouse. It carries excellent commentaries and excerpts from nearly 200 humorists, including legends such as Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Art Buchwald, Richard Gordon, Groucho Marx and Stephan Leacock. Some writers created excellent humorous writing from their professions such as Gordon’s ‘Doctor’ series and James Heriot’s funny adventures as a veterinary surgeon.

But in the hall of fame for humour writing the name of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse stands the tallest. Popularly known as "Plum," he was born in 1881 and died at the ripe age of 93 on St. Valentine’s Day in 1975. As the greatest ribtickler over generations, he was a ‘humourist par excellence and gave the reading world a large canvas of comic heroes each one characterised with his or her own little idiosyncrasies. His genius lay in elevating the tritest everyday happenings to tragic heights, and treating the genteel poverty of British Knights and Barons with soft, felt strokes.

Wodehouse had a range of endearing, unforgettable characters, who would often get into messy, comic situations — to be generally bailed out by Jeeves, the ‘leitmotif’ in his creation. The gentleman’s suave butler, whose super wit and intellect combined with his secret ‘pick-me-ups’ for the ‘mornings- after’ hangovers, is the stuff literary landmarks are made of.

Most of Wodehouse books’ characters delight with their comic presence. They never go stale. Fredie Threepwood is the vice president of Donaldson’s Dog Joy Biscuits, Bingo Little edits Wee Tots, a popular journal for children. The inimitable Bertie Wooster — a gentleman of leisure — who wrote an article, "What the Well Dressed Man is Wearing" for Aunt Dahlia’s weekly Milady’s Boudoir. There is also the absent-minded Lord Elmsworth in his Blandings Castle with all the time for his passion and obsession —his pet pig, and generally harried by his sisters. One of my favourite characters around whom a situational comedy is built up is Gussie Fink-Nottle in Right Ho, Jeeves. His only interest in life is watching the antics of his pet newts in his country house. Caught in an irretrievable situation — asked to preside over the village Grammar School’s annual function — he makes the most hilarious speech ever read, powered, of course, with stiff doses of orange juice laced with gin pumped in by Wooster and Jeeves to calm his quivering nerves.

Bertie Wooster’s overbearing aunts and their descriptions are legendary in their own right. Here is a sampling, "There came from without the hoof-beats of a galloping relative, and aunt Agatha whizzed in." Wodehouse is famous for many other nuggets such as: "I became aware of somebody coughing at my side like a respectful sheep trying to catch the attention of its shepherd." Portrayals and situations apart, his genius also lay in the profound use of similes. As Jaya Ramanathan sums it, "Although one may call Wodehouse irreverent, malice is one attribute never seen... and in that lies his expertise, the old world charm of making you laugh without alongside else for target practice. The humour and mirth is bull’s eye, but the bull is not even scratched."

I find the humour in Punch (now happily revived) more enjoyable than the style conscious New Yorker ,with which James Thurber was associated, as it succeeds in reaching out to those more familiar with the British idiom than with Americanism. As a satirist "he tosses a bomb while he appears to tip his hat." His humour increasingly reflected that American wives had an instinctive urge to subdue their husbands. In his famous The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the husband is prone to daydreaming and escapes to an imaginary world where his skill and daring beat all odds. As millions of battered husbands all over the world associated with the hapless character, it brought Thurber worldwide recognition. His skills at cartooning, to embellish his own writings, proved to be the icing on the literary cake.

Among the other American humorists, I have always enjoyed Corey Ford — founder-writer for the New Yorker — whose stinging parodies I first came across in the old issues of The Reader’s Digest. My favourite is his My Unfitness Programme, which has a dig at the all-American fad for fitness regimes. It tickled my own couch-potato form. And few humour columnists can match the tongue-in-cheek satires of Art Buchwald, syndicated all over the world in over 500 newspapers.

On the homefront, nothing fascinates more than the understated, tragi-comic, passive humour of R.K. Narayan written with his characteristic ‘deceptive simplicity.’ He perfected the art of plucking humour from daily life instead of trying to create laboured scenarios, and in following Robert Louis Stevenson’s precept, "There is but one art, to omit." However, I’m afraid I have not quite followed Narayan’s own advice, "If you love humour don’t talk or write about it. For nothing evaporates so swiftly as humour the moment it is examined or explained."

According to Frank Muir, "There is a bit of unfathomable mystery in humour ... a God-given gift ... and if we start mucking about it, it might be just taken away. With no comic invention left." He further adds, "For a humorist to study a theory of laughter would be akin to a Victorian bridegroom thumbing through a textbook on married love before putting the light out; informative perhaps but not conducive to the creative urge."

In all its many-splendoured varieties, humour can be simply defined as, "a type of stimulation that tends to elicit the laughter reflex. When a comedian tells a story, he deliberately sets out to create a certain tension in his listeners, which mounts as the narrative progresses. But it never reaches its expected climax. The punch line, or point, acts as a verbal guillotine that cuts across the logical development of the story; it debunks the audience’s dramatic expectations."

In making a distinction between wit and humour, it is often said that wit appeals to the mind rather than to the emotions, to the intelligence rather than feelings. Another distinction is that humour tends to rely on situations, wit on language.

Satire is an often bitter form of humour that looks upon the frailties of mankind with amused tolerance, with mild ridicule. Sarcasm is much more brutal than satire. If one woman says to another, "That’s a lovely dress, dear. Too bad they didn’t have your size," she is being sarcastic.

Puns or double meanings are also typical forms of humour. The play on words is such that one word is said when another one is meant. For example, it is said that Ben Johnson was once asked by a friend to make a pun. Ben replied, "Pun what subject?" (for "Upon what subject?"). The friend said "Oh the King." Ben then said, "But the king is not a subject. He is the king."

It requires a writer to great skill and delicacy to blend pathos with laughter. In my opinion, Narayan excelled in this craft. His range of characters such as Nagrajan, the idler, always planning to write a literary masterpiece but never getting on with it; Sampath, the Malgudi printer, who blunders into film world; and "Railway Raju", who is forced into a saintly fast- unto- death, epitomise this genre.

Similarly, irony may be a simple statement, but it conceals a sting in the remark. A sign on a freshly seeded plot of grass may say only "Please", but it probably means, "Have enough sense to stay on the sidewalk, where you belong!"

Notwithstanding such semantics, perhaps the only certainty regarding humour is contained in Dr Samuel Johnson’s dictum: "Sir, men have been wise in many different modes, but they have always laughed in the same way."

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