Saturday, June 8, 2002

Laughing through tears and pain
Juhi Bakhshi

IMAGES of Indian soldiers in battle fatigues, seated in camouflaged lorries and buses are flashed across the TV screens. The news reports also broadcast people stopping these vehicles periodically, performing aartis of the uniform-clad figures, placing vermilion tikkas on their foreheads, garlanding them to their nose before letting them go on their way again.

"Bali ke bakaron ko ache se saja ke bhejenge", I scoffed. My husband and I both broke into a short dry laughter. The scene was not what amused us. Nor was our situation particularly hilarious. My husband had just told me to get his bags ready as move orders to the border could come within 48 hours. Many of our friends were already on the way. With the thought of the impending war, the entire scenario was distressing. But still we laughed.


As we got together that night with our friends, we laughed talking about a sleepy soldier who by mistake had walked across the invisible LoC to take a leak and had then committed the disaster of waking up the sleeping enemy sentry thinking him to be his own. The man returned to our side of the line again. It took him just a few months longer and cost him a few missing teeth and nails and a disfigured body. We laughed as the men talked of how they were very nearly made minced meat by the gunfire of their own troops as they went out to check a suspicious movement in the dead of the night in a terrorist-infested area.

We laughed as they narrated how they lay flat on the ground, in a most undignified fashion, when the enemy shell hit their encampment for the first time, or how a venomous desert snake gave them company in their beds as they slept on the desert frontiers of the country. The night passed. In the morning we sent off those who were to go with a fond ‘see you soon’ and ‘best of luck’. There were no tears, no long faces but only the memory of a night passed laughing.

Laughter it appears has a great shock-proofing value. We laugh not only when we are amused but also when we are distraught. It is during these times that laughter comes in handy as a great defence mechanism and an excellent coping strategy. The only thing that is different about humour at times of crises and emergencies is that it has added to it a dark, sinister quality as it makes fun of the elements that have very little to do with laughter like death, exploitation, pain, illness and the like.

The poor tortured soldier of course could not have found his situation anywhere near funny nor is there anything comical about ear-piercing, fear-invoking shells falling right on top of your heads day in and day out. Since these situations form such an integral part of soldiers’ lives the only thing they and their families can do is laugh at the absurdity of living in such an environ and the incongruity of such a situation.

As we laugh at what is usually tragic or lugubrious, we call this humour black or dark humour — humour based on grotesque, morbid and the macabre. Such humour that derives its kicks from the absurdity, the insensitivity, the paradox and the cruelty of modern day. It features most commonly among people whose daily tasks centre around taking on the unpleasant aspects of life.

Soldiers give a boot to the basic instinct of fleeing in face of danger and go ahead, sometimes, against all rational judgements into life-threatening situations. Firemen court enormous risks while battling fiery situations. Similar is the case with the policemen. Medics and doctors deal daily with the harshest realities of human existence like illness, pain, accidents trauma and death. For all these people and many more, seeing humour even in the most unpleasant of the situations brings about a kind of tension release and also helps deal with the situation through distancing and reinterpretation. The basic role of humour in such a scenario might perhaps be the feeling. "If I can still laugh, things can’t be that bad".

In a situation as grim as the holocaust, people could always find something to laugh about, though nothing connected with the holocaust was funny. In a study on ‘Humour as a defence mechanism in the Holocaust’ by Chaya Ostrower are given experiences of 55 holocaust survivors. Talking about their strategies for surviving in the man-made hell, one of the survivors had this to say, "I think it (reason behind survival) was humour, not to take things as we were living but to dress them up as something different. Humour was one of the integral ingredients of mental perseverance... of our inner mental struggle for our human identity, the fact that we could still laugh at things such as these..."

The humour that arose from the ghettoes was not comic but terrible and of the darkest hue possible. Inmates drove humour from the most common occurrences — starvation, overwork and death. Tired, hungry prisoners joked how work would "free them from the chimney of the crematorium number three". Compulsory baldness at death camps were borne with an optimistic, "if head is there, there will be hair".

Tough times make pain an object of play not only for the individuals for nations and ethnic groups also resort to black humour as a pain-alleviating device. Their collective psyche churns out an entire body of black jokes, which they communally use to tide over the crises. The first and the obvious reaction to any disaster is of course tears. But when the tears stop, the black humour begins.

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA shocked the entire nation. As the American army got ready to take on the Taliban, the common public vent their anger and frustration by making the Taliban and Osama bin Laden the target of some of the most cruel and lewd humour. An extremely mild joke (in comparison to most) for instance advised giving up the plans of killing Osama as that would make him a hero, or capturing him as that would encourages his associates to take hostages. The ideal way of dealing with the terrorist would be, the joke counselled, capturing him, performing a sex-change operation on him and sending "her" to live as a woman under Taliban.

The Kargil conflict generated extreme passion in the country. Post Kargil, all mourning and glorification over, Pakistan emerged as a favourite butt of ridicule for Indian humorists. Satirists have also derived morbid satire from the suicide deaths of poverty-stricken farmers in Andhra. "What do the farmers in Andhra take to cure their chronic stomach aches? — A bottleful of subsidised pesticide".

However, not everyone has a stomach for black humour. Many fail to see any humour in statements of this kind and deem all puns cracked at those in distress as insensitivity and cruelty of the first order. Nevertheless it is worth noting that many writers feel black humour reflects a grim ability to see and understand in depth the existing situation rather than denying it or making trivial of it. Perhaps, researchers suggest, that those using black humour have a darker vision than most, which they present through a unique mix of comedy and tragedy with the idea of sensitising others to similar reality.