The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 24, 2003

Humour plucked from everyday life
Rajnish Wattas

The Rupa Laughter Omnibus
edited by Ruskin Bond. Rupa. Pages 180. Rs 295.

Bond’s humour is gentle and laid-back
Bond’s humour is gentle and laid-back

ANYONE who has known Ruskin Bond will recognise his real-life persona in the spirit of the book. It is the ideal companion to lift your spirits – almost like a Wodehousian ‘pick-me-up’ – on a gloomy day. Gentle and languid with a laid-back humour; it brings a chuckle or a smile; but is never slapstick.

As humour anthologies are hard to come by, especially in India – leaving aside Khushwant Singh’s loud Santa-Banta joke books – this excellent collection of classic humour pieces is most welcome. Besides classic gems from Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat and pieces by Stephen Leacock, Morley Roberts, Hilaire Belloc, it also offers Bond’s own pieces. And then there are some new inclusions by lesser-known Indian writers, including Bond’s Musssoorie buddies!

Stephen Leacock’s Decline of the Drama is a perfect satire and so is Robert Lynd’s spoof on the city with the longest name in the world, in which he writes, "We are all victims of the love of the odd, and many people would go farther to see a man ten feet high or with three eyes than to talk with Socrates."


Also very delightful are the pieces by Aimer A. Dickson, whom I had never read before. One is an essay Drunkards of Distinction and the other a naughty verse titled Company, which reads: "One night in late October/ when I was far from sober feet began to stutter/ so I lay in the gutter/ And a pig ... lay down by my side/ A lady passing by was heard/ You can tell a man who boozes/ By the company he chooses/ At which the pig got up and slowly walked away."

Bond’s own pieces like My Failed Omelettes and other Disasters and The Zigzag Walk, are the timeless, quintessential Bond; even though reading them gives one the feeling of d`E9j`E0 vu. But by far, the most typical example of the editor’s self-effacing style and humility, which pokes fun at his own foibles, lies in the beautiful introduction to the book: simple, easy flowing; yet laden with puckish humour. "An expensive pen may occasionally vanish`85but an inexpensive ball-point seldom lets me down. I keep a bunch of these handy: some on my desk, two or three in my coat pockets`85a couple in convenient flower-pots (I get the occasional bright idea while gardening)`85Pens accompany me on long walks. Computers don’t, and secretaries won’t."

He also makes a serious point about humour by making distinctions between wit, satire and comedy. While the former two are subject-specific, comedy, especially when ‘plucked’ from everyday life or based on one’s own foibles and eccentricities, outlives them. And that’s Ruskin Bond’s forte. He makes the world a better place, simply by making us laugh with him, and at ourselves.

A rare discovery is the satirical piece, The Kidnapping of Major Mulvaney, written by an erstwhile British ICS officer on the ‘bumbling’ ways of the bureaucracy during the Raj. It makes one think that not much has changed in the country in the last century!

The tragic-comic piece by Vijay N. Shankar — The Music Man — about the life and vanity of a saxophone player who has fallen on hard times and is working in a wedding band, besides being humorous, touches one deeply. The character is so much R.K.Narayanesque that it reminds you suddenly that the maestro does not figure in the collection! Similarly, there is no piece from P.G.Wodehouse. I would have loved to see something from his all-time great Pigs have Wings.

These omissions — though no anthology is perfect; and the selections remain basically the editor’s prerogative — make one suspect that Bond has been a bit lazy, even by his own standards. Also, the pieces in the book have not been compiled in any particular order. It leaves one doing a zigzag journey through the contours of the myriad humour-scapes. Perhaps that’s the way Bond would like it to be – serendipity in humour! But at least the publishers could have been less somnolent. Also, an author-wise index at the end would have been helpful in locating one’s favourite piece for a delicious re-read.

Unfortunately, humour writing as a genre of literature remains neglected. Academics turn up their noses at it, dismissing it as ‘light stuff.’ Newspapers reject witty pieces in favour of editorials on disasters or political shenanigans – the vanishing ‘middle’ column is a pointer in this direction. And the Nobel Prize committee has perhaps never considered a P.G.Wodehouse, a R.K.Narayan or a James Thurber for the award! And to survive in life there is no medicine better than laughter.

So just bond with humour, board the Rupa Laughter Omnibus; till the blues are bumped off with a smile.