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Missing humour in religion

March 13, 2013

WITH all the bloody mayhem unleashed in the name of religion today, there may be no occasion left to remember that not too long ago people of different faiths in our region and elsewhere could poke fun at each other’s beliefs without incurring the death sentence.

Given the current state of strife in Pakistan (and its shadow in other parts of the world), I am already beginning to miss my favourite Shia-Sunni jokes.

The backstage of the two newspapers I worked with in Dubai in the 1980s was packed with the wildest banterers from Shia and Sunni sects of the subcontinent.

The Shias were described as khatmals, bedbugs and the Sunnis were happy to be called machchars, mosquitoes. I had heard this description of the two ‘teams’ in Lucknow earlier but could never figure out the basis of merrily seeing or accepting the sects of a shared religion as troublesome insects.

Deep political messages could be expressed with an undercurrent of satire between fellow believers of different ethnicities. The Pathan taxi driver in a Gulf state was so riled by his Arab hosts that he grumbled in anger to me: “Allah Ta’ala isko upar se Quran diya, ye nai samjhi. Allah isko neeche se tel diya, ye wo bhi nai samjhi.” (God gave this fellow the Quran from heaven, he didn’t understand it. God gave him oil from the ground below, he missed that too.)

In India, the popular sardarji jokes went out of fashion after the 1984 communal onslaught against the Sikhs. The biggest teller of the sardarji stories was none other than the prolific Sikh writer Khushwant Singh. He was too shaken by the murder of Indira Gandhi and the mass lynching of Sikhs that followed in Delhi by vengeful mobs to completely recover his infectious joie de vivre again.

After paying our homage to Hugo Chavez in Delhi the other day, a couple of Marxist friends pointed out worriedly that his successor, Nicolas Maduro, was an ardent devotee of the controversial Hindu ‘godman’ the late Sathya Sai Baba.

The saffron-clad guru with a distinct coiffure lured a diverse range of devotees with his famed miracles. They included Pakistani cricketer Zaheer Abbas, his Indian contemporary Sunil Gavaskar as also the relatively younger Sachin Tendulkar.

There was a period when the most powerful men in India — the speaker of the Lok Sabha, the prime minister, the army chief and even the president — were followers of the Baba.

It was an eyesore to many of course to see the guru ensconced on a higher chair than the prime minister of India, just as it evidently riled my Marxist friends to see the anointed heir of Chavez involved with a miracle man of ordinary credentials.

A well-known Indian magician took a more humorous view of the Baba’s flaunted abilities with the sleight of hand. Garbed as a devotee of the guru, the Bengali conjurer P.C. Sorcar Jr accepted a “miracle sweet” the Sai Baba pulled out from the air for him.

Then Sorcar waved his own hand and plucked out a different refreshment to return the favour. Sai Baba, we are told, was livid. If my Marxist friends have their way they would plant P.C. Sorcar in Caracas to keep a close watch on the promise of the Bolivarian revolution staying the course. However, the fact is that Hugo Chavez too was a deeply religious Catholic. And if that didn’t deter him from taking the revolutionary path, there is little to indicate that his successor would be waylaid by a miracle he may have experienced with an Indian guru.

What set Chavez apart from his other revolutionary peers was perhaps his bubbly sense of humour, and his ready laughter. That’s the point to remember.

Was there ever a Holi, the festival of colours (just a week away) when the day would not end with a session of risqué poetry at the local Hanuman temple in the Nirala Nagar district of Lucknow? Lord Krishna’s frolic with the milkmaids of Mathura, which the occasion celebrated, mutated into amorous verses involving the men and women of the mohallah, including Muslims, Hindus, everybody. That humour has become a problem, a ruse for harassing women today.

Similarly, the theatrical Ramlila, staged in every village and mohallah, would celebrate the return of Lord Ram from exile with the most rambunctious ribaldry that spared no community and involved everybody.

We would fall off our chairs just listening to Anand Ghildayal’s irreverent versified take on the Ram narrative. This was before Mr L.K. Advani converted an Indian icon into a Hindu deity as he flexed his nationalist muscles astride a makeshift chariot. He was on his way to the destruction of an unused 16th century mosque in Ayodhya to reclaim the mythical glory of his Mother India.

In Semitic religions in which laughter was more or less banished by some unspoken law from the pulpit, the people quietly discarded the rigidities. The idiom of the Singing Nun perhaps drew the sharpest line between the etiquette of the church and the spontaneous street culture that anchors much of our collective quest for less constrained expression of happiness.

While Muslim societies are definitely lagging behind today in their ability to allow for humour in religious narratives — and look what they have done to themselves in the process — it is the hitherto freer Hindu ethos that has veered sharply to the right as it imbibes a glum look that was associated with the Semitic disapproval of hearty laughter. Returning to sardarji jokes, to Shia-Sunni banter would be a blessing worth praying for.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.