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Missing humour in religion


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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.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (50) Closed

ahmed41 Mar 14, 2013 11:47am

In today's atmosphere one dare not pull off jokes against Shias.

khatun Mar 14, 2013 11:42am

While others follow their religions to some extent, muslims go overboard to prove themselves a better muslim. Little do they realise that they must prove themselves better human beings first.

AniketAniket Mar 14, 2013 01:22pm

True. One doesn't hear as many jokes on religion these days. Probably due to the fact that in this information age, these jokes can spread far and wide and ultimately someone might create trouble for those playing on these jokes. I don't remember the last time someone told me a jokes on Sardarjis, Ram, Sita, Hanuman etc.

MS Mar 14, 2013 11:40am
I totally agree with the author. We are fast loosing our sense of tolerance & humor & I fear that if this trend continues, we shall soon loose our sanity.
Tahir Mar 14, 2013 01:18pm

Why does a young man pick up a knife and attack someone who might have slighted his religion? This is something that I can never understand. Let the divine powers (if there be any) deal with any slights and we should mind our own business. Can we start teaching this to our children?

U Gupta Mar 14, 2013 01:11pm

After a longtime, nothing anti India What a change.

vinod thapar Mar 14, 2013 10:11am

High time humour is used to defuse and relax built up tension caused by relgious certainties.See how comedians poke fun starting with Christ ,the Pope and the vicar who is always pissed and the priest who is touching altar boys.This is the best advert for a secular non religious society.

BakwasMia Mar 14, 2013 04:40am

Sai baba - 20th Century God Man ??? - 7th century violent God Man

suneel Mar 14, 2013 02:04pm

Naqvi Sahib, thank you for writing a good article for the first time :)

Shruti Mar 14, 2013 05:39am
In other words, should religion be so central to our self-identity? We are so many things more than our religion. We are first and foremost a human being like any other and connected. Our happiness depends on other's happiness, irrespective of their religion. And if people can see themselves as much more than just their 'religion' they will be more tolerant and less sensitive about it. Why is this so hard to understand??
Putar Mar 14, 2013 05:58am
When one can laugh on his own inadequacies, only then the Humor is good. This was our culture and we should work towards preserving it. Let it not die a suffocating death on the altar of right wing sensibilities.
Shahid K. Mar 14, 2013 06:16am

Javedbhai, what's your point ??, you start of somewhere ,and take readers through a series of roller coasters ultimately landing everyone upside down,some where in the air. You take an issue, expand it,either support it or refute it though logical ,rational and factual statements,that's journalism. If there is any joke here,then its yourself.

K G Surendran Mar 14, 2013 07:15am
Humour in danger. Still enough of it around in this information age to tickle our ribs.
being human Mar 14, 2013 07:19am
first time i have to agree with you
Startled and annoyed Mar 14, 2013 07:55am

What an ignorant argument. "In Semitic religions in which laughter was more or less banished by some unspoken law from the pulpit." And how pray did you become privy to this 'unspoken' law? Please don't theorise on the basis of scant knowledge. So odd to generalise about Hindu ethos and Semitic ethos. Articles with such dangerous generalisations are tantamount to willful provocation and spreading prejudice against entire communities. Am surprised it was published.

Hindu Mar 14, 2013 09:25am

We still make jokes on our Gods and we are proud of it. I am sure that if there is a God, he definitely has a sense of humor too.

vivek Mar 14, 2013 12:24pm

ah! no mention of Modi today!

rahul Mar 14, 2013 12:25pm
I frequently disagree with as being way off the mark, but this is spot on!
chakraborty Mar 14, 2013 01:47pm

read "Identity and violence" by Amartya Sen.

Md Imran Mar 14, 2013 02:21pm
I agree with the author whole-heartedly. Indian Hindus should rebuild the 16th century mosque .
Ajaz Mar 14, 2013 03:04pm
Is it really? Or, are very selfish forces and very selfish individuals deliberately fueling and exploiting rote-learned knee-jerk sentiments? Are they deliberately trying to get property, assets and women of the minority community under the pretext of 'faith offended' ? It seems sinister to me. They pretend to not understand, as they are in position to take advantage of the weak? Yes? They are actually intelligent.
abc Mar 14, 2013 03:06pm
being a muslim itself is being better than the rest. in the day of judgement, god may forgive any sin, but he will never forgive anyone, who had not accepted his true religion and messenger during his lifetime.
Malala Mar 14, 2013 03:47pm
Javed saab, normally I am left disgusted with your articles. This is not an insult. Please note that I still read most of your articles particularly in the Dawn because there are interesting nuggets from your past, good anecdotes and different view points. What I dont agree with you is your seemingly endless (and often illogical in my opinion) desire to link everything happening in Pakistan or the Middle East or the Muslims in India to Hindus, Jews and the Americans. Often, your theories compete with famous conspiracy theories originating in the Middle East about 9/11 or Israel. However, this article is spot on. It is high time people gave less importance to organized religion and concentrated on being good neighbours. I am glad you did this through most of your article though the obligatory reference to Babri Masjid and Advani was there. Thanks! Once again, I respect your experience, your journalistic efforts and your profound knowledge. This is not to be seen as a back handed compliment or even an insult - just an honest piece of feedback..
s.qureshi Mar 14, 2013 03:55pm
You need to correct yourself... The title should be - Missing humour in Islam...
Kiran Kaur Mar 14, 2013 03:57pm
I am a Sikh who does not refrain from cheerfully taunting my brother by saying 'kar di na sardaron wali baat' every time he acts foolish. Security breeds tolerance. People who take offence when others point out obvious flaws in their faith and belief are insecure. They are not very different from the stout women who makes a hue and cry every time somebody tells her she is fat!!
Cyrus Howell Mar 14, 2013 04:22pm
Pope Francis has changed the sacraments at Sunday mass from a wafer and wine to a shot of tequila and a corn tortilla.
pathanoo Mar 14, 2013 04:42pm
Another sane article. Two in a row now. Jawed, Are you OK? Fully agree with the article and the author for a change.
Sridhar Mar 14, 2013 05:16pm
There are jokes, stories, plays parodying Buddha, Rama, Krishna, Abraham, David, Jesus, the Apostles. There are still in circulation writings that have critical and satirical evaluation of the Pope, the Cardinals, the rabbis, the pandas and the priests. There are caricatures, paintings, sculptures and cartoons of of gods and prophets from all those religions listed above.No prize for guessing where the gaping hole is. The main reason such conspicuous absence is not the subject matter but acute intolerance, lack of sense of humor that has prompted reprisals and mortal threats. A person or a group that feels supremely self-confident is able to laugh about himself/itself, and with others.
Siddhartha Shastri Mar 14, 2013 06:50pm
And End of Faith by Sam Harris.
Alicia Malik Mar 14, 2013 07:21pm
Their is nothing missing in Islam. Islam is not stand up comedy. It is NOT frivolous. You have not read the Qur'an were this is categorically stated. That does not mean that Muslims do not have a sense of humor. Except it draws a line at improper inappropriate behavior.
Felix Mashi Mar 14, 2013 07:39pm
What about the other over 450 mosques they demolished? And the Hundreds of Churches they burnt down?
RSS Mar 14, 2013 07:43pm
But open season on Islam and Sunnies is OK?
T. Celtic Mar 14, 2013 07:45pm
Being Muslim, by definition and behavior, is the best human being.
RSS Mar 14, 2013 07:52pm
Your gods and goddesses are indeed funny. And not real.
No god Mar 14, 2013 07:55pm
Your statements implies that you know that your gods are not real.
RxPrrP Mar 14, 2013 08:01pm
[Sura2:221] Hindu polytheist Pagan women are forbidden to Muslims, unless the become belivers. ]
Gulbagh Singh, Los Angeles Mar 14, 2013 08:34pm
The very thought that Muslims are better is the main problem. Muslims do not have monopoly of goodness. Muslims see the world with one eye.
khatun Mar 14, 2013 09:54pm
Would the muslims build the hindu temples they had destroyed in Pakistan? Hindus have destroyed one, muslims have destroyed thousands. Let us not destroy the truth,it will not benefit anyone.
SBB Mar 15, 2013 12:29am
Newsflash for Mr. Naqvi - There's still humor about religion in discussions. But we try not to have those conversations with people like you... there's no idea what you may end up doing.
SBB Mar 15, 2013 12:30am
Newsflash for Mr. Naqvi
sunny Mar 15, 2013 02:59am
Rohit, I think you missed the point. I am not a Jawed fan. I think this is what he meant. I went to a school with many muslim students. They perceived Ram as (Hindus') equivalent of Allah -- that is, an object of reverence. When we had Ramayana story telling, there were many muslim students enjoying it all the way. After Babri mosque episode, the perception of Ram changed among many muslims. He is now a Hindu god who incites hatred towards muslims.
shiva Mar 15, 2013 05:05am
The Unforgiven!!!
Another Human Mar 15, 2013 05:54am
very true shahid bhai... Jawed has exceptional power of expression especially English. He is unbeatable.
Rajesh Mar 15, 2013 07:46am
You made me laugh with your humor here
Rajesh Mar 15, 2013 07:48am
Dont lynch me in this lifetime. I will handle the judgment day when it comes
AHA Mar 15, 2013 12:10pm
To all the posts on this particular thread. Too much hate. Lighten up.
AHA Mar 15, 2013 12:13pm
And I thought Allah is the Rehman and the Raheem who is the Lord all ALL (repeat ALL) the beings.
AHA Mar 15, 2013 12:14pm
Why is Islam so insecure?
Shruti Mar 15, 2013 05:45pm
Huh? How is that relevant to this discussion?
viti99 Mar 15, 2013 05:45pm
And the proof that your god is real?