I hasten to laugh at everything for the fear of being obliged to weep. One does not claim authorship of these words; since they were spoken by someone more perspicacious than one can perhaps ever hope to be. The incontrovertible fact remains that these words ring as true today as when they were uttered a long time ago. Laughter and the capacity to laugh are what set humankind apart from other species; man is the only creature endowed with the power of laughter. On another note, man has sometimes been called the rational animal, which is simply not correct. Man is anything but rational. The capacity to laugh, though, is the quality unique to man; and one that he would be well advised to hold on to if he knows what is good for him. Delving a bit deeper into the font of humor at this point would be in order.
The news of the demise of the ‘Punch’ magazine many years ago had come like a bolt from the blue. A magazine that had been the epitome of good humour since 1841, and which enjoyed the unique distinction of having ‘invented’ the cartoon, passed away unlamented and unsung. It had hit one where it hurt most. The disappearance of ‘Punch’ was a sad commentary on the state of humor of the British. The demise of an ‘institution’ is always sad and hardly any one could challenge the position of ‘Punch’ as one such. Its sharp wit, subtle invention and irreverent humour, though not everyone’s cup of tea, did ensure for it a unique position in the world of humor.
Back home, the news of the decline of humor is taken by the nation in its stride. No eyebrow is raised, no tear shed. It is bad enough that our nation is getting quite used to seeing institutions stifled. What is worse, we are fast losing the capacity to laugh. Let us face it – honorable exceptions apart – the Land of the Pure was never known for sophisticated humour. But our native robust humour was always evident in plenty. The common man, in the midst of his poverty and squalor, still held on to his capacity to laugh, more often than not, at himself. It was this spirit that kept the nation going. The tragedy of tragedies is that of late the going has been downhill all the way. So much so, that it has come to pass that even the funny spectacle of the hysterical juggling of fiscal figures by our statistics-happy planners has failed to raise as much as a smile out of the man-in-the-street, what to talk of a guffaw. Our nation is the net loser in the bargain.
A cursory glance at what we have lost! Take one random example: the occasion of a visit to the barber’s for a haircut. Remember the time when the barber, in between snips of his deft scissors, gave one not only a tour d’horizon of the national and international scene, but also threw in a few crisp jokes into the bargain. One emerged from the experience not only lighter on the scalp but also lighter in spirit. Alas, no more! Your modern barber (pardon, hair-dresser!) smirks, scowls, complains about everything under the sun and, when he is through with you, the only lightness you feel is in your wallet.
One may be mistaken, but “bhands” are rarely in evidence any more. They were once an indispensable appendage of every wedding procession. Where have they all gone anyway? They used to be the life and soul of the party by bringing out the lighter side of things in their own inimitable way. In the cities, wedding functions have become ghastly – showy but altogether boring affairs. In the place of the inimitable “bhands”, one is now confronted with the inevitable appearance of VIPs with their entourage of security personnel. From the sublime to the ridiculous, what?
Humor, it would appear, is being systematically drained out of our lives. This is an ominous development. Nations begin to die when apathy sets in. When a people become bereft of their sense of humor, they also lose the will to survive. Surely, our nation deserves better. Do we have to take everything so seriously? There must be things around us that are worth a smile, if not a hearty laugh!
Our nation has emerged unscathed through numerous traumas – dismemberment, several martial laws, not to mention several genres of democracy. But the present ordeal it may not survive. Whatever you do, do not take our laughter away from us. It is virtually the only possession we have left that is not up for privatization. Sense of humor can see a nation through the darkest of days. So let us laugh in the face of adversity and, who knows, we may yet have the last laugh.
All this brings to mind the story of the European soldier of the Middle Ages, who, in the heat of battle, got pinned to the trunk of a tree by an enemy arrow that had pierced right through his body. After surviving in this unenviable position for the better part of the day, he was at long last rescued by his comrades-in-arms. As they prepared to pry him loose, he was asked if it was painful. Managing a wry grin, he managed the answer: “Only when I laugh”. Now that’s the spirit!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.