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 is what sets Man apart from other species. Man is the only creature endowed with the power of laughter. 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.
This said; allow one to exhibit a sense of consternation at the fact that one’s fellow beings appear to be fast losing their sense of humour. Delving into recent history a bit, the news of the demise of the ‘Punch’ magazine several years ago had come like a bolt from the blue. The fact that 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 had hit one where it hurt most. The disappearance of ‘Punch’ was a sad commentary on the state of humour of the British, to say the least. 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 every one’s cup of tea, did ensure for it a unique position in English literature.
Nearer home, news of this genre is taken in the nation’s stride. One hardly expects an eyebrow to be raised or a tear shed. It is bad enough that our nation is getting quite used to seeing institutions stifled; what is worse, it is fast losing its 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.
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.
Or, take another everyday occurrence. Traveling by the local bus used to be an altogether uplifting experience. In between issuing tickets, the conductor would carry on a cheery banter keeping all and sundry amused with his robust native wit. One ended the journey an altogether happier and (more often than not) a wiser individual. One may be mistaken, but “bhands” are no longer 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?
It has been said that nations begin to die when apathy sets in. When a people become bereft of their sense of humour, they lose the will to survive at the same time. Why do we have to take everything so seriously? Why do we not see the lighter side of things? Our nation has emerged unscathed out of numerous traumas – dismemberment, 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 humour can see a person through the darkest of days. The same is equally true of nations. Let us, then, not let go of our native sense of humour. 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 to answer: “Only when I laugh”. Now that’s the spirit!
— The writer is a former Ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.