Will you be writing your regular column this week? Wouldn’t humour be a little inappropriate to the current mood of Tamil Nadu? A well-meaning friend asked me this during a chat.
This existential query stared me in the face last year too, when much of the city went under flood waters which caused huge destruction to both lives and livelihoods. At that time, I did come up with a levity-filled piece, despite the crisis of the occasion, and I justified it with the disclaimer that “humour imparts a strange sense of ‘all izz well’. However falsifying it may be, its placebo-sweetness could also be the first of the many things we need towards in our lurch towards normalcy, whatever that is”.
But this time around, I don’t want to take that line, but instead will share my experiences with ‘Cho’ Ramaswamy, which although limited had a lasting and, I would think, important impact on me and also on my idea of humour.
Cho is the only actor and journalist in the entire world — I can say this with authority — on whose bald head I have run my fingers. This happened at a small private (family) function that both of us happened to be at some 3 decades back.
I was a very young boy then, and he did not get angry when I, attracted by the shiny pate, ventured forth to feel it while he was sitting in a chair. He took my kiddish impishness in his casual stride. But the thing is he may not have minded my silly antic even if I were a grown up individual. For, Cho never took offence at anything.
It was not just a character trait in him, but a life-affirming position. It was at the core of his personality and it is out of this that all his humour flowed. Inner peace creates humour. And also, humour delivers that inner peace. This, of course, I kind of figured it out much later after my interactions with him as a journalist. For, he hated talking anything about himself. Also, he had this remarkable quality of de-intellectualising things and showing them up for what they truly are in all our lives: A pompous joke.
But if humour were just about making jokes, he would have been a mere comedian. But he managed to treat every situation, and, more importantly, himself lightly. Humour was his entire outlook towards life. When all moral positions have some flaw somewhere, humour is not a bad option to embrace as one’s life philosophy. Also, when death is anyway going to have the last laugh, why not we at least have the ones before that?
Another thing that I realised through him was: Humour never works if it is a product of grudge. It falls flat when it is made out of malice. You can never make real good jokes on things that you hate, Cho told me in a rare avuncular moment one afternoon long ago. (Perhaps that is why I have so far not managed to write a column on pineapple pizza, the one thing that I totally detest in life).
True love makes you let go; hatred arrives when you hold on to things. But good humour needs distance between you and your subject. It is a distance that is filled with empathy, a quality without which you shouldn’t be even attempting humour. This should disabuse people of the feeling that humorists make jokes on things they don’t like. On the other hand, the comic potential of stuff that one cares for is enormous.
Cho certainly cared for India and its politics, and that is why he was able to produce gems in both political commentary as well as sensational satire. His kind of satire was not presenting things in a skewed form. That would have been grotesque, like a chamber of horror mirrors. Instead he had this special skill of purveying sublime in ridiculous. It is high art to dish out truths in forms in which they are anything but that. It was a strange kind of ventriloquism in written word.
More than anything else, humour, I understood through Cho, should never be explained. Its essence is in its unpredictability. It is the surprise sting in the tail. It is also, in its DNA, irresponsible. That is why laughter, the manifestation of humour, is frowned upon on solemn and sombre occasions. (Tears, on the other hand, can be attendant on every emotion). A joke, by definition, is on someone.
Well, there are serious people to shoulder the responsibilities of the world. It’s the lot of a humourist to carry its irresponsibilities.
Cho Sir, thank you for your inspiring irresponsibilities.