(Published in the Business Standard, June 18, 2013)
Remember the old joke about the Soviet Union? Two friends, an American and a Russian, are engaged in competitive bragging.
“My country is so free,” says the American, “that I can stand on the steps of the White House and shout, ‘Ronald Reagan is a crook and a fool!’, and no one will arrest me.”
The Russian is unimpressed. “So what?” he says. “I too can stand on the steps of the Kremlin and shout, ‘Ronald Reagan is a crook and a fool!’ and no one will arrest me.”
Over the last few weeks, a debate ignited over the powers of extreme surveillance demanded by governments across the world—including, most recently, Barack Obama’s US. Most countries, from the former Soviet Union to the present empire of America to our beloved Bharat, play on fears of terrorism, and cite security threats in order to justify the silencing of dissent, and the widespread breaching of individual privacy rights.
Stand on the steps of the Kremlin, the White House or Parliament today, and you’ll be taken away and questioned, to use that polite euphemism. Here is a new axiom for the modern world. As freedoms become more widespread—through the Internet, through the demands of citizens for more rights everywhere from Taksim Square to Raisina Hill—the tendency of countries to treat their citizens with paranoia and suspicion, to close the doors, grows like a virus.
The writer Tom Sharpe, who made art out of the grotesque in a way that would have made Jonathan Swift and Rabelais proud, died last week. This is from Riotous Assembly, his first novel set in ‘Zululand’, modelled on South Africa:
The taste of the Victorian lower middle class imposed itself indelibly upon Piemburg and has stayed there to this day. And with the taste there came an immutable sense of hierarchy. Viceroys, governors, generals, vice-governors, colonels, down the ranks swept, broadening as they went, through nuances too subtle to enumerate, where schools and wives’ fathers’ professions and a dropped aspirate or one retained ‘g’ could cause a major to step in an instant up above a lieutenant-colonel. At the bottom of the scale came private soldiers in the pay corps. Below these pariahs there was nothing left. Zulus competed with Pondos, Coloureds with Indians. What happened down there was simply nobody’s concern. All that one had to know was that somewhere even lower than the loyal Zulus and the treacherous Pondos there were the Boers. And so it went until the war. Boers didn’t wash. Boers were cowards. Boers were stupid. Boers were an excrescence that blocked the way to Cairo. Piemburg ignored the Boers.
You could swap out a few terms and replace “Piemburg” with “New Delhi”. But if you reworked Sharpe to suit the Indian context, he would be in trouble. Under the new IT Rules (2000), his novels could be banned online, for being, and I quote from the Rules: “grossly harmful, defamatory, libellous, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging”. The terms that do not apply to Sharpe’s satire here—“obscene, pornographic, blasphemous, harassing” could well apply to other passages from other books—not just by him, but by most writers with a flair for black humour. Satire is programmed to be provocative, to answer to few rules, least of all nonsensical laws.
Two charges from this section of the IT Rules (2000) would not apply: Sharpe promotes neither paedophilia nor money laundering. Of the rest, he would stand guilty as charged.
Satire dies hard, especially in countries like India with a long history of scurrilous parody (Bengal’s khemta nach), questioning of the authorities (sawaal-jawaab), gleeful pamphleteering, sharp, teekhi political commentary, and a general refusal to take life seriously. But it withers in certain spaces. Political cartoons vanished from the English newspaper space—a generation that had grown up with Sudhir Dar, RK Laxman, memories of Sankar, Maya Kamath and many others now has only Unni, as The Hindu recently pointed out.
Indian writing in English, slapped on the wrist for the sin of disrespect as far back as the days of Aubrey Menen, has produced few parodists/ satirists beyond Upamanyu Chatterjee and Shashi Tharoor to add to the ranks of the Shrilal Shuklas, OV Vijayans, PuLa Deshpandes. (Both Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel and Chatterjee’s English, August would, in their web versions, run afoul of the IT Rules (2000).)
And while satire bounces back—chiefly on the web, in parody Twitter accounts, faking news websites etc—how humourless, and how timid, these pulp bestsellers are. The only humour they employ is about as funny and original as those volumes of 1,000 Jokes and Riddles that used to be sold on railway platforms.
Before its demise, the Soviet Union produced three things in large quantities—queues, terror, and jokes. The jokes were the most useful; they can be cleverly recycled to suit any modern regime, from the US to China to India. For instance: a government-owned paper announces a contest for the best jokes about politicians. First prize: 20 years.
That one’s timeless, and applicable to so many of the world’s finest nations. Including ours.