This Article is From Apr 20, 2014

When Nehru was caricatured by RK Laxman

(Dr. Shashi Tharoor, MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

Governance is a serious business, and by no means an easy task. In a large, vibrant, and often raucous democracy like ours, the excitement and satisfaction of serving constituents is often tempered by frustrations, delays, and setbacks one faces while getting things done. This makes it all the more important to retain a sense of humour and take a few moments to laugh and smile.

I am reminded of the time when Jawaharlal Nehru was caricatured by the inimitable R.K. Laxman after the Sino-Indian war in 1962. Instead of being attacked by trolls or hired goons, R.K. Laxman was pleasantly surprised by a phone call from Mr. Nehru. The Prime Minister said to him, "Mr. Laxman, I so enjoyed your cartoon this morning. Can I have a signed enlarged copy to frame?"

Unfortunately in our politically charged contemporary India, irony or humour seems to be lost. I think we are now in a situation where there is always someone or the other waiting to get offended! I have said and written before that this 'right to be offended' is a most unfortunate development, especially in a country where a generation or two ago, humour was much better tolerated in our public discourse. Just over a year ago our Parliament erupted in near-unanimous indignation over a 1954 cartoon by Shankar portraying Nehru and Ambedkar. But neither man was offended when the cartoon originally appeared, and Nehru went on to give Shankar no less an honour than the Padma Vibhushan, the nation's second highest award.

With this increasing trend of highly vocal righteous indignation, Indians are fast acquiring a reputation for lacking a funny bone and a sense of humour. This image betrays the fact that as a culture, we have a great tradition of humour. In fact, most Indians, in their private lives, are either indifferent, or amused, and in most cases witty enough to come up with a joke in response to a difficult situation. There is, of course, a very discernible line between humour and something offensive. And the political class must be careful to abide by basic standards. But we should have the sense to see that a joke, however weak it may be, is a joke.

However, despite our ability to take a joke sportingly, it doesn't help when comments are taken out of context, and statements are misused to hurt the sentiments of innocent people. The media should most certainly learn to draw a line and curtail its sensationalist proclivities, which in the Indian context is not a feature of the tabloid press alone but is very much alive in mainstream media as well. The media's urge to exaggerate or dramatize everything they see or hear is a consequence of the 24/7 "breaking news" culture in our Indian media where if there is nothing to report, something must be invented! Politicians should adhere to standards of dignity, but the same must be said of the media too.

Sadly, issues are created out of comments that deserve nothing more than a grin or smile. On other occasions, comments are completely misunderstood. And I can say this from the personal experience of the needless controversy created by the now infamous "cattle class" comment. I have always pointed out (but only to be ignored consistently!) that the remark was unduly blown out of proportion. For those who wish to envelop me in controversy, it is convenient to forget that the expression was used by the journalist who asked me, "Tell us Minister, next time you travel to Kerala, will it be cattle class?" And I responded using the same expression -- which in my experience has been commonplace for decades, and is clearly understood throughout the English-speaking word to refer to the airlines herding people into economy class like cattle. In the days that followed, however, the comment was maliciously taken out of context and literally translated into so many Indian languages that by the end most people thought I had called Indian economy travellers cattle! I am still baffled by that episode and the turn things took. The misinterpretation of that remark is still flung at me several times a day.

Consequently, in a country of multiple languages and multiple political agendas, I have learned the wisdom of Shakespeare's sage observation that the success of a jest lies in the ear of the hearer, not the tongue of the teller. For politicians, it's less important what you intended to say than what people might understand you to have said.

Having learnt this lesson through trial and alleged error, I am compelled to be more careful, with all the unwelcome scrutiny (and, as with my use of "interlocutor", deliberate distortion) of practically every word I utter. This dampens my instinctive wit. But I am not excessively alarmed either, because beyond trolls and right-wing elements who have armies online employed solely to mount organized and motivated attacks, there are still many right-thinking, intelligent people who have not only a sense of humour but also a great degree of common sense.

And I still retain hope that the place for humour in public life and politics will be preserved-a joke treated as a joke, and the power of humour channelized to bring people together rather than drive wedges. This hope is articulated well by the American cartoonist Charles M Schulz, creator of the comic strip "Peanuts, an inspiration to some of the best cartoonists, who said - "If I were given the opportunity to present a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability for each individual to learn to laugh at himself."

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