The many varieties of humour

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“Your ignorance is colossal, almost equal to my knowledge!”, exclaimed my father. My cousin Achut, freshly graduated from IIT, Madras, and I, were having breakfast with my father.

"Your ignorance is colossal, almost equal to my knowledge!", exclaimed my father. My cousin Achut, freshly graduated from IIT, Madras, and I, were having breakfast with my father. The remark was provoked caused by the inability of Achut was to explain the difference between a radar telescope and a radio telescope in response to father's question. Achut, poor chap, was perhaps distracted, enjoying, as he was, the sumptuous breakfast prepared by my mother.

It was I, on another occasion, who was the target of domestic humour. My elder brother, though in a light hearted manner, often rubbed in his feeling that I was not as bright as he was. In fact, the nickname he gave me was 'Stupidity Inc.'!

Father was always a bit short, if not curt, with people who were comparatively slow-witted. Unfortunately, he could not curtail that habit even while he sat the bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court as a judge. The story goes that a young lawyer, being shown round the High Court by a senior counsel, asked his guide "who is that advocate arguing so loudly in that court"? upon hearing some loud arguments in a courtroom which they were passing. "That is no lawyer," was the reply, "it is Justice Bhimasankaram (my father) arguing for both sides!"

My father suffered a mild heart attack when I was preparing for my civil service examinations. While he had the best of medical attention, it was really my maternal uncle (also my father-in-law), who provided him the greatest comfort. They had a very comfortable relationship, with no end of humorous repartee happening between them, all the time.

The fact that my uncle was eight months old when my father, and mother married probably explained the great intimacy that existed between them. Soon after checking my father and pronouncing him fully recovered and fit, my uncle remarked to my father, "surely you could have chosen a better way of telling us that, after all, you, too, have a heart!"

One last incident before I move to matters other than family humour. One, in fact, which earned me by first literary income by being accepted by the Reader's Digest. Father had never travelled much for over the 40 years he spent as a lawyer and a judge. It was after accepting an appointment as the Chairman of the Central Wage Board for sugar industry that he had happened to travel to Gorakhpur.

The long and tiring flight, and the fact of being alone without my mother, proved an extremely trying combination for his fragile temper. And the mosquitoes in the guest house in which he was put up did not help either. After a restless night, he awoke, rather grumpy and irritated.

The young protocol officer attached to him called on him soon after he had got ready and, somewhat diffidently, began a polite conversation with the question, "Sir, is this your first visit to Gorakhpur"? Immediately, father perked up, and promptly shot back, "tell me, has anyone come here a second time!"?

Humour has, for long, been a common feature in essays, stories, novels, plays and movies among others. Many great names come to mind when one tries to recollect those who regaled readers, listeners and audiences over the centuries with their lectures, essays and acting plays and movies. While it is quite impossible, in a column such as this, to recount even a reasonable number of them, some great names do stand out.

From ancient personalities such as Diogenes and Aesop, through Chaucer, Pope, Shakespeare and Voltaire to Poe, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, Woody Allen, and Jonathan Swift, the list is one which travels across centuries, and invariably remains incomplete. And how can one leave out more recent but equally outstanding names such as those of Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, Stephen Leacock, P.G. Wodehouse, Ogden Nash (whose limericks are unforgettable), Bapu and Ramana in Telugu and Cho Ramaswamy in Tamil?

And giants such as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers (also famously known as the Three Stooges), Bob Hope, and in more recent times, the outrageously entertaining combination of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis? And there were legendary comedians in the film world in India such as Johnny Walker and Mahmood in the Hindi movies, and Relangi, Allu Ramalingaiah and Brahmanandam in Tollywood.

While English, Hindi and Telugu, alone, have figured in our reckoning, we should not forget that every language in the world, and in India, has produced extraordinary talent both in literature and histrionics. Some literary works, notably 'Yes minister', and 'Yes Prime Minister', have lent themselves with great facility both for entertaining the reader and the watcher (of the video version).

Humour often plays the role of a welcome feature, lightening the atmosphere and causing people to relax, in otherwise serious situations, in places such as a hospital, a courtroom, a classroom in a school or college, or in offices. I have, by nature, always been a rather cheerful person and I am never found it difficult to look at this funnier side of life in fact I have no difficulty in laughing at myself and encourage all my friends and acquaintances to do so.

While I was working as a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, one day, a visitor asked me, "how do you manage to smile all the time in spite of the palpable tension in the atmosphere here"? There was, as a matter of fact, never a dull moment in Krishi Bhavan with one crisis after another keeping all of us busy and, on occasion, even a little tense.

If it was not a cyclone in Andhra Pradesh, a landslide may have occurred in Uttaranchal. And a drought in Rajasthan or a flood in Assam were not rare occurrences. Gluts in commodities such as potatoes or tomatoes, and shortages in others such as onions, always had us rushing from pillar to post, looking for methods to provide succour to the suffering farmers, or consumers, as the case maybe - with the political leaders at the highest levels breathing down our necks all the time.

And then, of course, there were the usual worries, such as being hauled up for contempt of court, and preparing for the Minister to answer questions in Parliament. All that flashed before my mind's eye, as I replied, "I smile because laughing out aloud would be rude in this place!". While I did enjoy my work, I also found it funny that, while millions of farmers were toiling away on their land, in all sorts of adverse conditions, we the 'babu's, of Krishi Bhavan, would savour the record production of food grains of the country in a press conference every year!

Another incident that comes to mind in this context is the feat I performed, while under training at Mussoorie. It does not usually snow there in the winters. It was Christmas Eve and we were due to leave for Bharat Darshan the next morning. After a bit of revelry the previous night, I had gone to bed a little late.

When I awoke and stepped out of my room, I found, to my astonishment, that it had not only snowed the previous night, but there was a hard surface of ice under my feet. And the next thing I knew, there I was, just outside the riding rink, all of some 200 feet below, having broken all records for the speed with which that distance had ever been covered!

Upon the formation of the new state of Andhra Pradesh, in 1954, the High Court of the erstwhile Madras State was bifurcated and father moved to Guntur, the headquarters of the new High Court, as a lawyer. Soon thereafter, he was elevated to the bench of the new court.

Koka Subbarao who subsequently rose to become the chief Justice of India was the chief Justice of Andhra High Court at that time. I joined sixth grade in M.J. High school. People generally knew that, earlier, I had been a child actor in films at Chennai and had completed a few of them even after moving to Guntur.

Expectations, therefore, were high when I was asked to do bit of mono action – that of enacting the famous speech of Hamlet at Caesar's funeral. I had got no further than the "friends, Romans and countrymen …", bit, when I began to stutter and stammer, and generally made a hash of the whole thing.

Head hung in shame, I was walking away from the stage to where were my parents were sitting. Meanwhile, Koka Subba Rao, who was sitting in the front row of the audience, as the Chief Guest of the function, beckoned to me and gently whispered in my ear, "be sure to button your fly next time you appear on stage!".

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh) 

(The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)

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