Humour in the times of hatred

October 26, 2014

When common sense is fleeing from a society, it is time to invoke humour. But how does humour function and fare in the times of hatred?

Humour in the times of hatred

Two evidently common threads in the Naya Pakistan campaign, the road to ‘revolution’, the recent inter-media battles over ‘blasphemy’ and ‘mass reaction’ to Malala’s Nobel feat are that common sense has left Pakistan and hatred has become a public good in the land of the pure.

Hatred, it seems, works as the most efficient and economical force for narrow political gains and it unifies too. In the region constituting India and Pakistan, hatred has long been a part of the political project. Over the years, in Pakistan in particular, we have only perfected it.

Hatred, common sense and humour are closely related. The extent of recourse to common sense in crunch situations determines the degree of recourse to hatred or humour -- as expressions of defiance, resistance, and reform.

When common sense is fleeing from a society, it is time to invoke humour. But how does humour function and fare in the times of hatred?

Hate and humour have a strange relationship in this country -- a hate-hit relationship! You try humour on faith and chances are you will be instantly hated and hit. If you are brimming with hate, as a saviour of faith, you don’t have stomach for humour. And if you indulge in humour, despite having deep faith, your being an adherent of the faith is instantly suspect.

Three things that are pet fodder for great humour anywhere are politics, religion, and marriage/sex. Since most marriages are ‘one-man-show’ here, it does not leave much space for humour that an affable contestation between equals can produce.

In politics, there are attempts of skewed humour which take on the actors but not the directors or the forces behind the political play.

And religion is something we have had too much of. Actually, we are the most densely religious society. We have squeezed as much of faith in per square inch of our existence as others will struggle to park even in 10 square miles. No one can beat us on our self-improvised faith-thick society parameters. Trying humour in the face of this thickness is like breathing in deep water. However, some of us still manage some ‘brown humour’, a humour turned brown with the heat of restraints and restrictions.

 Hatred is a function of abundant belief, without questioning what we believe and what we are told to believe. Humour is a manifestation of prolific thinking and probing. 

But laughter in the face of hatred has a kick of its own: it’s like having beer procured from a bootlegger in defiance of prohibition.

If you are wondering, when and how did we arrive here, my answer is, "gradually, but sure-footedly".

I divide Pakistan’s history into three eras. In Urdu, the eras are: khush fehmi ka daur, ghalat fehmi ka daur and blasphemy ka daur -- loosely translated as eras of wishful thinking, wrong thinking and no thinking. Loosely again, these eras span from 1947 to 1958; 1958 to 1977, and thenceforth.

The first phase gave the illusion that independence would lead to emancipation and citizens’ freedom. The second era created the mirage that economic development was equal to social stability, and that democracy would produce social and economic progress. The third phase, the reigning era of blasphemy, resulted from a myopic strategy that assumed that use of religion would yield national cohesion, fraternity and social stability.

An overdose of religion for strategic purposes instead produced national chaos and social fragmentation.

Till 1850s, in my view, we were pretty relaxed as Indian Muslims. After that we used an overcoat of faith to wear a supra Indian identity. Between 1857 and 1947 we made huge efforts to tell what and who we were not. Resultantly, we started viewing ourselves as Muslims in India, not Indian Muslims, and thus heirs of those who invaded, conquered and ruled India; not the successors of those who would build India, and for that matter, Pakistan.

After 1947, we used faith for national identity formation at various times, in various ways. While using Islam for social regulation, Gen. Zia and company (1977-88) did not realise how monstrous and thorny bushes would grow from the seeds of legal amendments on blasphemy.

However, Zia was not the first one, or the only one, to misuse Islam faithfully; he only perfected the rot. Some of the leading lights of independence movement started the experiment believing that Islam as cohesive instrument of national identity would override ethnic and provincial divisions. They got it wrong on two counts: they mistook ethnic and regional diversity as divisions; and thought that faith could replace culture to effect social bonding.

The strategic use of faith against the Hindu enemy after the 1965 war, and inciting inter-faith hatred in the 1980s are well-documented.  Zia only actualised Bhutto’s two pursuits: the nuclear programme as the ultimate assurer of defence and the unclear programme of religiosity.

In the 1980s, when the display of symbols of faith and piety invaded the national airwaves, and official campaigns forced folks to appear modest and pious, we took the short cut: Instead of practicing and playing faith in our hearts and homes, we displayed it on our attire, in the streets, in market place and eventually on the TV screens. Thus we mutated faith -- from being a catalyst of personal enlightenment to a tradable title. You show the title, and earn recognition of being a ‘true Muslim’!

Our experiments prove that overuse of faith distorts society, fractures identity, blurs perspectives and hammers both common sense and sense of humour. Now every joke with a dash of green is a borderline blasphemy.

In spite of the risks, many dare to create humour in their socially safe havens, making collective social space a layered sandwich with fillings of delight and fright.

The essence of human progress is the distance we travel from innate hate to inherent humour. As we exercise and appreciate humour in the open social space, hatred takes a back seat or leaves the room. Hatred is a function of abundant belief, without questioning what we believe and what we are told to believe. Humour is a manifestation of prolific thinking and probing.

In today’s Pakistan, our holy hug of hatred has become so tight that it is asphyxiating our faith in Islam, common sense, and us. Some good humour may help us gasp some fresh air.

Humour in the times of hatred