And our present leaders don’t even know it
The Raj froze laughter between the ruler and ruled between the old world of Raja Birbal and the new age of Mahatma Gandhi fell the shadow of the British Raj; and its stiff upper lip silenced, for a century and more, a creative bridge between ruler and citizen, humour. The bridge was unequal, but it existed.
The witty Brahmin, Birbal, was dining with his emperor when Akbar the Great sniffed at a plate of brinjal. Brinjal, thundered Birbal, was a vegetable from hell, unworthy of a monarch who was the shadow of divinity on earth—how dare the royal kitchen serve such junk! Flay the chef! A few weeks later, at another meal, Akbar found a dish of brinjal delicious. Birbal went into raptures that excelled one another in metaphor and rhapsody. Akbar reminded Birbal of his previous views. “Sire,” replied Birbal, “this brinjal is not my emperor. You are.”
Anyone who thinks sycophancy is the point of the story misses the point. The punchline punctures, if lightly, the ego of kings with a verbal stiletto. Birbal is the eponymous people’s hero because his anecdotes are comfort food on the table of power. Birbal is the most famous of an eastern tradition of courtiers and citizens, across kingdoms and centuries, who challenged the claimed omnipotence of rulers with the salutary barb of wit.
They used jest, but were not jesters; Birbal was one of Akbar’s finest military commanders who is believed to have died during the wars in Afghanistan. The stories around these popular icons, many apocryphal, were often moral fables or pungent reminders of a power beyond the realm of kings. Sultan Haroun-ul-Rashid, the mightiest of Baghdad’s Abbasid dynasty, had a celebrated alter ego, Luqman, who was once seen rushing away with a log in flames. Luqman explained that he was going to hell. Why carry fire to hell, asked Haroun; there was enough fire there already. Wrong, replied Luqman: Each one of us carries his own fire to hell. The Turkish lands of Asia had Hodja, who laughed at wealth and authority. He was once invited to dinner by a rich man in the city of Aksehir, and found no one paid attention to him because he was in his normal clothes. He went home, changed into finery, returned and found he was offered the best food. He dipped the bottom of his fur coat into gravy and cried, ‘My dear coat, eat! This food is for you, not me.’
The more powerful the monarch the greater seemed the need for a figure who could keep him close to earth. Muslim rulers were reminded of an Arab saying, attributed to the Prophet, “Humour is to speech what salt is to food.” Wit was classless, but it had to be delivered with grace. As that great raconteur and journalist Abdul Halim Sharar notes in his immortal tribute to Awadh, Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, “The greater a person’s wit, the more he will be appreciated in literary and social circles.” It is axiomatic that wit needs a target, but it must always wear the antidote of discretion. Raja Bhoja of 11th century Malwa had a lower caste ‘Teli’ as his foil, but if the latter lives on in memory it is because he used a pinprick, not a sword. Wit is a reminder, not a rebellion.
The meaning of servant changed with the arrival of the British, as did the meaning of master. Pride of service was replaced by dry obedience. Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah of Awadh hired a cook who only made lentils at the astonishing salary of Rs 500 a month. The Nawab always had to comply with a service condition, that he ate the daal as soon as it was prepared. Some weeks later, the cook produced his first plateful, placed it on the dastarkhwan, and told the Nawab, who was chatting. When after two reminders the Nawab did not appear, the cook emptied the daal on a withered tree and walked out, never to be seen again. Money was no substitute for honour.
Hilton Brown, whose anthology The Sahibs: The Life and Ways of the British in India as Recorded by Themselves was published in 1948, when the many odours of the Raj were still wafting through live memory, notes that “Before he had servants—this is a thing one is apt to forget—the Sahib had slaves...” and that a great deal of “solemn discussion” from Waterloo (1815) to the Mutiny (1857) between Europeans in India dwelt on “how far it was permissible, and indeed advisable, to beat one’s domestic staff for next to nothing”. The diarist Russell, writing in 1857, described this as “a savage, beastly, and degrading custom” and noted that the perpetrator “had no fear of any pains or penalties of the law”. To be fair, slavery existed before the British arrived, and perhaps while a Nawab’s whipping was as painful, a Sahib’s was remembered.
The startling difference between the British Raj and Indian Raj is the utter absence of humour between the ruler and the ruled under the British. There is no chapter on wit in The Sahibs. There are jokes aplenty in British Life in India: An Anthology of Humorous and Other Writings Perpetrated by the British in India, 1750-1950, with some Latitude for Works Completed after Independence, edited by R V Vernede, but Indians only appear when the Sahibs laughed at them, not with them, although quite often fondly. Hence: Suleiman Khan was a zabardast man, but fond of the ladies too. He’d an iron fist and a very long list of all the villains he knew.
They came to no harm if they greased his palm, as sensible rascals did; but no ‘pro quo’ if a fellow said ‘no’ and failed to produce his ‘quid’.
There are fun and games, of course, in British India, particularly between the sexes. There was much dancing, correctly described as the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, when the fishing fleets brought in another catch of eager women from ‘home’; and there was sufficient horizontal expression in the summer capital of Simla for a Vicereine to sniff that no one could be found sleeping with his or her legitimate partner. Rudyard Kipling’s Mrs Hauksbee noted tartly, in Plain Tales from the Hills (1898) that “take my word for it, the silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool”. And the Honourable Sir J A Thorne, ICS, recalled, “It turned to a kill, I intended a quarrel./Flirtatious young miss! (Yet it turned to a kiss.)/She pouted—and this robs my verse of a moral./It turned to a kiss; I intended a quarrel!”
The British were hardly humourless, but they reserved their wit for Britain, where class distinctions remained rigid, but where life was lived without fear. The first casualty of fear is humour. As George Orwell, a Raj officer in Burma, remarked, “You cannot be memorably funny without at some point raising topics which the rich, the powerful and the complacent would prefer to see left alone.” The guardians of the British Raj understood that it would be more easily destroyed by ridicule than guns. It was not until Indians began to rise again, in the early 20th century, that wit entered the political dialectic. Indian poets, of course, continued to lance their lines with sentiment against foreign rule; and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s satire against the Tommy is lacerating. But this literature was subversive, and always wary of censorship, which was a formidable weapon in the Raj arsenal. How do you censor the Oxbridge-returned leader of the Khilafat Movement, Maulana Muhammad Ali, when he cheekily asks the British why they educated Indians if they wanted them to remain subservient. No force, as Mark Twain pointed out, can withstand the assault of laughter.
The savage cartoon is 18th century Britain’s contribution to political debate; and if vulgarity is an issue, then you have to take a look at British caricature of its royalty. Those pamphleteers were merciless. Why does the Indian ruling class, across party lines, react with such outrage over cartoon and caricature? It cannot merely be imploding self-confidence as defeat looms on the electoral horizon. That would be human, and might even be easily explicable. It seems more likely that while we fashioned our system from the Westminster model, our rulers inherited their attitudes from the British Raj of Calcutta and Delhi rather than the Indian pedigree of Mughal or Maratha or Rajput.
Our founding fathers could take a joke, because they joined public life to serve. Their successors entered politics as a means to power. They lost their sense of humour at the gate.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.