In Praise of Humor


Satire has long been an integral part of literature and culture. It offers a way of conveying sometimes sensitive political, social and even spiritual ideas in a more lighthearted or palatable way. Satire and carefully calibrated humor can transcend class and even language barriers. The presence of humor adds life and meaning to a world that is changing rapidly.

But the modern world seems to be losing touch with this traditional wisdom. Satire too often isn’t appreciated and many have forgotten its original meaning and are quick to take offense. The world is opening up around us, and yet our minds are closing.

The recent controversy in India over a cartoon of a lower caste leader, Bhimrao Ambedkar, is a case in point. The cartoon was drawn some 60 years ago and was included in a school curriculum. For decades, no one raised any concerns. But in recent days, the drawing has become a key issue for political parties who advocate the cause of the lower castes, known as Dalits.

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The Indian government has been asked to withdraw the cartoon from textbooks. Are we really so thin-skinned that we would prefer to have a world without satire? The world may have progressed in a material sense, but we also seem to have lost the ability to laugh at ourselves or see the other point of view.

The book The Moslems are Coming, by Azad Essa, is an attack on such caged minds and individuals. It’s an attempt to tell the world that we should be able laugh at ourselves without being afraid of losing our identity. The book is, in essence, a call for us to save satire.

“We still know so little about one another. Worse, we are still obsessed with defending our own, terrified to speak truth to power and we [can’t]  be bothered to find out more,” Essa writes in the introduction.

The book is a collection of blogs that he has written for various websites and publications. All the pieces highlight the unease of the author with the present political, social, religious and behavioral narratives of the country. He questions many established premises, including why we can’t poke fun at certain ethnic groups, why we can’t we question the need for the burqa in the 21st century, and why the West can’t be questioned about its view on what represents a progressive society.

The promotion material for the book describes Essa as “a journalist with a wicked sense of humor. His take on world politics is engaging and insightful.”

The book itself is described as taking stock of a rapidly changing world, and is said to tackle race and religion head-on, giving “fresh insight into the Israel-Palestine conflict, [as it] casts new light on old stereotypes, vents the frustrations and fears of the next generation – and ultimately offers us hope for the future. The Moslems may be coming – but it’s no reason to despair.”

Essa uses wit and satire to attack conventional thinking and says he finds it suffocating to live in a world that can’t enjoy the pleasures of change.

Interestingly, his satire is directed at both liberals and conservatives.

He writes that: “while my cousins back home irritated me with their racism, religious intolerance and oily obsession with heaven, the rednecks and two-timing liberals seemed to turn a blind eye to glaring injustices and allowed a new narrative of silly hate to slip beneath their radar.”

It’s such angst that gave birth to The Moslem.

Essa attacks Islamaphobia in the West as reflected in the ban on the burqa, but at the same time he rips apart the argument for the burqa in Muslim society.

“The burqa may have made sense five hundred years ago when it deflected dust and pervy male stares, but it doesn’t today on the nicely paved streets of twenty first century Paris, where every woman has more rights than God (and likely owns a vacuum cleaner). In fact, it achieves the opposite effect today: it brings unwanted attention to the wearer…Truth is I don’t know how to act around a woman in such attire because no one teaches you what etiquette to follow when someone pitches a tent around her body and then stands next to you…”

It is this questioning that makes Essa’s words sound like a call for reform.

Essa tackles other sensitive issues, including racial profiling at airports. But while he appears in a sense to accept the logic of profiling, he also suggests that it has little to do with safety, and is more about creating a superficial sense of security.

“Checking everyone equally would take too much time and money. So let’s pick out the bearded brown man with an Arabic name who is quite obviously more dangerous than the clean-shaven brown man with an Arabic name. This is called deductive reasoning,” he writes at one point.

If the whole world is a theater, then Azad Essa is happy to play the role of the fool in King Lear – the conscience keeper who doesn’t mince his words in criticizing the folly of our rulers, policymakers and religious leaders who deny people the freedom to know each other better.

Essa goes out of his way to make the point that those who are different shouldn’t be shunned and that society should be able to cast a critical and not always too serious eye over itself. Surely this is a good thing?

Sanjay Kumar is a New Delhi-based writer who also blogs at Indian Decade.

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