Humour intact?
BY H U M A YUS U F | 7/6/2015

IN the midst of the recent deadly heatwave in Sindh, our minister for climate change, Mushahidullah Khan, announced that coal-fired power plants in the Indian state of Rajasthan were partly to blame.

The claim produced incredulity, rolled eyes, and a few LOLs on social media. Normally such a statement would have made me laugh. But the scale of the tragedy not only the toll of the heatwave, but also the inept governance, scapegoating, class inequality that it highlighted seemed to have stripped my sense of humour.

I anticipated others would mock the minister`s conspiracy theorising and confused science. I expected comic video clips and puns about hot air to follow. Tongue-in cheek reactions to the water car, to `a degree is a degree`, and to the recent spy pigeon had increased my expectations. But the jokes didn`t come at least in the real and virtual circles I inhabit. Perhaps it was too hot. Perhaps people were fasting. Perhaps there`s nothing funny about more than 1,000 people dying in the heat while politicians play an absurd blame game.

The muted response did make me wonder whether we are starting to lose our sense of humour about our country. What would it mean if we as a nation lost the ability to laugh at our foibles? It seems strange to raise that question at a time when Pakistani comedy is booming.

Young men are making a living as full-time, stand-up comedians while students spend spare hours making comic videos to circulate online. Satirical news and political parody shows on news channels are routinely amongst the highest rated on their channels to the extent that Pemra in 2012 tried to ban the broadcast of `derogatory` programmes.

Pakistani comedians have even made it to the international media: Saad Haroon`s sketch aired on Conan O`Brien`s show; Sami Shah`s landed a BBC Radio 4 show.

But it`s worth asking what the proliferation of comedy means at a time when Pakistan`s democratic transition is proving to be less democratic, and more of a transition, and when free speech is threatened to an unprecedented extent.

Comedy in a political context is often thought of as subversive; a way to indirectly say that which could never be said outright.

It is meant to highlight the absurdities of a system gone mad or one that is corrupt, oppressive, or unaccountable while at the same time allaying anxieties of those who must survive within it. Comedy is the ultimate critique.

This was the spirit in which Pakistani comedy bloomed in the 1980s under the dictatorship of Ziaul Haq. And this is the context that spurs young comics today: think of Beyghairat Brigade`s Aalu Anday and Ali Gul Pir`s and Adil Omar`s Kholo Ban, Chor, a critique of the YouTube ban.

Beyond politics, comedy allows us to breach social taboos, humanise others, and identify collective challenges. Comedy is also key to a sense of national identity: the ability to laugh at the same things speaks to a shared cultural sensibility and common experience.

But comedy can play another role as well.

In the Middle Ages, in Western Europe, the public was allowed to enjoy a day of carnival before Lent. Social rules were overturned during carnival: peasants ate and drank to excess in the manner of aristocrat s, and parodies primarily of authority figures such as royals, magistrates and clergymen comprised the day`s entertainment. Laughter was prioritised over piety and obeisance.

Modern theorists have pointed out that the social inversions of carnival provided the public with a way to critique social hierarchies. But carnival also helped to reinforce the status quo. A carnival day during which the system could be inverted gave the public a false sense of empowerment and freedom. Carnival let the public let off steam; it acknowledged social inequalities and anxieties, but primarily in order to manage them. Carnival was the substitute for a revolution.

How do we know when comedy is subversive and politically powerful, and when it is merely a safety valve in an unjust and increasingly authoritarian system? Are viral videos the little allowances we get to collectively muse the injustice, corruption and violence that have come to define our society? Are we allowed to laugh so that we do not take to the streets in protest? Or is the comic proliferation the beginning of a reversal of the order? As the nooses tighten, both literally and figuratively, and growing concerns about anti-Pakistan activities and blasphemy lead to ever tighter censorship and surveillance, comedy offers a good barometer of our social condition. And if we find ourselves losing our sense of humour, we should know that what we`re really losing is hope. •
The writer is a freelance journalist. Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn