But are there things so wrenching that you cannot joke about them — starvation, for instance, or loss, or violence? These are issues that engage the emotions at a visceral level. You could argue that India wrestles with the kind of terrible, serious problems that it would be tasteless to make fun of. Yet, that is the root of black — and gallows — humour. It is possible to be genuinely anguished by starvation and still smile when someone says, 'How many Ethiopians can you fit in a bathtub? None, they keep slipping down the drain.' (Too far from home? Replace Ethiopian with the starving Indian of your choice. There are lots to choose from.)I can't count the number of times I've had to roll my eyes when someone says, "Humour is fine, but it shouldn't be offensive or tasteless." This is such a banal suggestion. Whether something is in bad taste or not is, by its very nature, subjective - there are no measures for such things. Some people have an extraordinarily high threshold for black humour or “tasteless comedy”, others get hurt very easily and are eager to proclaim it from every rooftop. (Which in itself is fine - all of us have the right to feel offended or hurt. We even have the right to not be offended but still not find a joke particularly funny. The trouble starts when we try to ensure punitive measures against the thing that has so wounded our feelings.) If you were to stick the label "Bad Taste" on anything that offended a sizable number of people, you’d be left with hardly anything that isn’t “in bad taste”.
It is possible to tell a joke about a dead guy, or about an axe murderer. It is seen as more acceptable for a Dalit to make fun of a Brahmin; but it should also be possible for the joke to go the other way. It is possible to do these things when the cool eye puts the warm heart on hold, temporarily, and can see inherently funny paradoxes. It isn’t a permanent condition; it’s not the death of compassion; it’s not because of a fundamental lack of empathy.
The idea that it's okay - even desirable - to laugh at jokes about one's most sacred cows reminds me of an incident from a couple of years ago. Never thought I'd put it up here, but well, it seems like a good context. My maasis - my mother's cousins, both in their sixties now - were in Delhi and they were all sitting around talking about old times. The conversation soon turned to my aunts' recently deceased parents, very dear to them both; soft, misty-eyed recollections gradually made way for bawdy anecdotes, all narrated in rustic, quickfire Punjabi. It reached a crescendo when my aunts recalled their father grumbling lightly about his wife's bout with Parkinson's Disease in her last years. "Jab usse hilna tha, tab toh kabhi hildi nahin thi," he told his own daughters.
The English translation, "She never shook when she should have", doesn't convey anything of the superb lewdness of the Punjabi version, which caused one of the most memorable spontaneous outpourings of laughter I've ever experienced. It took a couple of minutes for everyone to finish catching their breath and wiping their eyes. Then my maasis went back to talking about the abiding love between their parents and remembering how well their dad had looked after their mom in her final days. It was a very nicely spent afternoon.