Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Colours of funny - a column about satires

[Here's my latest column for Forbes Life, on some favourite literary satires and black comedies]

Humour at its core is accuracy, the novelist Manu Joseph said in a recent interview – when you’re uncompromisingly precise about something, it becomes funny. The best satirists have always known this, but it is also one reason why satire itself can be such an imprecise category in art. There will always be books and films that you can immediately identify as satirical because their tone is unmistakeable: even the most naïve readers and viewers will “get” it. But there are equally cases of understated works where one is not always sure of the line between plain realism and tongue-in-cheek comedy – or if such a line even exists.

Besides, real life usually stays a step ahead of the most acerbic spoofs; even when a satirical work is intended to be over the top, a time may come a few decades or even just a few years later when some of its content appears relatively commonplace. Discussing his 1968 novel Raag Darbari – a modern classic of Hindi literature, about corruption and factionalism in a small village named Shivpalganj – the writer-bureaucrat Shrilal Shukla noted that one of the criticisms directed at the book was that “it didn’t say anything new – it just described what everybody knew already”.

Even if this were true, it would take nothing away from Shukla’s incisive yet good-natured account of life in a place that the narrator likens to the all-encompassing Mahabharata: “What was to be found nowhere else was there, and what was not there could be found nowhere else.” Gillian Wright’s 1992 translation of the novel captures its many droll sentences and throwaway observations (“the theory of reincarnation was invented in the civil courts so that neither plaintiff nor defendant should die regretting that his case had been left unfinished”), of which there are so many, in fact, that it seems a waste to read this book over just one or two sittings. The experience has to be savoured, stretched out.

The story, filtered partly through the gaze of a visiting city boy named Rangnath, gradually reveals the self-deception in nearly every aspect of Shivpalganj’s life. A slothful sub-inspector mulls the great burden of his responsibilities: “There was so much work that all work had come to a standstill.” Doctors and engineers are in short supply, we are told, because “Indians are traditionally poets”. When politicians come to the village to make speeches, we learn that “a speech is really enjoyable only when both sides know that the speaker is talking absolute nonsense” – when some overenthusiastic speakers begin taking themselves seriously, the audience develops indigestion.

Two decades after Raag Darbari was published, another bureaucrat wrote a novel about a young civil servant posted in “a tiny dot” somewhere in the Indian hinterland. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August was rightly hailed as a milestone in modern Indian-English writing, but true
satire fans – especially those with high tolerance for scatological content – should set themselves the task of rediscovering his other work. None of them are as consistently funny as August, but they all have passages that measure up to its heights. Consider the opening of his 2010 novel Way to Go where a man named Jamun comes to a police station to report that his 85-year-old father has vanished, the local constable interrogates him, and what ensues is funny not so much in a laugh-out-loud way but in a chuckle-hopelessly-to-yourself-until-you-choke-on-your-own-phlegm way. As bureaucratic procedure takes centre-stage (a recurring theme in Chatterjee and in much Indian satire), time and common sense are suspended. The conversation is shaped by the bizarre order in which the questions are printed on the form; there is no indication that the constable is capable of making a sensate connection between what he is asking and the information that has been supplied to him. Soon Jamun is in a practically comatose state, reeling off sentences mechanically. When he replies “Such was not the case in the present instance” to a question, the constable nods approvingly – at last they are speaking the same language.

In fact, satire often thrives on a premise where two people discuss an urgent matter but fail to get anywhere because, for all their eagerness to understand each other, the gap between their beliefs and cultural reference points is unbridgeable. Aubrey Menen’s extraordinary 1947 novel The Prevalence of Witches contains just such a conversation between a village headman and an English administrator named Catullus. The former is patiently trying to explain how a witch goes about her spiteful work (witches being an accepted fact of life in the imaginary British Indian region of Limbo, populated by people who have no use for modern education or scientific thought), why she must be interrogated in a very precise fashion – by hanging her upside down and beating her – and why she may “choose” to be either alive or dead; the latter is making an honest effort to understand what is being said.

One might think Menen’s intention is to mock easy targets: the superstitions of “primitive” people. But The Prevalence of Witches is equally mindful of the hypocrisies of those who think of themselves as modern, and the often-dubious building blocks of what we call civilisation. Reading it, one understands why Menen’s equally forthright retelling of the Ramayana (“Despite following his moral and political preceptors with devotion, Rama finally managed to recover his kingdom, his wife, and his common sense”) has been one of India’s most high-profile banned books for decades.


Humour is most effective, it is often said, when its shafts are pointed upwards: its targets should be those who are more powerful and privileged than the humorist. It is in this context that one must consider the 19th century social reformer Jotiba Phule’s scathing attacks on the caste system and on the Brahmin way of life. Phule’s tract Gulamgiri (Slavery) reveals him as an abrasive, first-strike radical, not above expressing strident views if it made a larger point about social hypocrisy.

The graphic novel A Gardener in the Wasteland, written by Srividya Natarajan and drawn by Aparajita Ninan, tells the story of Phule’s life and work with a panache that the man himself would have approved of, beginning with a passage that likens 1840s Poona to the lawless American Old West: “it was a hellhole of a town. A mob runs it: a Brahman mob”. Decadent, hoodlum-like Brahmins (“Pass the Gangajal, will you,” one says to another, crudely probing his ear with his finger) lord it over the “lower castes”. Subtlety is beside the point here: this is satire that sets out to wound and shock, as a way of getting its back on centuries of oppression. Righteous anger fuelled Phule’s skewering of the creation myth about the four castes being born from Brahma’s mouth, arms, groin and legs (did Brahma menstruate in all four places, was his sarcastic response) and his irreverent deconstructions of the Vishnu avatars.

In any case the line between “cutting” and “outright nasty” can be as thin as the line between those classic categories Horatian and Juvenal satire – what matters more is the execution. It is also worth noting that the best judges of such works are not those with weak stomachs or an easily offended aesthetic sense. When Jonathan Swift wrote his famous essay “A Modest Proposal”, proposing that poor people might sell their infants to serve as food for society’s rich (“a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled”), some readers were outraged because they took the suggestion at face value; others were offended because, though they understood Swift’s intent, they didn’t much care for the tastelessness (pun unintended) of the thought.

Among modern works, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho turned many readers off with the grisliness of its narrative about an attractive young investment banker who is also a psychopath (or deeply delusional), but the book was a startling indictment of a consumerist society, and its narrative form was vital to its effect (it’s another matter that barely 20 years after its publication, parts of it already seem dated!). This is equally true of some of the work of Chuck Palahniuk, notably Fight Club, which uses
unsettlingly staccato language and narrative misdirection to comment on such aspects of modern life as hyper-masculinity and the inability of people to connect with one another, or with themselves.

At the same time, mere shocking isn’t enough. Another graphic novel, Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India – written by Gautam Bhatia and drawn by the Rajasthani miniaturists Shankar Lal Bhopa and Birju Lal Bhopa – has much going for it: it is an unremittingly dark work that satirises many aspects of modern Indian life, notably the class divide and the apathy of politicians towards their constituencies. The many little vignettes include a just-born baby girl being deposited into a movie-hall’s trash can with the family-size popcorn bag, and a state chief minister flying over a drought-ravaged area in an aircraft that has been retrofitted with a swimming pool and a shopping arcade. But the book is often heavy-handed and there is a disconnect between content and form; the drawings are barely given the space they need.

Too much anger can also undermine the effect of a good literary satire. “I sat down to pass moral judgement. I was not wise enough then,” Mahesh Elkunchwar noted several years after writing his play Party, a coruscating satire of Bombay’s intellectual circles. The play is about a party held at the house of arts patron Damayanti Rane, the guests including writers and poets at various stages of their career: fat cats made complacent by fame, lean hangers-on desperately aspiring for it, sermonising faux-liberals. Over the evening details of character emerge, epiphanies are experienced and the conversation converges on an absent figure, a poet named Amrit, who is fighting the cause of exploited tribals. This enigmatic man becomes a catalyst for our understanding of these partygoers – their feelings about him run from hero-worship to indifference to contempt – and for a penetrating examination of the artist-human being divide.

The play (which was also the source material for one of our cinema’s most skilfully crafted chamber dramas, Govind Nihalani’s 1984 film) was born out of Elkunchwar’s reflexive response to encounters with famous people who were all talk and little action. It remains a hard-hitting work in some ways, its central theme still very relevant, but one can see why he thought it was facile in its judgements. It might be said that one characteristic of good satire is that rather than taking the easy way out by deriding individuals, it allows us to see the conditions and systems that can make well-intentioned people pathetic or loathsome. And so, to two of my favourite political satires that achieve this.

To say that Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a novelised treatment of the final days of Pakistan’s Zia ul Haq would be to convey little of its skill and comic richness. The dictator’s story – told in the third person – alternates with the voice of a junior officer named Ali Shigri, which, in its irreverence and blithe disregard for the supposed dignity of the Army, resembles that emblematic modern satire, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. But the most engaging sections of Hanif’s book are the ones that deal with Zia’s growing paranoia and childlike dependence on his inner circle. Though placed at the centre of some lowbrow comedy, Zia is also, in a strange way, humanised: there is something poignant about his desperate need for attention and his speculating that he might be ruling a ghost country. It would be a stretch to say that he becomes a sympathetic figure, but there is some ambivalence in our response to him.

If Hanif’s book is political satire with elements of magic realism, the Czech writer Karel Čapek’s 1936 novel War with the Newts belongs partly to the still-nascent genre of science fiction (Capek coined the term “robot”). This imaginative and playful work centres on the discovery – near a Sumatran island – of an unusually intelligent species of marine newts or salamanders. An enterprising captain teaches the creatures to use tools and to speak, and as news of their existence spreads the world responds in a variety of ways. Secret temples for worship arise, various existing doctrines are re-moulded to accommodate the new animals, and fashionable youngsters on Californian beaches bathe in sea-creature costumes (“three strings of pearls and nothing else”). At the same time more practical-minded businessmen breed the newts in the millions and put them to work – this in turn leads to much speculation about newts’ rights and what languages they should be made to learn first; and there are references to the political and social realities of the time, such as Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews.

This funny, far-reaching novel of ideas is a comment on human hypocrisies, the hegemony of some groups over others and the whimsical, often ludicrous ways in which our civilisation has been organised. Čapek doesn’t single out any system for attack (both capitalism and communism are grist to his mill, for instance), but his book is a critique of systems in general, and how decadent any of them can become. It carries within it a view of the very long picture, vindicating the idea that no other genre does clear-sightedness in quite the way that satire does.

[Two earlier Forbes columns: true crime and popular science]


  1. And Tom Sharpe and Mencken and Kurt E Vonnegut and Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett and Stephen Fry and Dave Barry.

    And how can you forget the comic strips: Dilbert and Wondermark and Non Sequitur and Jesus and Mo and xkcd

  2. Winter: and hundreds of others, I'm sure. But why go on about the exclusions? This isn't meant to be a comprehensive piece about all literary satires - it is an informal selection of 10-12 books written for a column that has a specific brief.

    Any comments about the books I have written about here?

  3. Jai - I want to read "The Prelavance of Witches". Couldnt find it on Flipkart. Could you suggest any other online retailer?

    By the way, liked the post. And satire being my favourite genre, feel like reading all books. Particularly liked, “a speech is really enjoyable only when both sides know that the speaker is talking absolute nonsense” – when some overenthusiastic speakers begin taking themselves seriously, the audience develops indigestion."

    Was reminded of an account a guy wrote on Thomas Pynchon. This account had Pynchon type humour. In one scene, he writes about auditorium/hall of a French college.The moment Charles De Gaulle appears on screeen, most students leave the hall. Those who remain, laugh uncontrollably.

  4. Nice piece.

    no other genre does clear-sightedness in quite the way that satire does

    One feels that way because of the moral imperative that accompanies most satires. The satirist feels he knows what's wrong with the system and wishes to make fun of it without pausing to think why the system exists the way it does and also whether there is a viable alternative to it.

    In contrast, people who are a part of the system have a better understanding of it and can genuinely empathize with it. Insiders tend to lose their bitterness over time and are often incapable of making "clear-sighted" criticisms because they lack the moral high-ground that the satirist possesses thanks to his ignorance.

  5. Shrikanth: whoa, you sound like quite the insider yourself there, you corrupt, thoroughly-embedded-in-the-System scum!

    Seriously though, while what you're saying does apply in some contexts, it isn't useful to think of satirists as people who are on the outside of the things they are writing about. It very evidently isn't true in the case of someone like Upamanyu Chatterjee, for instance, but it isn't true for many others too; and to some extent or the other, all of us living in society are "participants". There have been many fine writers who have written scathingly about the creative/cultural milieus they are part of. And the best satirists I know DO very much pause to "think why the system exists the way it does and also whether there is a viable alternative to it".

  6. Pessimist Fool: the Penguin India website seems to have a "buy now" option here, for a Menen omnibus that includes The Prevalence of Witches. (This is the edition I have too.)

  7. cool, I ordered and now very excited. Since we talked about satires, i am wondering have you read The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole?

  8. it isn't useful to think of satirists as people who are on the outside of the things they are writing about

    A lot of very acclaimed satirists are on the outside.

    Take for instance Kubrick and Dr Strangelove. That's your classic outsider view. Making fun of Cold War politics while not being a part of it. Essentially buttressing popular myths about the same.

    In contrast, a great "insider" film on American politics is Preminger's Advise and Consent. Now that's not bitter. Not a satire. But it is a more learned film about the American establishment because it provides a view from within and not without. Am not saying Preminger was an insider but he understood the system better than the younger, London based Kubrick.

    To my mind, the greatest of all satires is probably Orwell's Animal Farm. Because it is a satire that makes fun of the satirical outsider mindset!! Orwell doesn't wish to find fault with the "system" but to explain why the fault-finders are no less ignoble than the establishment. In other words, it is not the system that is at fault but human nature itself which is fundamentally flawed and tragic.

  9. Humour is most effective, it is often said, when its shafts are pointed upwards: its targets should be those who are more powerful and privileged than the humorist

    Just reread this line.
    I wonder if humour is least effective when its shafts are pointed upwards. Because when it emanates from a "socially disadvantaged" humorist, it becomes mingled with plain jealousy and frustration. The disadvantaged humorist can never really put himself in the shoes of the privileged, successful man he wishes to critique and is handicapped when it comes to understanding the reasons for the success of the "oppressor"

    This is especially true of all the Brahmin-baiting that happened in Tamil Nadu in the early part of the 20th century with satirical comparisons being drawn by leading Dravidian politicians betweeen Tam-Brahms and poisonous snakes.

    Yes, the targets of these snipes did get offended. But their hurting was largely justified because the remarks of the Dravidian satirists was based on an imperfect understanding of history. The satirical harangues of the Dravidian movement overlooked the reasons for the ascent of Brahmins in TN. It overlooked that the "privileged" communities of the British Raj - be it Brahmins of TN and Bengal or the Kayasths of North India owed their privilege not to the traditional caste system but their willing embrace of Western education in the 19th century and their foresight in anticipating the triumph of the superior British culture.

    The Satirists invariably simplify things in their attempt to make their pet-peeves by conveniently picking soft targets for their snipes

  10. The disadvantaged humorist can never really put himself in the shoes of the privileged, successful man he wishes to critique and is handicapped when it comes to understanding the reasons for the success of the "oppressor"

    Hmm, this sounds a teeny bit like your earlier comment about "cribbing" feminists who fail to appreciate their half-full glasses. Also enjoyed that "Satirists" with the capital S in the last line. (Lumping much?) But okay, I'll allow you your weekly rant. While also being kind enough to assume that you're not denying that at least some important privileges and injustices have accrued from the caste system.

  11. When Jonathan Swift wrote his famous essay “A Modest Proposal”, proposing that poor people might sell their infants to serve as food for society’s rich

    The one theory that the Wiki article tells us is that Swift was empathizing with the backward Celtic tribes and critiquing the high birth rates among the Irish as their lives were essentially in the service of the superior Saxon masters, with no prospect of self actualization.

    Again history disproves Swift and highlights how mistaken satirists often are. The high birth rates among the Irish prompted many of them to emigrate to new colonies including Caribbean, United States and later Australia. While the optimism of the Irish/Scots/Welsh may have seemed misplaced to the early 18th cen English intellectual, history suggests the traditional optimism of the Celts has not been in vain.

    Today there are arguably more Celts in this world than Anglo Saxons. Spread across multiple continents. And very prosperous to boot. Those small Celtic outposts in the British Isles have influenced the culture of this world immeasurably. Why...our own lives have been enriched by Celts in little ways. Scots like Jimmy Stewart and Glenn McGrath, Irishmen Cagney, Bill O'Reilly, Maureen O'Hara, Nicole Kidman. Welshmen Ray Milland, Bertrand Russell, Richard Burton.

    Yes, these talents have graced our lives because of those highly irrational uneducated Celts of 18th century who ignored Swift's advice and kept on having babies.

  12. While also being kind enough to assume that you're not denying that at least some important privileges and injustices have accrued from the caste system

    Some privileges yes. But only to a limited extent.

    For instance, the caste privileges did not really help ensure the economic ascendancy of Brahmins in North India where the community is nowhere near as socially dominant as it is down south.

    The reasons are obvious. The Brahmins up north did not really embrace English education unlike the so-called "upper" castes down south.

    The gulf between the so-called "upper castes" and the rest of the masses widened only during the British Raj because certain communities were more willing to get anglicized than the rest.

    A similar story played out in UK of the 18th century when the Celtic Scots overtook the Celtic Irish because they were more open to embrace the Saxon English culture than the more hidebound Irish.

  13. Shrikanth: you win. Brahmins, serial procreators and patriarchs rule. Now kindly visit my Zero Dark Thirty review and write a long thesis about why Draupadi and Homer were idiots with a deeply flawed view of history.

  14. Shrikanth: you win. Brahmins, serial procreators and patriarchs rule

    Just don't understand the reason for this bitterness.

    All my comments have been very much connected with some theme touched upon in your post and hardly off topic.

    I am not glorifying any specific group of people or any specific culture. With no vested interest in the groups you mention. I am not a practising Brahmin, hardly a serial procreator and a long shot from being a patriarch.

    Just highlighting why several famed satirical works haven't aged well. In my view they dont age well because they view history as a struggle between the Oppressor and the oppressed, which is deeply flawed.

    And you specifically asked for "comments about the books I have written about here". Hence I chipped in with some remarks on Swift's satire based on what I have read about the book.

    That's all. No issues with your blog post.

    The comment which might have seemed like a defence of traditional Celtic culture was not meant to be so. My point was to show how difficult it is to pass cultural criticisms with a "holier-than-thou" attitude. Because cultures and lifestyles that seem ignoble to us may well make sense 4-5 centuries later. I was actually making an argument in favour of cultural relativism in that post - not defending serial procreation.

  15. "Bitterness"? Mild annoyance with the persistent, hammering tone of your comments is more like it. And perhaps the last comment was an attempt to lighten the situation a bit? But okay, I've said what I wanted to.