04 Feb 2018 18:42 IST

Funny side up

You cannot imagine what a difference a sense of humour will make to your life

More things are wrought by a healthy sense of humour than this world dreams of. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that more things are wrought by humour than by prayer as the original from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson (the prayer part) says, and spiritual leaders and elders of varied hues like to remind us (also the prayer part). Because the truth is, we take ourselves far too seriously. Also, ‘funny’ can manifest in the most peculiar, even inappropriate, circumstances.

As when my father died. You read that right. It was his funeral, and we were just about to send him on his final journey. Back then I was a bit of a lotus-eater, and used to have a Kottakkal masseuse visit every weekend. Hot oil and hot water were very much part of my idea of heaven. While we waited for the final ceremonies to conclude, I noticed from the corner of my eye that the masseuse had turned the corner into our street. She took a few steps forward, then stopped, and stood seemingly cemented to the ground for a few seconds. Then, she hitched up her sari, wheeled round on her heel and fled the scene. She never came back. Ever.

Watching her striding strongly forward, then seeing the realisation suddenly dawn and her acting upon that realisation was like watching a scene from a film in slow motion even though it was very much real time. I couldn’t help but smile through my tears and today, when I recall it, I laugh out loud. I’ve shared this anecdote with many, to most people’s horror, but honestly, it was and is so funny. And believe me, it helped deal with feelings at that time.

Black humour

I remember writer Ishmael Beah talking about black humour at the Gothenburg book fair in 2008. He was a child soldier during the civil war in the 1990s when the Revolutionary United Front supported by the National patriotic Front of Liberia tried to overthrow the Joseph Momoh government in Sierra Leone. More than 50,000 people died. Beah and hundreds of children like him were rounded up and forcibly taught to shoot and kill. Later, these child soldiers were rehabilitated; Beah eventually found his way to the US, and has written about his experiences in A Long Way Gone. I’d like to quote from that article, published in BusinessLine. It opens like this: “Ishmael Beah made a round of telephone calls to his friends before his book, A Long Way Gone, was released because he wanted to prepare them for what he had written. Actually, for what he had been for many years: a child soldier in his home, Sierra Leone. His friends in New York had no idea. … Recalling the time he made those phone calls, Beah laughs and says, ‘One of my friends said he was sorry for having pushed me around, ‘You could have killed me!’”

Having fun

Read a little further down the article, and there’s a specific reference to humour: “Yet, ‘when human life becomes meaningless, there is a comedy that arises’. Many people are shocked when he talks about this, he says, they don’t understand. For instance, he says, there was once the situation of a boy from the Limba ethnic group being held with a gun to his head. The boy ‘had lost his Limba’ (the language) but that moment, with the gun at his head, it returned to his tongue. The man holding the gun happened to be Limba himself and he said, ‘Your Limba’s not bad.’ Beah recalls that he and his friends laughed whenever they remembered this. Other people didn’t understand what was so funny, ‘but it was!’ ”

Of course, it’s not all only about black humour. It’s simple stuff too. Seeing the funny side can make a qualitative difference, both at the professional and personal levels. It can defuse ugly situations, relieve tensions, resolve work issues, and smoothen out relationships. Of course, there’s always the risk of putting your foot in your mouth, but what’s life worth if you don’t take risks? Certainly, not heroing yourself all the time lends distance to your vision, and then you get the joke. It’s like looking at old photographs of yourself: you think you look great, but wait till your grandkids see them. I’m willing to bet they’ll roll over laughing. “You look so funny!” they will say and you would be so silly to feel bad about that. In any case, even if you do, don’t show it. That’s the secret. Be ready to laugh at yourself. There will always come a time when the thing that mattered so much, won’t anymore, and then it will be funny. Life’s a pretty funny business that way.

Laughter as medicine

Many years ago, when I was a student in Bombay, a classmate got extra tickets to the India-West Indies test match, which meant we would have to bunk classes. That year, Bombay University had announced results very late; consequently, post-graduate diploma and degree courses commenced late. So the faculty was under great pressure to ‘complete portions’. Besides, this was a “conment school college”, as someone I know used to say, and very stern disciplinarians: we weren’t allowed to skip a single class.

Anyhow, this friend and I merrily made our way to the stadium and had a grand time. When we went to class the following day, of course we were hauled up. “Where were you yesterday?” a professor asked. There was no time to make up an excuse so I said, “I was at the test match”. For a second the professor looked aghast, and then she laughed. “Well, at least you told the truth,” she said and waved me away. See, she had sense, and a sense of humour. It helped.

Laughter really is the best medicine. I go so far as to say that were it not for a sense of humour, many more couples would be divorced, there’d be even more children getting punished in school, and several other tragedies and unhappinesses would follow. People would probably play far fewer political games, maybe they’d be less competitive too. Road rage would yield place to civility, and fewer tears would be shed.

In that case, can we say that a sense of humour will improve the quality of our lives?