<%-- Page Title--%> Nothing If Not Serious <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 135 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

December 26, 2003

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All for a Laugh

Shawkat Hussain

A colleague recently remarked to me that I was losing my touch, that I was becoming too serious. I am not sure whether he meant it as a criticism of my last column where I referred to a great visionary physician/politician as a "spent force", or whether he intended to compliment me on something that I wrote earlier. Was I a humourist suddenly gone sour, or was I really a sourpuss who accidentally stumbled upon a bit of humour occasionally? Perhaps my colleague meant to be both critical and complimentary. I told him that it was really very difficult to be funny most of the time. Being funny is an unfunny business. If I can get half-a-laugh from half-a-line in a 1000-word column I would consider myself happy.

The finest compliment I received was from a Bangladeshi reader in Kansas, US, when he wrote a letter responding to a column about the naming of private universities. He wrote a letter saying: "I almost died after reading Shawkat Hussain's desire to create a North-North-West University. It should be a crime to be so funny that you can kill someone a few thousand miles away. Seriously, could you please ask him if he needs a Vice-Chancellor or a Dean. I'd be most interested." The letter was so heart-warming and funny that I immediately decided to make the man from Kansas the Pro-Vice Chancellor of my university. I must have had some touch then.

Even the great American humourist Mark Twain knew how tough it was to be funny; he wrote that it was easier to write tragedies than to write comedies, and he couldn't have been more right. And if Mark Twain says that who am I to argue? No one knew better than his wife, the picturesque flights of language that Mark Twain was addicted to. One day when he was shaving, the great humourist cut his chin badly and cursed out loud and long. His wife tried to shame him by repeating to him verbatim all the profanities he had uttered. Twain heard her out and then remarked: "You have the words, my dear. I am afraid you will never master the tune." So I am out of tune now.

Humour is very difficult business indeed; more difficult, I am inclined to believe, than constructing a political platform or inaugurating a political party. Alexander Woolcott, US writer, drama critic and New York wit was constantly being referred to in the Broadway and in literary columns. Walter Winchell, a popular columnist often quoted a whole series and jokes and wisecracks attributed to Woolcott. Interestingly, Woolcott's jokes were mostly manufactured by Irving Mansfield, whom Woolcott had hired for the purpose. Mansfield, who later became a famous TV producer, soon ran out of funny things to say, and Winchell's column also became unfunny because they no longer contained the bon mots attributed to Woolcott. After a few weeks, Woolcott sent a telegram to Mansfield (the real humourist, in case you have lost track): "Dear Irving, whatever happened to my sense of humour?" So where has my sense of humour gone (assuming I had it in the first place)?

Wherever it has gone, I am glad that I am at least male and have a greater chance of having it than my sisters. Do you know about Mrs Patrick Campbell, famous for her wit, her dramatic tantrums, and her role as Eliza Doolittle in Shaw's Pygmalion? She was once asked by a rather pompous gentleman why it was that women were so devoid of any sense of humour. "God did it on purpose," replied the actress, "so that we may love you instead of laughing at you." I used to think that women fell in love with men who could make them laugh.

The month of December is not particularly good for humour anyway. I write this in a week when the third force threatens to bring about a real change in our lives; when the image of Saddam Hussein, trapped like a hunted animal, haunts billions of viewers throughout the world; when we read about the monga-affected people in North Bengal; when we hear about Michael Jackson charged on several counts of child molestation, and Kobe Bryan standing trial for rape; when we remember, in hollow ritual gestures, all the intellectuals who were killed on December 14, 1971; when we remember how we brought the cup of victory to our lips thirty-two years ago, and how that has changed into a poison chalice.

That is perhaps why the humour has gone. The time is out of joint and the pipe out of tune.

But still we try to be funny. In the remaining days of December, I try to think of top-ten good things about being an average Bangladeshi:

10. I am not an Iraqi;
9. I am sometimes mistaken to be a Sri Lankan;
8. I can pee wherever I like;
7. I have cable TV, can watch World Cup football and cricket, and hoist the Brazilian flag on my rooftop;
6. I can spell potato (the US Vice-President couldn't);
5. I don't have WMD in my backyard;
4. I teach in a public university where the tuition is the lowest in the world (about 33 cents US per month);
3. I live within walking distance of 25 private universities;
2. I have never met the notorious Taslima Nasreen.
1. I don't have to vote for Bush next year.

Happy New Year (bangla_deshi@hotmail.com).







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