Of Laughter, Humour and White Meat
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Quite a good number of people in America have been complaining about Hillary Clinton's laughter. It is not that they do not want her to laugh. Indeed, they do, for when she laughs, she does so with gusto. But this time round, with prospects of her becoming the next president of the United States becoming increasingly brighter, Mrs. Clinton seems to have decided that the more she laughs the more people will warm to her. She might think she has a point there, but the complaint against her laughter these days is that it often comes when there is hardly a reason for it. Now, when you think of Bill Clinton, you understand pretty easily that when he laughs, there is a natural ring that comes attached to it. For her part, Mrs. Clinton has always been up against criticism that she is too aloof and too divisive to be considered crowd-friendly. It is such criticism which now has impelled her into contrived bouts of laughter. That has only enhanced the level of criticism of the way she carries herself.
When you think of the many ways in which people break into laughter, you will somehow recall that old picture of Jawaharlal Nehru in the company of Lord and Lady Mountbatten in pre-partition India. He is almost bent double with laughter. Mouth wide open, eyes twinkling in sheer happiness, he is thoroughly enjoying himself, perhaps after a joke cracked by the lady. Those who knew Nehru have generally reflected on his hauteur. It was something that even John F. Kennedy felt at certain points. And yet there is that documentary evidence of his laughter. Could it be that his infatuation for Lady Mountbatten elicited that voluble expression of happiness from him? After all, men in love often enjoy the most inane forms of behaviour in the women they fall for. But let that be. In our times, Mikhail Gorbachev has demonstrated a capacity for laughter that you do not find in most politicians. He is one man who seems to speak with his entire body. It is not just the mouth but the shoulders, arms, chest and stomach that speak in him. That is not how it is with Bishop Desmond Tutu. But when you watch this wonderful, childlike man, you cannot fail to note the impish sense of humour that adds to his very strong personality. A significant trait in Tutu is his ability to laugh at himself. There are not many people you will find around you capable of self-deprecating humour. And, remember, Tutu is a man of God and yet does not let the gravitas fostered by religiosity come in the way of his dealings with the rest of the world.
Indonesia's Ahmed Sukarno was a man who loved women, and serially at that. He had an eye for women that not many in his position have or can have. Beyond that, though, it was the extrovert in him, with raucous laughter and often crude humour, that manifested itself in public. Sukarno always seemed to discover something new in life. Look at his old pictures and you will know, through the twinkle in his eyes. Laughter in Nelson Mandela is of a quieter sort. Having spent twenty seven years in jail, the philosophical has come into him as part of nature. He does not laugh uproariously, but he laughs a pure kind of laugh, that which wells up from deep within him. And when you think of Edward Heath, you are likely to remember the scowl that regularly appeared to suffuse his features. But behind that veneer of irritability there was a man of profound humour. When it was pointed out to him that he had, in sheer excitement, uttered 'Rejoice, rejoice' to celebrate the fall of Margaret Thatcher, he grinned and made a correction. 'Actually, I said it thrice. Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!' Heath's sense of humour comes through again in the recently published diaries of Tony Benn. When the ageing firebrand politician noted that American presidents were frequently assassinated, Heath replied, 'Not frequently enough. . .' And he said it all in good spirit. And laughed.
India's Lalu Prasad Yadav, for all the charges of corruption laid at his doorstep, has never been wanting in humour and laughter. There is the refreshingly rustic about him. Betel leaf in mouth, his lips going all red, Yadav is never at a loss for witty comment. Sometimes the comment turns into repartee, which is when you recall good old Winston Churchill. Indeed, Churchill's ability to laugh as also to make others laugh remains legendary. Think of this instance from his repertoire of humour: on a trip to America at the end of the Second World War, Churchill is feted by an American socialite. Halfway through dinner, he asks the lady if he can have another breast of chicken. Of course, says the lady. But before that can happen, she corrects him. 'In America, Mr. Churchill,' she tells him, ' we do not call it breast of chicken. We call it white meat.' The British politician stood corrected. The following morning, he sent a little note of thanks, along with a red rose, to the lady. The note read, 'Thank you for the lovely dinner last night. And I trust you will be kind enough to place this red rose on your white meat.'
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