A few weeks ago, I learnt of a word called “stealthing” — which I was told is the business of a man taking off a condom midway through sex. It is an act of sexual harassment, understandably. This belated acquisition of knowledge on quirky, murky issues after passing through a substantial portion of adulthood without realising that such worrisome things exist is an eye-opener for me. I thought I was an okay kind of smart guy who had heard of things like the Butterfly Effect and game theory.
One lives, one learns. With phrases like body-shaming, victim-shaming and such being in vogue and increasingly finding themselves in print, post-feminist learning is inevitable and it seems, increasingly essential for acceptable social conduct. But it is the unlearning of stuff in order to be with the times that poses a bigger problem. Jokes fall in that category.
I recently came across a some funny anecdotes involving the late Khushwant Singh, and a red alert went up inside my head as I wondered if among them was a sexist reference. I could not figure that, but the fact that I had become self-conscious of what I was smiling at is a sign of changing times. We grew up on Polish and Irish jokes adapted to Indian ethnicities. Marital jokes concerning hapless husbands ought to be considered sexist but they are often not because one is not sure which of the two genders is being targeted. The confusion is helpful. We are down to stereotypes here. A suffering husband stereotypes the male as a dumb victim and a blonde joke is about the woman being underestimated. We now have to ponder, nevertheless, when a joke visits us.
To cut the long story short, jokes are not really funny anymore. I should have anticipated it the day I saw a book titled Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, much before the Internet and Twitter arrived on us to take the fun out of fun. We are now ready to adapt our sense of humour in a manner that reminds us of the Preamble to the Constitution. We are not supposed to discriminate on the basis of caste, creed, faith, gender, whatever. The Taste Police is out there, accompanying the Moral Gendarmes on their rounds.
I would be a hypocrite if I told you I do not chuckle at parochial humour that comes my way in messenger apps. WhatsApp has become the digital antidote for the Twitter-burnt, Facebook-taunted tribes who must watch their words. Messenger apps are like pubs men visit to escape stressful bosses and finicky spouses before returning to their routines.
Those old jokes have now been demonetised, just like the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes that ceased to be legal tender one dark night in November 2016. Worse, there is no bank where you can show up in a queue to trade old jokes for new. Wonder what Khushwant Singh would have said about jokes not being funny anymore. It is to his credit that he would himself share Sardarji jokes. It is as if he acquired a licence to joke about many subjects because he did not spare his own kind. Self-deprecatory humour remains the best kind but I would not expect everyone of a kind to laugh at themselves. It took the might of the Supreme Court last year when it declared that it cannot be issuing moral guidelines to restrict jokes in a case involving Sikh jokes. The court cleverly lobbed the ball to the legislature.
My own community of Tamilians is honoured for its above-average English grammar and spelling, but pronunciation is something else. Yum-Eye-En-Eye-Yum-You-Yum is the way we are supposed to say ‘minimum.’ Such self-flagellatory humour at least morally entitles one to laugh at others, much like proving that your old Rs1,000 was all white money gave you the right to a shiny pink digital age currency note.
Unlike demonetisation, however, the de-fanging of male humour seems to be succeeding. Self-conscious looks at inappropriate humour to avoid glares and criticism is, in a way, a good thing. It gives us men an idea of what women must feel when they are subjected to words and looks that make them cringe. It tells us how much we took things for granted.
But I am hopeful of male humour not disappearing altogether or being subject to a Central Board of Humour and Jokes in an Orwellian nightmare.
Meanwhile, that red alert inside the head is not a bad idea.
(A senior editor, writer and columnist with more than 30 years of experience, Madhavan is ranked among India’s top 200 influencers on Twitter)