Editor’s Note: In light of the recent statement from the Supreme Court, we are republishing this story that first appeared in EYE, November 22, 2105.
What if the man telling the joke is a Sardar? Imagine this bit of “breaking news” on television: “Earlier today, a Sardar boy was arrested for telling a Sardar joke to his friends, the majority of whom were Sardars. The police have taken the boy into custody and he will now be forced to listen to audio books by Chetan Bhagat as punishment.”
Before I can give in to an expletive-laden rant, Khushwant Singh has rolled in his grave. Sardars don’t have graves but you get the idea.
Last month,when Sikh lawyer Harvinder Chowdhury (who I thought was a man) filed a petition seeking a ban on jokes about the Sikh community, I felt angry, really angry. I hate it when a person takes it upon himself or herself to represent the opinion of an entire community, whether it is a woman championing the cause of Sikh humiliation caused by Santa- Banta jokes or Rashtriya Sexy Shorts championing cow protection. It makes me angry and deeply sad, because as a Sardar I do not want a ban on Sardar jokes or any other jokes for that matter.
The fact that Harvinder can be a boy or a girl’s name is hilarious. In fact, I have seen a Sikh wedding card that read “Mahinder weds Mahinder”. I laughed at it, my family laughed at it and yes, we are all Sardars, down to the last hair on our body. The next time someone wants to text me a Sardar joke, I don’t want them to think twice about it or fear going to jail or other possible repercussions of it.
When did our sense of humour become so hollow? Let me give it to you straight — jokes are my bread and butter. I like laughing at myself and making fun of my shortcomings. In fact, that is the part I love most about my job. It makes me feel sane; that I can laugh at myself and my community gives me the right to crack jokes about others. But when every other person starts to feel offended like they were a character in a Jane Austen novel, we certainly have a problem.
We need to understand that it’s just a joke, no more no less. Just the way I wake up every morning and watch comedy on Lok Sabha TV or the way politicians joke about bringing back black money, though that is more of a practical joke. And though I make sure that I talk about Sardars in my performance, I continue to be asked, “What do you think about Sardarji jokes?”
Growing up as a Sardar, you get used to being ridiculed. You are considered stupid or that is what people think of you. Where people love Santa and Banta you grow up hating them. Chowdhury’s petition states that Sardar jokes portray Sikhs as unintelligent and naïve. But does a mere portrayal make it a reality?
Maybe. As a kid, I used to go roller-skating on Sunday afternoons after my mother had washed my hair. Imagine a boy on skates with long, wet tresses flowing behind him — I was begging to be teased. I would have ridiculed any kid doing that. When I returned home, my mother said, “You went out roller-skating like that? Yeh zulfein lekar koi skating karta hai kya? Bewakoof!” I looked at myself in the mirror and smiled at the Sardarji wearing roller-skates.
At the all-boys’ boarding school I went to, a huge tower clock would gong at every hour — 12 o’ clock turned out to be awkward for me. The 30 other students would just stare at me as if I was supposed to break into a bhangra routine all of a sudden, and looking back now, I regret not doing it. Because if I had, I don’t think they would have been staring at me the next day.
And given the beautiful zulfein I had, every school play, I was cast as a girl or Shiva (minus the chillum, of course.) Did I feel angry or humiliated? Well, no more than a fat boy being called mota or a kid with specs being nicknamed chashmish. Heck, I remember once calling out to the other Sardar boy in my class because his judda (bun) was obstructing my view of the blackboard.
At one point, when the Sardar students at our school were told that the authorities would shave off the hair of any boy who teased us, we were delighted. But, after a few days, I realised that ripping on the fat guy was not as much fun if he couldn’t come back with, “Ek bar Santa aur Banta na….”
It just wasn’t the same. So I started encouraging the jokes myself, I started cracking Sardar jokes myself and soon, I discovered that jokes are just plain fun. A Sardar was India’s prime minister for 10 years and he has taken more ridicule than Santa and Banta put together. I don’t think a joke about his Sikh identity portrays him as unintelligent or stupid. Today, someone wants a ban on Sardar jokes; tomorrow, the Marwaris will want a ban on jokes portraying them as cheap and frugal and from there on, we will move to professions. No jokes about CAs, lawyers or doctors, and finally, no jokes about anything. No jokes about jokes themselves.
In any case, here’s my favourite Santa joke: Santa was flying to Chandigarh from Pune. He was allotted a middle seat but decided to take the window seat instead, which had been allotted to an old lady. She requested Santa to let her sit in her seat . He refused, saying, “I want to see the view from the window.” The old lady complained to the air hostess who requested Santa too. Santa was adamant and bluntly refused. Then, she whispered something in his ear. Santa immediately switched to the middle seat. Astonished, the old lady asked the air hostess what she had said to Santa. She replied: “Nothing, I just told him that only the middle seats will go to Chandigarh. All others are going to Jalandhar.”
*The author is a stand-up comic