A Recipe for Survival (w/o Tomatoes)

By Anjum Altaf

When the choice is to either cry or laugh, I prefer the latter. Therefore I am compiling a book of political jokes. I am in a rush as I don’t believe these bounteous days can last but I can’t complain because a few prolific contributors are fast filling up the pages. 

I had hoped to keep this initiative secret for fear the sources would dry up if they caught on. But it seems they can’t help it even if they try, probably because they consider them profound pronouncements on the state of the world. I mean, take something like “We will never leave Kashmiris alone.” Is that a joke, or what? 

I am making a full disclosure because while most other countries have moved ahead, we are still in 1984. Someone is surely reading the lines as I write and given that our governments are averse to employing people above a minimal level of intelligence, chances are high the monitor will have a fevered imagination while lacking a sense of humour or proportion.

What, it occurred to me, would Big Brother make of all acronyms strewn throughout the draft of the jokebook? Three names were recurring so frequently that I replaced them with codes — FAA, FAC and BAG. Big Brother, always imagining the worst, might read them to mean I had sinister plans to undermine state institutions like the Federal Aviation Agency, or the Financial Accounts Committee, or the top-secret Bureau of Assisted Governance. 

Although I have faith in our country, I am taking no chances. I was told a reassuring story by someone sent to Russia as a teenager by ZAB to study making steel. He returned in the era of ZuH when all the returnees were being tailed by spooks. The one assigned to the narrator was kind enough to alert him, as a fellow momin, about the nature of the assignment.    

Still, those were innocent times. In these days of LYRA, I feel it safer to declare that I have no intention to undermine state institutions because the sources of the jokes have taken that upon themselves as an in-house obligation. The acronyms are just shorthand identifiers for the sources, God bless them. They are human beings and would no doubt be nabbed in the goodness of time when the joke would be upon them.

While I am at it, I should mention that in addition to FAA, FAC and BAG, there are occasional references to Captain Marvel (‘turning and [u-]turning in the widening gyre’) and Millet Sir, the falconer whose doctrine causes innocent people to implode. The Millet Doctrine has me concerned, people having the unfortunate tendency to come up with the weirdest contortions. I condemn that tendency with the solemn assurance that the Millet Doctrine is intended strictly for the birds. 

With that off my chest, a few other thoughts are worth airing. First, one is struck again by the immense loss caused by the division of the subcontinent. Together, we could have held the record for the biggest jokebook in the world, the Pakistani contribution derived from a handful of big nuts and the Indian from contributors spread out across the land with each being responsible for one joke at best. The meaty Pakistani jokes from the land of the five errors would have been nicely complemented by the regional flavours of the Indian ones thematically limited to Vedic insights on the benefits of bovine flatulence. Indians avoid non-veg jokes for obvious reasons and Pakistanis have started shying away from veg jokes perhaps because vegetables are becoming too expensive to be funny. But for the accidents of history, we could have had such a great combination.

At the same time, I realize we don’t do some things as well as others. We don’t have someone inspiring instantaneous laughter without having to say anything at all — someone like BoJo, for example. What a boon such a person can be in hard times when hearty laughter can ease the pangs of hunger. We do have someone who comes close in Pakistan but he’s gone quite off the rails while Indians seems to prefer personalities like NaMo that scare rather than amuse. I suppose it is because the RSS went from strength to strength in India while the Khaksar Tehreek faded away in Pakistan. Imagine, if we still had those chaps strutting around in shorts. 

Still, one can’t complain in Pakistan where there are so many potential contributors in the top echelons. I am deeply grateful to FAA, FAC and BAG for their profuse contributions and to Captain Marvel and Millet Sir for the occasional blockbuster. Thank you all for spreading the cheer in hard times and kudos (kuddoos in local parlance) for grinning like Cheshire cats while slouching towards Bethlehem.

The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi, 2019.

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