It is midday at the Moghbazar intersection. Bumper to bumper traffic stretches into the distance. Thousands of commuters swelter in the unseasonal heat. The lights have been green for a while, but the hand signal from the traffic policeman just isn’t coming. Babies cry, adults curse, cars honk. Suddenly, a taxi driver, poking his head of out of the window, yells, “I think the mama (uncle) has forgotten about us, or is he busy talking to his girlfriend?”
Everyone within earshot bursts out laughing. Others pitch in with derisive comments. The tension is broken, and the wait doesn’t seem unbearable anymore.
Every race has its own distinct way of coping with the harsh realities of life depending on their inherent skills and abilities. Spartans used brutal and lifelong training in combat as a means to deal with life, since they were proud of their brawn and bravery. Bangladeshis are adept at using humour and sarcasm to cope with hardships – a fact attested to by the rich vein of mirth that runs through our literature and culture .
That doesn’t mean Bangladeshis are any less courageous though. As one humourist pointed out, only a Bangali is skilled enough to effortlessly ride a Minibus packed like a sardine can. The rusty buses of Dhaka are fearsome metallic beasts whose antics would make any old Spartan cry out for his mother. We are the only race that devours Eleesh with relish; a fish with myriad bones that would kill any ‘normal’ person. And we owe it all to our unrivalled sense of humour. No other race in the world can hope to achieve the level of quirkiness that is the norm for an everyday average Bangali.
Jokes aside though, most Bangladeshis actually do lead a hard life. Amidst all the traffic and pollution, unemployment and poverty, sometimes humour is the only welcome relief.
It certainly seems to be true that we do, on the whole, have a strong sense of humour. This is evidenced by the incredible number of humourous films, publications (including such magazines as Unmad) and scores of novels which have humour at their core, from Satyajit Roy to Humayun Ahmed. Every successful Bangla film has as the hero’s sidekick an actor whose sole mission is to provide comic relief.
Humour is widespread in our society, as well as in our culture. The use of humour in social interactions is a very important convention in Bangladesh. Two gentlemen in the village Bazar will greet each other with a jocular “Ki khobor” rather than a curt nod.
Likewise, the lack of a sense of humour is a debilitating stigma “to be avoided at all costs”. In Pala gaan (traditional live songs) across rural Bangladesh, competing groups of singers try to defeat their rivals using the twin weapons of wit and sarcasm, while the audience roars with laughter.
From the inception of Bangali literature, to this very day, the average Bangali is unparalleled in tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and in-your-face humour. And how could we not be? Our talkative, ebullient and charming nature has earned us the title “The French of the East”. We are masters when it comes to having fun at someone else’s expense. A practice that would probably result in majestic duels in defense of one’s honour in other cultures – but not in Bangladesh. If a joke gets too offensive we will fold up our sleeves, shout and scream and curse and abuse, “Chherey De Bolchhi” (let go of me!) , while others hold us back of course!
Of course, our literature speaks more boldly of our humour than our actions ever could. One can never grasp the true essence of Bangla humour without experiencing Bangali literature. From the turn of the 19th century, to this day, there always has been a blazing presence of humour and satire in Bangali literature. Starting from Iswar Chandra Gupta, Sukumar Ray and Shibram Chakrabarty to more contemporary works of Syed Mujtaba Ali, Humayun Ahmed and Ahsan Habib; Bengali literature has always boasted a rich tradition of its own unique brand of humour which is celebrated throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond.
According to many experts, the rich tradition of modern literary humour starts with “Sambad Pravakar”, a newspaper created by the legendary Iswar Chandra Gupta on January 28th in 1831. A poet with a keen sense of humour, Iswar Chandra Gupta is arguably the best satirist of his time. His keen powers of satire and his verses on society and life, written in a free and easy style, soon attracted widespread attention in the literary world.
Any discussion of humour in Bangali literature is grossly incomplete without Sukumar Ray. Born in 1887, he is arguably the liveliest author, poet and playwright in the history of Bangali literature. He is perhaps the most famous practitioner of literally nonsense. His best known works include short story collection “Pagla Dashu” and play “Chalachittachanchari”. Even 80 years after his death, he is celebrated as one of the liveliest authors in the history of Bengali literature.
If anyone in the 20th century even came close to Sukumar Ray, it would undoubtedly be Shibram Chakraborty, the man who shattered all the myths about Bangalis taking themselves too seriously. The most celebrated humourist of his time, Shibram Chakraborty is noted for his self-deprecating humour. He is fondly remembered for spelling his name in a convoluted manner: Shee-bram Cho-ko-ro-bo-ro-ty, and including himself as a character in most of his stories. His books billed him as “The King of Laughter” and justly so.
The strange or bizarre, of which nonsense is basically a milder version, turns up in strong and undiluted form in much of Bangla humour. We identify with humourous characters from Bangladesh and beyond whose lives seem to consist of one farce after another because we ourselves refuse to take life too seriously. Gopal Bhar and Hoja Nasiruddin have entertained generations of Bangladeshis.
For sheer talent and a unique sense of humour, Syed Mujtaba Ali stands out. His immortal works such as Panchatantra and Chacha Kahini have left an indelible mark on generations of Bangalis. In recent times, Kaizer Chowdhury and Shayer Khan Kallol have made their mark as humour writers. Finally, one would have to mention the trinity of modern day Bangla humour: the brothers Humayun Ahmed, Muhammad Zafar Iqbal and Ahsan Habib. Humayun Ahmed is arguably the most popular author in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. His two most famous characters to date are Himu and Misir Ali. While Misir Ali works with logic and Himu prefers anti-logic, both these characters have an easy breezy light hearted view of life that readers can relate to. Himu’s bizarre antics and Misir Ali’s amazing powers of deduction have made millions of Bangalis laugh. His popularity is only matched by his younger brothers Muhammad Zafar Iqbal and Ahsan Habib. Although Muhammad Zafar Iqbal is primarily famous for science fiction, he also has his own radically distinctive brand of dark humour that is featured in several of his books and many of his short stories such as “Muhabbat Ali’r Ek Din”, “Nurul O Tar Note Boi” and “Ekjon Durbol Manush”. And lastly Ahsan Habib the current editor of the tremendously popular “Unmad” magazine. He’s the popular satirist/cartoonist who singlehandedly took “Unmad” to new heights in the mid eighties. During that time “Unmad” became one of the best selling magazines in the country’s history.
According to Ahsan Habib, the ebullient Unmad editor, a shared sense of humour is one of the most important things that we can have in common with someone else, so making a humourous remark is also a way of gauging one’s compatibility with another person. Laughing at a shared problem gives a sense of companionship in difficulty that is very reassuring. Our sense of humour has been one of our most enduring characteristics, precisely because we have found it so adaptive and helpful in hard times.