Monday, January 6, 2014

Time was when we could celebrate with fun; Today even New Year has a price tag

What makes people go wild on the night of December 31? The answer, unbeknown to them, is: Commerce. When Diwali has become a marketing device to sell fireworks and dry fruits, when Christmas is hijacked by cake-bakers, when Akshaya Tritiya is appropriated by the jewellery industry, how can New Year not be another sales gimmick, this time for liquor companies, gift shops, hotels and eateries? They made it a fashion to get drunk on New Year's eve and, like all fashions, it made business boom.

It wasn't always so. In the days of innocence, it was possible to be human without the profit motive. Festivities were then simple fun. Essentially a Western tradition, New Year appealed mostly to the Western-educated classes. Naturally India's English press got involved, as it did in the West's April Fool tradition. The late lamented R.K.Karanjia of Blitz had a field day with April Fool hoaxes. An outrageous one in 1981 shocked Bombay with the announcement that the Indian Express was sold lock stock and barrel to A.R. Antulay, then Chief Minister of Maharashtra. That was when Express was relentlessly exposing Antulay's misdeeds, a campaign that eventually led to his eclipse.

New Year hilarity was innocuous by comparison. The English press in India used the occasion for reviews and reflections while the British press tried to entertain readers with humour as well. Englishmen maintained that tradition wherever they went. In Hongkong December 31 meant nothing to the locals; Chinese New Year (in February) was their biggest festival when everything closed down for three days. Yet the British-owned, British-edited Far Eastern Economic Review ran year-end limericks poking fun at national leaders.

In 1973 they had an easy pick on Indira Gandhi, Leonid Brezhnev and Chairman Mao himself. Samples: "A strong-minded lady named Gandhi/Rode to work in a donkey-drawn bandy./ But Brezhnev arrived / As the petrol stocks dived / And the gas from their talks came in handy". The one on Mao said: "Our past we are using / To get cadres and masses a-fusing./ But make up your mind/ On the sage, for I find / Controversial Confucius confusing".

There are scurrilous limericks and limericks that cannot be recited in polite company. And there are limericks that tickle the imagination. Like: "There was a young lady one fall / Who wore a newspaper dress to a ball. / The dress caught fire / And burned her entire / Front page, sporting section and all".

Way back in 1910, the New York Times celebrated the season by asking readers to complete a limerick by adding the fifth line. The winning entry went: "Good New Year resolves are in style / The bulk of them forces to smile. / Were I making one now / I should certainly vow / I'll only drink once in a while".

Rather tame by today's standards. But the limerick remains a favourite form of humour for those who dare. Its connection to the Irish town named Limerick is unclear. But the 5-line format, rhyming a-a-b-b-a, was popularised by Edward Lear (19th century). A wizard of "nonsense poetry" his Owl and The Pussy Cat remains a masterpiece. Some made nonsense of even the 5-line rule. Example: "A young man from Timbucktoo / Whose limericks stopped at line two."

For the most "glorious nonsense", as Alice (of Wonderland fame) described it, we must go to Lewis Carrol and especially his Jabberwocky. Lines that mean nothing, yet constitute literary classics.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Satyajit Ray's father Sukumar Ray is the only known Indian writer/satirist who attempted nonsense poetry. Some English translations are available but we should assume that the Bengali originals were the more flavourful.

Edward Lear and Lewis Carrol and Sukumar Ray all flourished when life was not commercialised, when there was space for creative humour and intellectual pleasure. Today all that is replaced by the sales pitch and pleasure comes at a price. Pay the price and have a Happy New Year.