After a moment's bafflement, it all slowly floated back. Yes, I had once been in Hyderabad, back in 1984. There had been a World Congress of Humour there. I had not been invited - nobody from Britain was invited, or if they were, they didn't go - but I saw it trailed in the Herald Tribune and I decided to go there by hook or crook. Eventually the Indian tourist people gave me a free ticket (thanks, Indian tourist people!) in the expectation that one day I might write a gushing article about India, and here at last it is.
Yes, Sudhir Dar I remember because he was one of a gang of Indian cartoonists who had turned up from Delhi, in somewhat cynical mood. There were three reasons for this.
1. Cartoonists everywhere are always in cynical mood.
2. Especially at a humour congress.
3. Especially at a humour congress when there is not a pub very nearby.
I think that it was 1984 or thereabouts because the World Congress of Humour was postponed for a month or two out of respect following the assassination of Mrs Gandhi, and she was killed in 1984. I remember rolling up in Hyderabad and being amazed at the mixture of traditional and modern in one place. The traditional was well represented by a radio in my hotel bedroom which had been permanently tuned by some Communist hotel servant to Radio Moscow, and the modern by a man driving a buffalo cart down the main street.
What's modern about a man driving a buffalo cart?
I'll tell you. As soon as he saw me wielding a camera, he stopped and adopted a photogenic pose for me.
However, I had not brought out my camera to snap him but to photograph a plaque on the bank across the road which said: "Mohammed Azruddin, India's great batsman, worked here as a cashier". I pointed to the plaque and waved him on. He laughed and rode on past.
There weren't many laughs for me in a lot of the events of the World Humour Congress. A seminar on "Bengali Satire - Where Next?". A talk on "Gujarati Humour - Twenty Years Of Success" ... But I found some enlightenment in the exhibition of cartoons, partly because it matched West against East. For instance, there were two cartoons about goalkeeping, one from Punch and one from an Indian paper, which showed exactly why humour is never international.
Let me explain. The Punch cartoon showed a blind goalkeeper. You know he's blind because he has a white stick, dark glasses and a guide dog. There he is in goal, waiting for the ball to come. In the second drawing the ball comes and he dives to save it. Unfortunately he dives the wrong way. Fortunately, the dog dives the other way and saves it.
OK? Got it? Right. Here's the Indian cartoon. First drawing shows a goalkeeper in goal, with a whole family watching him from behind the goal line. Second drawing shows the goalie going out to clear the ball, whereupon the whole family moves into the goal behind him and sets up house, starting to cook, spread out sleeping rolls etc ...
"Oh, my God," I thought, "it's a joke about homeless people ... That's not funny ..."
That's not what the Indians thought. They saw the cartoon and they chortled.
"Is that really a joke about homeless people?" I asked one.
"Yes, and jolly good too," he said. "But if you are English perhaps you can explain the joke from Punch? The man with the dark glasses ...?"
"The blind man ..." I said.
"How you are knowing he is blind?"
"He has a white stick and dark glasses ..."
Ah, but apparently blind people in India do not have white sticks. They thought the blind man was an airline captain or something.
"So he is blind?"
"So ... what is the joke?"
As I said, I think this proves that humour is not international. Anyway, this all came flooding back when I got the brochure for the exhibition and there was the very same cartoon! The homeless joke! By Mario from Goa. I didn't laugh at it in 1984, because it was tasteless in 1984 to laugh at Third World problems.
Things have moved on now. Thanks to the enlightened years of the Tory government, we now have homelessness here in Britain and now at last it is tasteful for us to get a laugh out of that Indian cartoon.Reuse content