I have just finished rereading two books – one by Parasuram and the other by James Thurber. And, like every time over the last 3 decades, I am struck by the joy and laughter that some writers and filmmakers have the capacity to spread. Age has not withered nor wisdom staled their infinite variety; with every reading, there is something that I discover, a little nuance that I had missed, a little insight that adds to my knowledge of myself.
Hence this tribute to those men who have made me a richer person. The list is not very long – P G Wodehouse, Thurber, Parasuram (aka Rajshekhar Basu), Sukumar Ray (Satyajit’s father), Douglas Adams, Don Marquis, James Stephens, Charles Chaplin, Mel Brooks, Laurel & Hardy, and a few other notables. And not a single woman in the list so far! Perhaps the hands that rock the cradle, and of course rule the world, don’t have the time to make people laugh as well.
Each one created worlds complete in themselves, and each could draw me into these worlds, convinced of their reality. The people who lived in those worlds became personal friends; their follies and foibles were as familiar to me as those of my friends and relatives on Planet Earth. And if truth be told, in some ways, and in many cases, a lot more important than such mundane issues as the prices of petrol and foodstuff, the distressing habit that bais have of giving notice every four months, and the shortage of parking space in our cities.
I encountered Wodehouse when I was a snot-nosed youth of some 10 summers – thanks to my dad, and the then price of Penguin paperbacks, all of Rs 2.50 each. Ah me! Those were the days. Rucksack on my shoulders to school and back, football and gully cricket in the afternoons, homework in the evenings, and Wodehouse at night. I discovered the world of the country homes of England, populated by impecunious young men and women who were sometimes in love and always in search of money, well-bred birds, bees of the better class, mild mannered earls, not so mild mannered dukes, aunts, butlers who were the ultimate problem-solvers, and of course, such stalwarts like Uncle Fred, Roderick Glossop, Mr Mulliner, the Oldest Member, and the denizens of the Drones.
At about the same time, again thanks to my dad, I discovered the wonderful world of Giovanni Guareschi, his village in the Po valley in Italy, with two strong protagonists – the Communist mayor, Peppone, and the local priest, Don Camillo. Natural opponents, you say. True; but on issues that matter, the staunchest of allies. Written just after the Second World War, artists were engaged with themes of destruction, reconstruction, the plight and the victory of human dignity in the battle between the two great forces of democracy and communism, the Cold War, and the emerging crises in Asia (the Korean War and the war in Indo-China). In so many cases, the worldview of the artists was bleak – to quote just one example, witness Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”, published in 1946. Not surprising, when the world was just discovering the horrors of the Nazi death camps and of Stalinist Russia. In such a time, when others found little but unrelieved gloom, Guareschi found victory of the human spirit and sentiment. (Not my words – I have forgotten who wrote this.)
James Thurber’s world was perhaps influenced by his dad, a minor politician and periodic unemployed who had dreams of being an actor or lawyer, and his mother, a strong-minded woman with a penchant for practical jokes. While my parents were, and still are, quite different, I have dreams of becoming rich and famous, and I do have a turn for the leg-pull. Hence, for me to understand the world of Walter Mitty was easy. Also, the turbulences of our lives find resonance with such tragedies as the bed falling on Thurber’s father, the flooding of Columbus, the battles of his aunt with recalcitrant water taps and electric lights, and of course, the strange behaviour of household pets like wives and dogs. His finest insight of all was the sentence: “Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead.”
“Don’t panic” must be the best known advice in the world. If it isn’t, it should be. After all, these words are printed in large friendly letters on the cover of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the essential guide to modern living, in this or any other planet. Adams’ handbook taught me the importance of knowing where my towel is, where to get the best pan-galactic gargle blasters, how to avoid a Vogon spaceship while hitch hiking across space, and the price of a meal at the restaurant at the end of the universe. I also know the answer to the fundamental question of life, the universe and everything (it is 42). Wherever he is now, Douglas Adams is doubtless trying to frame the question, which he couldn’t do during his time on this planet; surely, he is being aided and abetted in his efforts by Zaphod Beeblebrox, Majikthise, and perhaps also Eccentrica Galumbits. Hail to thee, Douglas; a blithe spirit if ever there was one.
Parasuram was another such blithe spirit. His fame as Rajshekhar Basu was by virtue of being the General Manager of a large pharmaceutical company. This is far outstripped by his fame under the nom de plume of Parasuram. His satire was incisive, without being malicious, which was refreshing. I encountered such wonders of the modern world as The Automatic Shree Durgagraph, and the way to make proteins for human consumption out of grass, using an old harmonium and a long piece of rubber tubing. His poking of fun at medical practitioners and godmen strike a chord even today, what with the plethora of religious channels and medical advice (I was about to add ‘of dubious value’) available in every newspaper and magazine. And of course, like for all great writers, you get to meet some of the most unforgettable characters you are likely to run into outside of the covers of Reader’s Digest. (A point to ponder – how many readers has the magazine digested till now?).
In an essay, Wodehouse wrote about a piece from the Talmud (or maybe it was the Torah). I don’t remember it verbatim, but the essence goes like this: at the time of the final reckoning, three persons were among the first to be allowed into the kingdom of heaven, because they had the ability to make people laugh and bring joy into their lives. So now we know where all the dead funny men go. Perhaps their admirers are allowed into the same space in the fullness of time.
(Posted on sulekha.com on Apr 21 2006)