Dancing with demons

Image By: Manjula Padmanabhan

Cartooning, stress and laughing at death.

There are two questions I used to be asked by journalists when they interviewed me as a cartoonist. The first question was: Do Indians have a sense of humour? This was asked in an earnest but mournful tone − We Indians don't have a sense of humour, do we? − as if the answer was utterly obvious: Of course we don't! We're a nation of grim-faced rationalists for whom humour and kinky sex are one and the same!

I would begin grinning even before they asked the question, because ­in my opinion, it was a bit ridiculous – we might as well ask, Are Indians human?, because humour is basic to the human condition. It has often been said that humans are the only creatures that laugh. Surely we are the only species to make that odd sound, somewhere between a scream and grunt, a cackle and shout, which we call laughter − and we are certainly the only species to dedicate so much of our resources to an entertainment industry.

The common explanation for why humans laugh is that laughing and smiling relieve stress. But this only leads to another question: Why do humans have such a disproportionate need for stress-relief? My own view is that we, unlike other animals, are conscious of the inevitability of death. That knowledge places such a terrible burden of fear on our nervous systems that evolution has provided us with a solution – a hyperactive funny bone. I am sure that, given the option, most of us would have preferred something more substantial − immortality, for instance! But we were not given such a choice. So, this is what we are stuck with: jokes, cartoons, comedians and cartoonists, in exchange for being conscious of our mortality.

Some years ago, neurologists in the UK discovered that smiling had such a beneficial effect on the human nervous system that even a false smile − that is, merely stretching the mouth with the corners turned up – could have the same positive effect on our nervous system as a real smile. This works even when we are feeling gloomy. The point here is that political cartooning is a serious business, one that has a seriously positive role to play in human society. This may also explain why those of us who are employed by newspapers to make other people chuckle are quite often grumpy and bad-tempered in real life. Unlike many of our readers and employers, we are unusually conscious of the nastier facts of life. Our job is to make people smile in the face of the things that make all of us cry − death, destruction, disasters and ugly politicians.

This makes a cartoonist similar to a lion tamer − or, as I would put it, a demon tamer. Our profession requires us to live with the demon of mortality chained to our drawing boards. And every morning, we give it a poke in the ribs, make it stand up on the dining table and sing a silly song for our readers. But the demon does not much like this treatment, so it snarls, claws at us, and in general reminds us that in the end it will win.

Sex and bathrooms
It is for this reason that cartoonists and humourists routinely turn their attention to forbidden topics – subjects that normally cause discomfort when referred to directly, which in the end can all be interpreted as a fear of death. Learning to laugh at our worst fears, after all, is fundamental to learning to relax, grow up and grow old with grace and humility. Think about it: there are many more funny stories involving sex or death or bathrooms − or all three together! − than there are about, for instance, paperclips. And if you do some day hear a joke about paperclips, ask yourself whether it is really about paperclips rather than about sex, death or bathrooms.]

Even jokes that appear to be about, say, alcoholism or religion, can be interpreted as concerns about mortality. Sex and bathrooms can be thought of as being related to death because they both require the use of intimate body parts, and the body is, of course, the ultimate vehicle of mortality. Anything to do with the body, but especially in relation to the exit and entry points, are a reminder that this solid-seeming object that defines our lives is, ultimately, only a vessel – out of which we ourselves will one day pour and be gone from, forever.

By way of proof, let us look through a compendium of jokes, the recently published Man Walks into a Bar. Ten pages are allotted to jokes specifically about death, five pages for accidents ranging from "Disability" to "Doggy Accidents", while the Blondes section goes from "Dim to "Easy Virtue" in nine pages. Sections on Boredom and Brains are taken care of within a single page. "Battle of the Sexes" takes up 12 pages to get to the final category, "Extreme Misogyny", but Non-attendance and Nostalgia both use just one page each. Twelve pages are given over to Religion, 16 to Health and Doctors and the section on Sex, from "Aphrodisiacs" and "Marital Aids" all the way to "Mythical Beings" occupies a full 38 pages! "Worms", meanwhile, gets less than a page.

Interestingly, the only other category that takes up a significant amount of pages in the compendium is Ethnic Jokes, at 23 pages. This brings us specifically to the subject of social taboos. In today's politically correct urban society, most of us are brought up to believe that it is rude to make fun of other people, to point at strangers or to defame groups of people. Yet for cartoonists, doing all of that is our stock-in-trade. Exaggerating the physical characteristics of everyone and anyone is perhaps the most basic element of visual humour. The big ears, the awkward height, the bloated belly, the giant nose − all of these and more are what make a cartoon memorable, and its subjects recognisable. However famous and powerful a politician, bureaucrat or celebrity, cartoonists in a modern country are permitted to poke fun at him or her.

In a sense, the freedom to do so is part of the responsibility discussed earlier: that of relieving stress. Powerful, glamorous and wealthy people cause the rest of us to feel small, oppressed and helpless, even if only inadvertently. But a cartoon on the front page of the newspaper that we all share in the morning is able to express, on behalf of all who see it, a cheeky and pleasurable defiance. Despite the fact that nothing has changed in our social positions, this small illustration offers us the chance to face our lives with a touch of lightness.

Of course, there are limits to the extent to which cartoonists can go. We were all reminded of this in late 2005, when the publication of a series of cartoons in a Danish newspaper sparked off an international crisis. Instead of functioning as stress-relievers, the drawings hurt the sentiments of some Muslim readers, and were then circulated throughout the world in a show of solidarity with the cartoonists and in support of free speech. But the cartoons were no longer doing their job of stress relief. Instead, they had become stress-producers, resulting even in death threats and physical assaults. The demon of mortality was let loose upon our sensibilities, as cartoons crossed the boundary of friendly aggression into outright attack.

This could only have taken place to the extent that it did because of the way today's international news media are able to connect cultures that do not share the same ideals or freedoms. The entire event was a powerful reminder that humour really is a type of weapon, and that it must be used with caution. We are given the right to poke at the ribs of our own demons; but the demons, or taboos, of other cultures must remain out of bounds unless we are clearly given the right to have access to them. We cannot know the boundaries of unfamiliar demons any more than we can afford to tease a neighbour's guard dog without knowing whether or not its chain is secure.

A sense of humour does not come with instruction manuals or guarantees. If someone cannot laugh with us over a joke, it does not necessarily mean that they are missing a sense of humour; it could simply mean that we have not correctly understood the boundaries of our respective demons.

Respecting our demons
Now we come to the second of the two questions that Indian journalists used to ask. It was really a series of related questions, aimed specifically at me: What is it like to be a woman cartoonist? Is there any difference between men and women cartoonists? And also, Why are there so few women cartoonists? I used to say that I couldn't explain what it was like to be a woman cartoonist, because the only difference between men and women cartoonists was the usual differences that we have all noticed between men and women. Which is to say, some of us have more hair than others, some of us wear pants while others wear wristwatches, some prefer cats to dogs, and that most of us, of both genders, like ice cream. This is just another way of observing that even though there are differences, it is practically impossible to say whether they are of any consequence to being cartoonists.

As for why there are so few women cartoonists, I used to say that the answer was very simple: most cartoonists struggle to earn a good living – at least in their early years, which for some of us lasts until we are 65 or 70 – and that most smart, talented women do not have the patience to wait that long. This is what I used to say when I was a practising cartoonist. (I stopped drawing a regular comic strip at the end of 1997, and even though I do continue to illustrate books I now work more as a writer and painter than as a cartoonist.)

But today, at the age of 55, I would like to add a little something to that explanation. Perhaps there is a difference, after all, between the way men and women draw cartoons. Humour, as I noted in the beginning, is a serious business. I believe men and women respond to seriousness in different ways. For example, a majority of women spend their entire adult lives dealing with practical matters such as looking after households, balancing budgets and caring for small children. Their attention is continuously diverted from the big, stress-inducing problem that hangs over all our heads − mortality − by a continuous stream of minor crises that get solved on a daily basis. Men, on the other hand, have more time in which to contemplate mortality and the ultimate futility of existence. This is a real difference.

When I was a practising cartoonist, I was often depressed, angry and resentful at the world. My strip was a way to send that dissatisfaction rippling outward, disguised as my cartoon character, Suki. Unlike most of my friends, I never learned to be practical. I never managed a household, and I still do not cook or clean or have children. Meanwhile, Suki had no dependants, did no housework, was inept even at boiling water and had little interest in either earning or spending money. The strip often focused on abstract ideas, and many of Suki's co-characters were non-human − a frog, a flower, an extra-terrestrial.

By contrast, a fellow Indian woman cartoonist, the late Maya Kamath, did all the things that women are traditionally associated with doing, and she was a cartoonist. Not only that, she was the rarest of rare among women cartoonists, because she drew the front-page political cartoons for the newspaper at which she worked. Indeed, there are now scores of women cartoonists in the West. And in Japan, I am told, a majority of artists employed by the comic industry are women.

So my theory as to why fewer women are inclined towards cartooning clearly requires some adjustment. Perhaps it is a phenomenon that is more noticeable in Southasia than elsewhere: perhaps we will eventually catch up, and perhaps the difference has less to do with ability than with cultural perceptions about what kind of work is 'appropriate' for nicely-brought-up girls. In the end, of all the demons chained to the desks of cartoonists, the most significant one is the cartoonist, him or herself. Even as we poke fun at the world in general, we are also sending ourselves out into the market place – our own personalities, talents and wit – to be laughed at, to be ignored, to be attacked and, sometimes, to be danced with.

~ Adapted from the keynote address at the Himal Southasian Cartoon Congress, 14 November 2008, Kathmandu.

~ Manjula Padmanabhan is a writer and artist whose comic strip, Double Talk, appeared in the Sunday Observer (1982-86) and in the Pioneer (1991-97).

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