Denying people their jokes

When I was in Bangalore earlier this year, I was talking to a “US returned” friend about moving back to India, and he mentioned that one of the reasons he moved back is that he didn’t find very good “culture fit” in the US. “The thing that got to me”, he said, “was that I couldn’t even connect with their jokes”.

Living in the UK, that is not that much of a problem for us, since British humour is pretty good, but this anecdote illustrates how important jokes can be for people.

Regular readers of this blog might know that I get damn irritated by the new-found culture of political correctness. While it is not my intention to hurt anybody or their feelings, I feel that political correctness is being overdone nowadays, and that severely restricts what you can say. And that is a problem for people like me who like to say things without thinking.

Reading the odd news report from the US – about the Trump campaign, for example – it’s clear that I’m not alone in having a problem with this newfound political correctness (oh – I can now expect people to attack me for having views similar to Trump’s voters). In some ways the left-right battle in the US can be described as a battle of political correctness, where the “left” likes to be all correct, and expects that everyone else is also always politically correct and not offensive, while the “right” wants to say things as they are.

Anyway, putting together my friend’s anecdote about not getting American jokes, and the culture of political correctness, I can think of one other, possibly major, reason why people are pissed off about the culture of political correctness – it denies people their jokes.

Most popular jokes – may not be the best ones, mind you, but ones that have high memetic fitness – are cracked at the expense of an “other”. This “other” can sometimes be another person – even a public figure, but at other times, it defines a particular community (though not necessarily a certain community). And the joke consists of laughing at this particular other community (broadly speaking).

So you have short people jokes, and black jokes, and Jewish jokes, and Pakistani jokes, and Muslim jokes, and so on. And then you have sexist jokes.

Now put this in the context of political correctness – most jokes that most people have grown up on are now taboo, because they are offensive to one or the other community, and it is not polite to make fun of these communities. So a whole truckload of jokes that people are grown up on can now not be cracked in polite company. And as even the Soviet Union discovered, that can be oppressive.

I recently read this book called Hammer and Tickle – a History of Communism through Communist Jokes (you can find an extract here). This sub-heading accompanying the extract summarises the Soviet attitude towards jokes:

Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy. The standard interpretation is that communist jokes were a form of resistance. But they were also a safety valve for the regimes and jokes were told by the rulers as well as the ruled—even Stalin told some good ones

Now if only the “modern Soviets” were to get this!

Communists and Chintamani

My grandmother Narasamma, who was my last surviving ancestor before she passed away earlier this year, used to make roasted red peanuts. I don’t know the exact process for making them but it basically consists of applying a mix of salt and chilli powder to peanuts and roasting them (or the other way). If there is one thing I’m unlikely to forget about this grandmother, it’s the red roasted peanuts she would make.

I had never eaten these peanuts until when I was about eight years old when this grandmother moved in with us. I can’t really say that I ever got along particularly well with her, but these peanuts more than made up for all of that. Interestingly it was after she moved out a few years later that the supplies of these peanuts started going up. Anyway, in due course of time I had come up with the phrase “ajji kaDlekai” (grandmother’s peanuts) to refer to these peanuts.

Source: Flickr

As she grew older the supplies of these peanuts started drying up and I had to look for other sources. I soon settled upon Srinivasa Condiment Stores (more popularly known as “Subbamma stores”) in Gandhi Bazaar for my supplies. On my first few visits I would just point at it and be told a price and would buy without bothering what the name was. It was less than a decade ago that I discovered that these “ajji kaDlekai” actually had a name.

It was at Subbamma stores that I once went to procure such peanuts and couldn’t find them on display. I asked the shopkeeper if he had “red peanuts” (kemp kaDlekai) and he shouted to his associate deep into the store “one communist!”. It was then that I realised that the popular name of these red peanuts is “communist”.

The etymology is not hard to guess – the yellow “split” peanuts are called Congress (thanks to the congress split around 1970), and they wanted to come up with a political name for other varieties of peanuts also. Thus, being red in colour these peanuts came to be called “communist” (some disambiguation was required here – for there is another variety of red peanuts which are fried rather than roasted. They’ve been named “Oil King”). I don’t know how popular the name is but in Subbamma stores at least these peanuts are called “Communist”. Similar peanuts roasted with green masala are called “green revolution” (unlikely the name ever caught on! ).

When I moved to North Bangalore two years back I no longer had access to Subbamma Stores for my Communist fix. And I had to find stores close to my home there that would supply it. It was hard enough to find so I cultivated several sources (somehow Communist is not as popular as Congress in condiment stores – perhaps reflecting political parallels). Sometimes it would be from Ganesh Condiments in Rajajinagar first block. On other occasions it was the Iyengar’s bakery at the end of my road (but he never got the difference between communist and oil king and so I stopped buying from him). And sometimes as far away as the Ace Iyengar store in Malleswaram.

There was one thing common to the communists procured from these sources though – the label. Each of them were manufactured by a different small scale industry named after a different god. But the place of manufacture was the same – Chintamani town in Chickballapur district. It was after I had seen similar labels several times that it all started coming together.

I remembered that my father was born in Chintamani, which means that Chintamani is my grandmother’s hometown (given how births were conducted back in the 1950s one could infer this). And this explained how she had picked up this skill for making these Communist peanuts – something most of my other relatives (none of whom were from Chintamani) lacked.

I was reminded of all this a while back when I was eating Communists, procured from Gayathri Stores in Jayanagar 4th block (incidentally run by actor Kashinath’s brother). This one came without a label, and when I had asked the shopkeeper (Kashinath’s brother) for the source, he had replied “naave maaDstivi” (we get them made). Maybe the communists I had for a snack a while back weren’t made in Chintamani, but they were crisp and perfectly spiced!

The communists have moved beyond Chintamani!