Something is rotten in the state of political satire

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there were two great stars in the sky. In the sky of India's Political Satire firmament, that is. One of them was Pamela Philipose. The other was Jug Suraiya. Now, when I look at the sky, one has kind of gone, and the other has become somewhat dim.

Political satire has a long, long pedigree in India. There were elements of it in Kalidasa's plays, perhaps dating back even to the Mahabharata. And like much of its genre, very well hidden in double entendre or indistinct nonsense. It takes a second reading of two passages in the Mahabharata to figure out the satire - once when the Yaksha questions Yudhisthira, and the other in the parable of the shopkeeper and the sage. Kalidasa had it a lot easier. His plays are, in fact, bilingual. The dialogues of princes, brahmins etc are in Sanskrit, while those of women, servants and commoners are in Maharashtri Prakrit. Much of the lampooning of the elite that he did was in the Prakrit dialogues, which the elite would not have understood very well. A tradition that has held to this day !

Nowadays, however, I see that satirical writings have dimmed somewhat in the English media. The non-English media had a richer tradition, but with the rise of all manner of vigilante groups, that too has declined. Remember the attacks by Shiv Sainiks on Kumar Ketkar after he published a satirical piece on the Maharashtra government's move to build a gigantic statue of Shivaji in the Arabian Sea? Or the aggression of the Kannada Chaluvali (Vatal Paksha), Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and similar organisations in different states?

A decade ago, I used to wait with relish for the Sunday editions of two newspapers. because I wanted to read Pamela Philipose's column in `The New Indian Express' and that of Jug Suraiya's in `The Times of India'. The former seems to have disappeared somewhere, while the latter, now having become the Big Editor at Times seems too busy. I still read his column, but now they seem hurried, as if sandwiched between other things.

Pamela's was the more enjoyable. Her liberal doses of Italian in the 'letters' from Priyanka to her Mamma Mia, imaginary interviews with the hoi-non-polloi (like this with a scandalised Musharraf) or Anglo-Gujarati Modi monologues made Sunday enormously look-forward-able to. And then in 2007, they abruptly stopped. I'm guessing she went to some other job, leaving a void in my Sundays, that even God would not fill. I can only hope that someday her sharp-witted keyboard will start tapping once again. Perhaps in `The South Reports' ? !

Jug Suraiya still labours on like an old warrior. While the sting in his columns was a little more muted (strictly my opinion), his columns were an education in the English language. If Salman Rushdie has been celebrated as a musician of the English language, lending it cadences and overtones it didn't have, I could say Jug was at the least, an accompanying violinist. Of the many writers I owe my writing skills and style to, he is one of the prominent ones.

The doughty Bachi Karkaria is still there, but her canvas has always been broader, including social issues in addition to politcal satire. But I guess bigger responsibilities mean that her mouse doesn't crackle as much these days.

Some hope still persists. Madhavan Narayanan is something of a brand in himself. His Facebook one-liners keep me going through the day. I could only wish he would do longer set-pieces. And though I may be accused of flattery, T S Sudhir's satirical pieces are what I enjoy on `The South Reports', much more than his straightforward reporting. And there is Faking News, India's answer to The Onion. But like India's answer to practically anything, it is more tragic than farcical.

Why is there such a dearth of political satire in India? Is it because Indians are in general a somewhat humourless species? Or is it because we have no place for subtlety? It is rare that a piece of satire has the kind of effect that an outright vicious attack can have. As Kumar Ketkar found out, satire can often boomerang, when your readers have no sense of humour. Our firmament seems to have become pretty dark indeed.


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