On Thursday, February 7th, I entered Delhi Airport holding a ticket for the two hour flight south to Hyderabad. The airline official looked at me very sadly.
‘I am sorry, but I do not think you will be getting on the Hyderabad flight today.’
Although he looked as if he believed me, it made no difference.
‘You see, sir, today is the last day on which politicians may enter their names for nomination to the elections, so the plane is full of politicians. Believe me, several people have already been turned off the plane to give a politician a seat. There is a flight tomorrow morning at 6am.’
On Thursday, February 7th, I left Delhi airport still holding a ticket for Hyderabad and went sadly back to my hotel. Still at least it would give me a chance to take a good Indian lunch.
‘A murgh tikka, please, ‘ I told the food waiter, and he sped off.
‘Something to drink, sir?’ said the drink waiter.
‘A large bottle of Kingfisher beer, please.’
Moments later the food waiter was back.
‘I am so sorry, sir, but after three o’clock there is no Indian cooking. We could do you egg and chips.’
Moments after that the other waiter returned.
‘I am so very sorry, sir, but I forgot that in Delhi the 7th is a dry day. There is no beer to be had. We could do you a glass of water.’
Have you ever had the feeling that it’s one of those days? One of those days when you expect to be flying to Hyderabad and the sunny south, and you end up eating egg and chips in Delhi? For a moment I let self-pity and depression wash over me, until suddenly the thought occurred: this is what humour is all about! Humour is all about things going wrong. When disaster looms, everyone else groans, but the humorist rubs his hands in glee.
I don’t know if they were rubbing their hands in Hyderabad back in November, but they certainly had their chance. “The World Conference of Humour due to take place in November,” I read in the Herald Tribune, “has been postponed following the assassination of Mrs Ghandi, the Indian Prime Minister.” That was the first I knew about the conference, and for a long time it was all I knew. Even the Indian High Commission in London knew nothing.
‘What humour conference are you talking about?’ their press office asked me.
‘Well, apparently it’s taking place in February in Hyderabad.’
‘That’s all we know about it at the moment,’ said the press office, with a stunning volte-face. ‘As soon as we know more, we will let you know. Good-bye.’
And they hadn’t even asked my name. Luckily, the British Council were able to find out a few details. It was an international conference, with delegations from all over, though not British, and it started on Feb 8. End of details. By the time I left London I had not been able to contact the organisers, and was heading off into the unknown, no hotel booked, no contacts, no nothing. This is the way a humorist should travel, I suppose.
On Friday, February 8th, I entered Delhi Airport again at 4.30 am, holding a ticket for Hyderabad. Two hours later, amazed, I was on a plane heading south, wondering rather belatedly if I was doing the right thing, because as any humorist, cartoonist or comedian will tell you, the last thing they want to do is discuss humour, and the last people they want to do it with are other humorists. There is absolutely nothing useful you can say about humour. The only people who want to discuss it are people with no sense of humour. When a humorist is asked if there is any taboo subject to risky for him to deal with, he should answer: Yes, humour. Turn this plane back! I want to return to Delhi for egg and chips!
A quick show of hands among the passengers went against me and we duly arrived in Hyderabad, where in the customs area I spotted a young man wearing a pink lapel badge: WELCOME TO THE HUMOUR CONFERENCE.
‘Can you tell me where it is taking place?’ I asked him.
‘Alas, sir, I cannot. I have only been working for the conference since yesterday; I am a student who has been detailed to welcome the Bangladeshi delegate.’
(The Indians really do use the word “sir “ a lot, but there is nothing servile about it. It is simply a mode of address. It is, I suddenly realised, very like the way Dr Johnson called Boswell “sir” the whole time. “Depend upon it, sir, when a man is tired of London…” Thereafter I tended to ascribe a rather Johnsonian quality to Indian conversation which it did not always deserve; since then I have also, when reading Dr Johnson’s words, found myself giving him an Indian accent which is proving rather hard to eradicate.)
I was shyly approached by a man with a business card.
‘You are looking for a hotel?’ it wasn’t a question so much as a telepathic statement. ‘The one you are wanting is the Ritz. You go ahead by taxi and I will follow by bicycle.’ Ten minutes later my taxi turned into the Ritz drive under a banner proclaiming “Welcome to the 17th Congress of Cylinder Makers – Towards Standardisation”. They are batty about conventions in India, and perhaps in a country where it takes seventeen years to start getting cylinders standardised (and where the railways still use four different gauge tracks) they need them.
The Ritz used to be a Hill Fort Palace, which is still its address, a small out-palace used by one of the Nizam’s off-spring for parties, and the central part of the hotel is still the flowery courtyard where the entertainers were viewed by the nobs in the turreted galleries upstairs. It has that slightly faded, dim elegance of hotels a bit past their prime which makes them, for me, the best kind of hotel, and has the friendliest staff I met in India. My room was big; I shared it with a small lizard who lived behind the WC cistern and must have needed ear-plugs every time I flushed it, and with the largest Bush radio I have seen since the 1940s. It had everything except Daventry marked on the dial, but the only station I could get clearly was Radio Moscow.
“…and we have had another letter from a listener in New Zealand who wants to know what privileges there are attached to being a Soviet citizen. Well, sir” (I must have imagined him saying “sir”),” In Russia there is full employment, and enough accommodation for everyone, at a small, stable rate,”
‘That’s because you all live in small stables,’ I told him, and went off, directed by the hotel staff, to the opening session of the Humour Conference, hoping I would hear some better jokes than that.
The grand opening was taking place in the Ravindra Bharathi, a large modern theatre, and when I entered the auditorium I realised suddenly that this conference betrayed all that humour stood for. It was incredibly well organised. The theatre was jam-packed with about 2,000 people, the stage was packed with 50 delegates and the crowd was being addressed by one of the most notable people in India, Sri Balram Jakhar, who is the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the equivalent of our Lord Tonypandy. There was no sign of Michael Foot. The only thing wrong was that there was no seat for latecomers, but within seconds a sympathetic official had rescued me, and placed me, to my horror, on stage among the delegates.
As I sank low into my seat, the Speaker was saying: ‘It is very easy for politicians to be funny. It is very difficult for them however, to be funny intentionally.’ This got a good laugh from the 2,000, and it seems that the Indians have a good, healthy attitude of cynicism towards politicians, even if they haven’t been turned off planes for them. I am sure much of the success of Mr Ghandi (and of all those film stars who have recently turned politician, including the new boss of Hyderabad) is that he had no desire to be a politician until he couldn’t get out of it.
The audience, now that I had a chance to study them, looked affably middle class. There were society matrons, men who looked like ex-colonels, whole families, retired people with nothing better to do and young men with nothing worse to do. They were exactly the kind of listeners, in fact, who would turn out in Leamington Spa for a radio session of Any Questions? The delegates round me, on the other hand, looked like professors, serious, dedicated and desiccated, and half of them were, judging from the cards they handed out.
‘I am coming to England soon to lecture on Gujarati poetry,’ whispered one to me fiercely. ‘I hope I may meet you there to discuss it. Here is my card. May I have yours?’
This exchange of cards is a very serious business in India, and woe betide the traveller who does not set out with at least sixty. Every introduction in India is accompanied by a ceremonial swapping of cards, and it comes as a surprise when the railway porters or taxi drivers do not offer you a business card. As the main speakers droned on, the delegates started to introduce themselves in undertones. From the auditorium it must have looked as if we were commenting on the speeches. Actually, we could hardly hear them. We were just saying hello.
‘Hello,’ whispered a tall, young European with a nervous moustache, chain-smoking. ‘I am from Russia. Where are you from?’
I have Andrey N. Yakhontov’s card before me as I write. He is Head of Department of Satire and Humour of the Literary Gazette in Moscow.
‘I am Chief Editor, Humour and Satire Section, Times of London,’ I whisper back, as I do think it is very important when doing business abroad to hint at a large back-up organisation.
As the ceremony came to an end, we were all handed souvenir envelopes. Talk about organisation. They had actually persuaded the Indian post office to do a special first day cover for the event, a lavish envelope designed by cartoonist Mario, with stamps depicting Charlie Chaplin and a postmark commemorating the conference. Then a TV crew invaded the stage, interviewing everyone who looks as if he might have something to say.
‘I think humour is very important to join nations,’ I heard Mr Yakhontov saying, ‘because we all need humour…’
Well, yes and no. Some kinds of humour are international, like Charlie Chaplin. Most kinds of humour, I am convinced, tend to separate nations. Only the other day I read a review of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday in the New Yorker which dismissed the great Tati film as a quaint kind of European humour not likely to appeal to many American movie-goers. The day that Americans go overboard for Tati, or that Krokodil starts publishing disrespectful caricatures of Mr Gorbachev, that is the day I will agree that humour is universal…
‘You are from England?’ said the TV man, pointing lights and cameras at me. ‘Are you here to tell jokes?’
‘No, I am here to steal jokes,’ I said manfully. He did not laugh.
‘And what do you think this conference will achieve?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘yesterday I was meant to fly here from Delhi but I could not get on the plane – they were turning people off to fit politicians on. What this conference is working towards is the day when politicians will be turned off planes so that humorists can get a good seat.’
He stared at me blankly and ordered the lights to be turned off. But the next morning at the Ritz Hotel I was approached at breakfast by a gleeful waiter.
‘Sir, I saw you on television last night. It was wonderful! You were talking about politicians and aeroplanes, which I did not entirely understand. But I said to my mother – Come quickly and see the television, I am knowing this man! Oh, it was wonderful!’
Talking to the others as we milled about the stage afterwards, I began to get an idea of how and why the conference had been organised. Hyderabad is a Muslim city and although the local language is Telugo, Urdu is much spoken especially among the literati. Their Urdu literary society, Zinda Dilan-E-Hyderabad, decided it was about time the fame of Urdu poetry spread a bit, and as much Urdu poetry has a humorous cast a World Conference of Humour seemed as good a way of starting as any. Their moving spirit was a man called, splendidly, Narendra Luther.
The main barrier to humour becoming universal is the fact that we speak different languages, so cleverly they shelved language problems on the first day; the remaining two events were the opening of a cartoon exhibition and a show of mime. But even when you do without words, you still have national differences.
Consider cartoons about goalkeepers. There were two at the exhibition, one by the Punch artist Banx, It showed a blind man in goal, leaping athletically to save the ball, but it’s a dog at the end of the lead who has actually got the ball in his mouth. The way it’s drawn – man and dog flying through the air, white stick trailing – is quite funny, and I laughed out loud. I was the only one who did. Everyone else stared at it thoughtfully.
Round the corner was an Indian cartoon showing a man in goal, looking at the people on the touch-line, who are all one family. The goalkeeper takes his eyes off the people to look at the game and in a flash the family have moved into the goal, set up home there with cooking pots and bedding spread out. People laughed at this. I stared at it thoughtfully.
It doesn’t need me to tell you that we have two different kinds of humour here; Banx’s surrealist idea and the Indian’s social comment. But the points of reference are separate, too. I saw blind people in India, but I didn’t see many with white sticks and none with guide dogs. Maybe the people at the exhibition didn’t know he was meant to be blind – and even if they did, were they asking themselves: Just what is a blind goalkeeper doing in a team? Again, homelessness is not such a problem in Britain that anyone would want to move into a football goal (and the country is not warm enough for it even to be a joke idea) but in a hot country where, in the big cities, you can see people living in boxes, the idea has an immediate bitter sting. It took me a couple of moments to work out the cartoon. Any cartoon you have to work out, you don’t laugh at.
There are in fact some very good cartoonists working in India (most of them, I would guess, descended from the tradition of Vicky and Low) and I met one of them there at the show, Vins, from Bombay. The extraordinary thing was that I had met him before, on my previous visit to India fourteen years ago, in Bombay, where I had been sent by Punch with cartoonist, Geoffrey Dickinson.
‘Hey,’ said Vins, ‘do you remember the party you came to at Mario’s place, the night you were due to fly back to England? And Geoffrey got very merry, and remembered halfway to the airport that he had left his passport and ticket at the party? And you came back to the party, and while he was getting his ticket, your taxi had a puncture? And we had to phone the airport to get the plane delayed?’
Do I ever remember. Travelling with Geoffrey is bliss for a humorous writer – everything always goes wrong. We were once given tickets to travel to Spain for a feature, second class to Zurich, change to first class to Malaga. The girl at the air terminal couldn’t feed this information into the computer. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said after the third try, ‘But the computer doesn’t believe anyone in their right mind would travel to Spain this way. It keeps rejecting what I tell it.’
‘Tell the computer,’ said Geoffrey, ‘that nobody in their right minds would be working for Punch.’
That seemed to do the trick and soon we were on the plane for Switzerland. We weren’t the only ones; ahead of us in the VIP compartment was a very old and tottery Charlie Chaplin.
‘Do you realise what this means?’ said Geoffrey. ‘if this plane crashes, and the headline says; COMIC HERO DIES IN CRASH, it won’t be either of us?’
‘Yes, Vins, ‘ I said. ‘I remember.’
Vins introduced me to a number of other cartoonists and within a short space of time, I was accepted as an honorary member of a warm, bubbly and irreverent fellowship, which included prominent cartoonists such as Sudhir Tailang, Sushil Kalva, Sudhir Dar, Vivray Seth, and Mario. It was a sort of jokey, boyish camaraderie which made me feel very much at home.
By the time we got to the theatre again for the mime show at 6pm I had already been up for fourteen hours. The mime wasn’t half bad. But my sleep finally told on me and I slid into a wonderful slumber. I don’t know how long I slept, but was rudely interrupted when my seat broke under me and I was catapulted into the aisle during a particularly quiet moment of mime. Several ushers rushed forward and found me another seat, in the very front row. It’s hard going to sleep in the front row, especially when the mime’s eye is fixed on you. Geoffrey Dickinson would have enjoyed the situation.
And that, I thought, was that for the evening. But the organisers insisted I make up the numbers for a private dinner they had been invited to, at the home of a wealthy Urdu tobacco magnate, where nearly 100 of us sat cross-legged on the lawn and ate one of the most delicious meals I have ever known. For safety’s sake, I sat next to Vins. I’m glad I did; I was about to pour a tasty looking brown sauce on my meat when he stayed my hand.
‘That’s a pudding, actually.’
And after the meal there was an hour’s recitation of Urdu poetry. In Urdu. By the poets themselves. I don’t know if you have ever listened to a lot of Urdu poetry, but even if you don’t understand it, it’s quite hypnotic. The poets act out the sense of the lines quite dramatically, and there were shouts of laughter, and cries of ‘We, we, WAA! ’ every time they came to a comic punch-line. The organiser apologised at the end to all those who could not understand. We must have been bored out of our mind, he said. He was quite wrong.
By the time I left, the organisers had extracted a commitment from me to join the other International delegates at the last session of the conference to tell two British jokes. I shared a taxi with three members of the Bulgarian delegation who were, as one explained to me in impeccable English, trying to establish who should tell the jokes. The English speaker was essential as he had to translate, the older man, Fartinov, was head of the Department of Humour and so he was pulling rank, but the other member of the group was a woman and as Bulgaria was an egalitarian state, she demanded that she be the one to joke.
By the time we parted, the decision had been made: the head of the delegation would tell the joke, and line by line, the female would repeat it and, line by line, it would be translated by the third member of the group.
Sufficient to say the joke telling session was endless, agonising and above all, joyless. The audience laughed and clapped politely. Then, before I was called upon to joke for England, Vins nudged me. ‘We’re going for a beer, Kington. You coming?’
I did not hesitate.
The Times March 1985