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Friday 21 September 2018
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History and the cultivation of humour

Sharda Patasar writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

Last weekend, I visited a friend whose six-year-old son is my “go to” liming partner of choice. He arrived home after a long day of school and extra-curricular activities. He did the usual obligatory drills – shower and dinner – and then settled on the table where we four adults were chatting, to read his newly-arrived National Geographic Kids Magazine. After some questions about his day and what new he had learnt in his karate class, I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask (perhaps the Nat Geo magazine had something to do with it):

“So, Ravi (not his real name), what do you think of me building a sandbag house? There have been so many storms around lately that I thought it would be a great idea.”

He cocked his eyebrow, and without raising his head from the magazine, replied,

“If it were World War II, yeah,” the “yeah” uttered in that low to high tone that is usually intended to communicate one’s incredulity at the question. There was a slight smirk on his face that told me that he knew the effect that he was going for.

We all laughed but I was very interested in his response.

“How do you know about that? What was built from sandbags in World War II?” I asked.

“The bunkers,” he replied, still thumbing through his magazine.

“Where did you learn that?”

“I saw it at the museum,” he replied.

“The military museum here?” I asked.

“Yes. And I saw an old plane. I got to see all the controls inside too.”

By this time, he was looking at me with his eyebrows raised when he was excited about something.

Given the state of the military museum for those who have visited, I was intrigued that this child had actually come away with knowledge. But I was also more interested in the quick answer to what may have seemed, to him, a childish question.

If there is any case for the preservation of local history in the form of artifacts and buildings, this is one. That a child of six, could use the knowledge gathered from a museum visit, to provide a repartee to the question of sandbag houses, I believe, gives us an indication of the possibilities inherent in such knowledge. While we do have calypsoes that once provided this, contemporary society, caught in the tornado that is the Internet, and media with its constant breaking news, we require even more exposure to our local history and how that is positioned in a global history, to creatively explore our own local humour.

The thing about wit is that it is dependent on sharp observation and the intelligent manipulation of language and events. It requires the ability to turn things upside down. It’s not just crazy, funny facial contortions or smutty jokes that makes something funny. It’s also an appreciation of ambiguity. And I think here of Terry Pratchett for instance, whose books are fantastical in nature and deal with a disc-shaped world floating through space on the backs of four elephants that are, in turn, located on top of a giant turtle Great A’Tuin.

But Discworld is not an unfamiliar world if we read deeper. It pulls from, not only folklore, but also, contemporary issues and historical references. There are universal bits of humour with which we can all identify. Take, for instance, “Steal five dollars and you’re a common thief. Steal thousands and you’re either the government or a hero.” (Going Postal).

“And then Jack chopped down what was the world’s last beanstalk, adding murder and ecological terrorism to the theft, enticement, and trespass charges already mentioned, and all the giant’s children didn’t have a daddy anymore.

But he got away with it and lived happily ever after, without so much as a guilty twinge about what he had done...which proves that you can be excused for just about anything if you are a hero, because no one asks inconvenient questions.” (Hogfather).

If you can appreciate the quips and catch the references, here you have stories that treat serious issues with a humourous slant.

The general point here, is that an understanding of our history provides those of us so predisposed, with the knowledge to create our own witticisms. While some lament the passing of a generation of calypsonians who were skilful at double entendre, perhaps that is an indication of the need for a new approach to humour.

Building the knowledge base in the present generation is important. An attraction to that knowledge is dependent on how much value we can create out of our past and present histories through, firstly, the measures that we take to upkeep and package the memories that remain around us in architecture, objects and museums.

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