Where has all the laughter gone? – By Mitali Chakravarty

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There was a time when limericks and humorous poetry made us laugh, when ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine!’ brought tears of merriment to multiple readers of Readers’ Digest, when PG Wodehouse was digested by youngsters by the dozen and when everyone loved a good laugh. There were no laughter clubs. There were no sleep clinics. There was spring and happiness and childhood…

That is how we grew up back in the 1970s and 1980s.

That was the time when bell bottoms were in fashion, people still listened to Beatles, Carpenters and Julio Iglesias; Agatha Christie and Perry Mason were mystery fare and people read only books with pages.

Then with internet revolution swinging into action, things changed. Things changed in a way that made living more challenging! On one hand communication was eased; on the other the tech savvy and the non-tech groups replaced simple divisions of caste and class. For some time, people could say what they liked across all borders drawn by mankind. And then power brokers made rules to regulate the flow of thought in the guise of curbing negative output online. Some of it was necessary, especially where people were inducing riots with Facebook exchanges, but some of it created borders in communicating ideas.

There were alternatives that crept up and people still found ways of communicating across borders with blogs and social media, though some governments banned even those. Voices were raised… but the tone had changed from one of happiness to one of darkness and challenge.

What was bad kept coming into focus over what was good. Laughter dissipated!

Limericks gave way to haikus reflecting the darkness of existence, which were rare earlier because people and ideas could not travel across borders easily long, long ago… fifty full years ago…

The span of time like our focus has shortened. Reading what others write has become a luxury. Writing what one has to say and publishing in social media has become the norm. Yet reading evidently creates an empathizing individual, an individual who can emote on behalf of others and spread kindness and smiles through the world. A research by Kingston University in London highlighted how readers make better and kinder friends. The report states: “Specifically, when broken down by genre, they (the researchers) saw that readers of comedy were the best at relating to people. Romance and drama lovers were the most empathetic and most skilled at seeing things through other’s eyes.”

Perhaps, dwelling on the results of the research, we should look for not stand-up comics on you tube but for books that make us laugh, whether in English or some other language. I still cannot stop laughing at the nonsense verse of Sukumar Ray ( film-maker and writer Satyajit Ray’s father) and those are verses I have been reading for the last forty years or limericks or stories by Wodehouse. And yet, they seem to be rather out of fashion now. In today’s world, we are all writers and readers in the landscape of social media. Presidents ‘tweet’ as do Prime Ministers and Ministers! Social media has gone viral as did American Idoland a bunch of programs that cropped up around it in the early 2000s.

An article in The Atlantic explains: “Yet in many ways Idol … was ahead of the pop-culture game. It was one of the first shows that understood both the emotional nerve that connects people to music, and people’s innate desire to see others succeed despite enormous odds. It excelled at creating a personal link between artists and viewers, compelling the latter to take action by calling in and voting…In this sense, Idol foreshadowed today’s social media-driven society, where fans have the power to mobilize and impact the pop-culture landscape…”. Huff Post  came up with the heading “American Idol Made Us All Critics”.

And now, we dot the social media landscape with critiques and comments on everything possible from a pair of shoes to poetry (for those who still read or watch what has come up in a big way, Performance poetry in You Tube) or a new scientific development. Yet, are we all qualified to comment on everything? Is it right to give precedence to public outcry over expertise?

Looking at the current trends, democratization has taken over all oligarchic institutions. Democracy works but to what point? How democratic are we as individuals? Individuality is also an after all an important component of all art forms and now is much emphasied in the comments section of social media. How many of us flash our prettiest pictures on Facebook in imitation of models? Does everybody want to be a celebrity?

One of my friends, a simple soul told me that in FB everyone looked so happy and successful! Another told me he withdrew from FB due to all the flak he faced when he voiced his opinion. Perhaps, decency fell prey to democratization for some. And yet a third one suffered a stroke and a heart attack and was told by the doctor to keep off social media and internet as the content upset him!

While democratization helps masses come to the fore, inventions or creations are always that of an individual. When we traded privacy and dignity for equality, did we really think of the consequences?

I still recall the expressions of the statues in the Memorial of Early Red Army in Beijing. The statues looked angry and discontent. These people definitely did not enjoy limericks or Edward Lear’s funny poems, but they believed in what they were taught to believe. Was it right to have a revolution by people who had no vision but were influenced to have a vision by pressures of external forces and the thin booklet of communist manifesto which was a handbook for all believers?

When the ‘Me-too’ controversies flared on FB, one friend told me that though she did not agree with the movement, she had not the freedom to voice her difference of opinion. If she did, external forces of FB would perhaps reduce her to pulp or jelly for daring to oppose popular opinion. A friend of mine speaking in favor of social media said it prevented bar room brawls. A good point. But it did not stop from inciting people to riot as result of which FB decided to take down posts inciting rage, hate and violence.

But has it been effective? A million-dollar question which yet remains to be answered with posts that threaten to unfriend friends if they do not paste the post the posters (not paper but people who publish on FB) have on their wall on their own (the friends’) FB page. Rather a complicated process to explain but you all are probably familiar with it. Perhaps people who avoid reposting prefer privacy and can continue without giving opinions. Should their hand be forced in the same way as my friend who was forced to write a post in favor of the ‘Me-too’ because otherwise, she would face social ostracization?

While ground rules keep evolving to mediate social media, one wonders if this has an impact on the dark overtones that have been coloring the literary world? Why is it writers feel that darkness needs to engulf readers before they change their way of thinking and become more positive in their output? Why has the world of literature been infected by dystopian literature that highlights the negative in the hope of a better outcome?

Haruki Murakami, a popular seventy-year-old Japanese novelist, whose books are often surrealistic and dark, says: “Only novels can make people feel through words that they went through actual experiences. Depending on whether or not people experience those stories, their thoughts and ways of seeing the world should change. I want to write stories that will penetrate the heart. I have a lot of hope in the power that novels hold.” Murakami’s books introduce “jarring elements to alter his characters’ lives, skewing reality and upending their worlds, to illustrate his recurrent themes of alienation and loneliness.” Murakami himself said“Obsessions can help people survive this intense loneliness.”Is this loneliness what makes writers sense darkness all around?  Is this feeling essentially a negative one?

“His (Murakami’s)writing process requires ‘stepping into the darkness’, where he observes, remembers, and writes down what he sees. His early books, he said, originated in an individual darkness, while his later works tap into the darkness found in society and history.” Is that why dystopian fiction, which in itself is not the happiest read, came into being?

For an ordinary reader like me, happiness makes me feel fulfilled. I fall back on literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth century often. The pre-world war literature. Though time moves fast and waits for nobody, why is it we are not able to move on? Why are we still allowing the past, the holocausts that dot twentieth century history, to bind us into an everlasting aura of darkness?  Though the wars left us scalded and scarred as a race, why do we not realize that we need to move on to create a happier and more wholesome world for the next generation? That will be a world where sunshine is uninterrupted and children interact, laugh and reach out to each other as friends with the innocence of lambs. With a passion for such a future, I lose myself in the pages of a book and listen to the 1980s song from Karen Carpenter, 

Yesterday once more…
“Those were such happy times and not so long ago
How I wondered where they’d gone
But they’re back again just like a long lost friend”
— Carpenters


 

About the Author

Mitali Chakravarty’s poetry has been published online and as part of two anthologies, In Reverie (2016) and An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English (1984). She has published a humorous book of essays on living in China where she spent eight years, In the Land of Dragons (2014). Her forthcoming translation from Hindi to English of Dr Uma Trilok’s novel, Penumbra, will be out this November (2019).  She has been reviewing books and writing essays for kitaab.org from 2017. During April 2019, she joined kitaab.org as the editor. She blogs at 432m.wordpress.com. She is working on her first two novels and translating another novella by Nabendu Ghosh from Bengali to English.