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Laughter: A diagnosis, and some personal prescriptions

Vikas Datta
Laughter is our audible reaction, usually involuntary, to something that amuses us — yet, it is a complex emotional expression that can also serve as a gesture of bravado, contempt or even desperation or a sign of mental imbalance. Consequently, it has been viewed variously down the ages and, likewise, so used in literature. Life, however, is not always happy, a key prerequisite for humour, and thus, this fundamental sense is seldom encountered in most manifestations of laughter in high classics.

Take the peculiar, unrestrained version beloved of the gods in Homer, often portending some problem for a poor mortal hero, or the various (non-humorous) senses the Bible is full of: “And the Lord said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh…” (Genesis 18:13), or “… the virgin, the daughter of Zion, hath despised thee, and laughed thee to scorn…” (Isaiah 37:22).

Then there is Shakespeare with: “O, you shall see him laugh till his face be like a wet cloak ill laid up” (“Henry IV, Part II”, Act V, Scene 1), proverbs like “He laughs best who laughs last” or the mid-18th century Earl of Chesterfield’s stern admonitions: “In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal and so ill-bred, as audible laughter” or “The vulgar only laugh, but never smile; whereas well-bred people often smile, but seldom laugh”. It may, however, be better for our sakes to deem laughter the best medicine — like the popular “Readers’ Digest” section — and believe those who prescribe it as a relief for the absurdities and unfairness we face in life, say authors with a proven ability to evoke laughs. More significant — in these days of limited time for reading — is that you don’t even have to read the full book, but wherever you open it, there may be passages of such comic virtuosity that it will be hard to keep a straight face.

For most readers, laughter-evoking humour can be a very subjective choice. (A good friend deems my humour poverty-stricken and ailing, or simply that it “sucks” — though why she should choose to render it “sux” is beyond me.) Let’s take a few English works full of such sections, which may evoke at least a chuckle, due to the marvellous way their writers transform the mundane into the uproariously funny, use extravagant metaphors and similes, and draw vivid characterisations and so on.

While P.G. Wodehouse may be one of the most celebrated, there are many capable forebears, contemporaries or successors. An unrivalled collection of comic set pieces can be found in Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)” (1889). Be it the author (“J”) diagnosing himself with all possible diseases after reading a medical encyclopaedia and what happens subsequently, how he and his friends George and Harris decide on a river cruise, the perils of travelling with cheese or getting up too early, the episode of the maze and much else complement its two most anthologised pieces — the episode of the “trout” trophy and the author’s Uncle Podger hanging a picture at home. As funny — though lesser-known and lesser-regarded — is the sequel “Three Men on the Bummel” (1900) in which the author and his friends go on a cycling trip across the German and Austro-Hungarian empire.

This too has many funny scenes — our heroes’ experiences in using a foreign phrase book in London, Harris’ encounter with a German road-waterer who has drenched a woman cyclist, what George’s attempts to buy a cushion lead to, how J and Harris cure George of his growing fondness for German beer, how George makes himself a criminal on German trains, the German police’s functioning and many more. Uncle Podger returns to show us how to “correctly” plan packing (will be much useful to single males) and how to be in time to catch a train.

Then, George MacDonald Fraser also deserves a place with his real (though fictionally presented) depiction of his service as an officer in a Highland Scots regiment just after the Second World War. (ians)