Hollow Laughter

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Author Mohammed Hanif and playwright Richard Fredman tell Nisha Susan why satire is the best reality check for society

“People do tend to think that if you live in a really f****d-up society, you can write better books. This is not true” Mohammed Hanif, Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

Nisha Susan (moderator): Why is The Jewish Chronicle about to declare a fatwa on you?
Richard Fredman: I have offended the tribe. I have strayed beyond the boundaries deemed appropriate. I staged a play Four for Jericho at the end of which I was trying to point out the irony of Jewish refugees having to flee to Russia. Many of them went to Palestine, began to buy land there and settle down. Over the next century, they kept the refugees away from Palestine. They can now not return to their homes. I felt it was appropriate to point out that irony. It didn’t go down well in certain quarters. If you Google me, one of the things that comes up is the diatribe. If they could declare fatwa on me, I’m sure they would.

NS: I believe the phrase was anti-Semitic, vested interest and hidden motives.
RF: There is a concept in modern Zionism of the self-hating Jew that has always been around in various societies and various forms. But Jews, who tend to speak out against any of the actions of the Israeli State or to question the ethos of Zionism, run the risk of getting accused of anti-Semitism. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are exactly the same phrase for some people.

NS: So, what’s blindly, incredibly and obviously funny for satirists is just not funny for someone else?
RF: Well, that’s always a risk you run. One can never predict other people’s sense of humour. I suppose people are selective. If you know something is going to be satirical or has been called outrageous or it’s a television programme, you may turn to the channel. But some people love to be offended. There was a case in England quite recently, where a couple of newspapers and radio journalists made a prank call. They were rude to the grand-daughter of well-known TV star Andrew Sachs and probably three people out of the 10,000 who watched that programme complained. Thereafter, these complaints were taken up in other reports. Thousands of people who have not even heard the original programme complained.

NS: Hanif, how old were you when you first realised that what you thought was darkly, sadly hilarious was just sad for someone else?
Mohammed Hanif:
 I’m old enough and I still haven’t realised that. Reviews say my book, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, is a darkly comical take on contemporary Pakistan. I don’t sit down with the thought that I’m going to write a satire today. After people said that my first book was dark humour, then you would expect people to take it as a joke. If you like it, laugh at it and if you don’t, just walk away. But the reaction I got in Pakistan was a bit disturbing. It is a story set in the 1980s. A bunch of people are trying to kill a military dictator whose name I used and who was there, so it’s a kind of fantasy, written in first person. I am supposed to be one of the potential killers. People would say, it’s all true, isn’t it? I would say, no. I started running into so-called important people like bureaucrats and retired generals. They would put an arm around my shoulder, take me in the corner and ask, “Beta, who told you all this? This all is so fascinating.” And I was like, “Dude, you were there.” And I find that slightly creepy and then actually scary — that these people are supposed to be running my life.

NS: If you had a very sanitised, airless politically correct society and a society where you might be hung, shot, had bricks flung at you for writing what you write, which one is worse for a writer?
MH: 
Only a cold, heartless journalist would give you a choice like that. Why do I have to choose? As a citizen, obviously, I want my kids to be safe. I want to be able to go out any time at night and I want to read and write good books. But people do tend to think that if you live in a really f****d-up society, you can write better books. This isn’t true. Then every Rwandan should’ve been a novelist by now. People keep saying that since you kind of live in a volatile region, your lives are really messed up. If you live in Karachi, for example, you drop your kids to school, you walk your dog, things all middle-class people do. And you then sit down on your desk and something kind of blows up randomly as things do in Pakistan: Do you think I am going to say, “Oh, it’s going to be a good writing day, because I live in a troubled society.” You will be worried about your friends, your family and kids like everything else. So I don’t think that is the case.

NS: Richard, I don’t want to leave you out of this heartless choice I offered. In the politically correct society you live in, do you think you would not have survived?
RF:
 In this world you conjure up, people who say anything worth saying are locked up — so it’s not going to be a very nice place to be. I don’t want to live there. I’ll be a savage ranting Shakespeare in the wild. Equally, I don’t want my windows broken or my family abducted for my writing. I’d probably hide and leave it up to very brave people who, over the decades, have stuck their heads above the parapet. I hope I’m not confronted with that choice.

NS: Besides satire, do you think we also need worthy and full-of-sentiment literature to balance it out?
RF: I think the Holocaust is a great case in point. Schindler’s List, for many people, is information. It has taken people to that time and given them an understanding in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t have. But it is sentimental and romanticises certain aspects. I do think there is a need for satire. The fool has existed in the European tradition for centuries. We like King Lear, for example. He is a cantankerous patriarch but he lets the fool mock him. I think society needs such people but we also need to be able to tolerate them.

NS: You teach in a school in Cambridge. How does satire feed into that? Apart from the fact that there are endless jokes about a school teacher.
RF: I am in the unusual position of encouraging lots of young people — 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds — to be irreverent. Sometimes I am the butt of it. But I enjoy that, I enjoy their playfulness.

NS: When you go to drop your son to school, you discover you have these teenage readers who want to discuss A Case of Exploding Mangoes. What is your response to finding 17-year-old fans?
MH: At first, I was freaked out. I do get freaked out very easily. My book is set in the ’80s and it is a political book. I thought, when I was writing it, people like myself who were either around that period or people who are kind of interested in politics or journalist types, maybe, will read it. But increasingly, when I started doing readings in Pakistan, I discovered that many of the people turning up were practically kids, people in their teens, or even in their early 20s. I didn’t quite know why this was happening. I would take my son to a playground and it was guaranteed that was just about the only place where I would be recognised. So I became like one of those D-list celebrities for a couple of months. But recently, I was doing this reading, and one teenaged boy stood up and said, “You use lot of F words in your writing. Is that deliberate, to attract younger audiences?” And I thought that’s why they read it, because they think it’s bad for them. Also, I think middle-class kids are interested in finding out what happened 20 years ago. Because the kind of world that we live in, for them to get out of their bubble and experience it would be difficult. I worry about them, what should happen when they grow up. But then, at times, I am encouraged by the fact that they are young and will be around for 40 years. So I can write a few books to sell to them. That’s my pension plan (laughs).

RF: I learnt before I came to this platform that certain key phrases in the play may not be allowed in India. There is a scene in which a Palestinian farmer is being abused by an Israeli settler and is made to say offensive things about Islam. If you look up on YouTube, you’ll see what is in the play is actually far less offensive than stuff which actually goes on, with the daily heckling and barking and abuse of Palestinians. Tonight we have to decide whether we replace the words or whether we have a beep. I raise this as it strikes me as ironic. The play has been brought here because it is outrageous and satirical and a little part of it is going to be sensitive.

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