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What we made of Shashi Tharoor’s attempt at standup comedy

  • Politician Tharoor’s comedy set is self-aware about India’s complex relationship with the English language
  • Our obsession with English manifests as equal parts class anxiety, vocabulary envy and plain old jingoism

Shashi Tharoor performed a comedy set for Amazon Prime’s show ‘One Mic Stand’.
Shashi Tharoor performed a comedy set for Amazon Prime’s show ‘One Mic Stand’.

Shashi Tharoor has made a name for himself as a diplomat, a politician, a writer, a debater, a one-man thesaurus. But stand-up comedy is a brave new world for even the multi-talented Tharoor. The first season of Amazon Prime’s One Mic Stand pairs a celebrity with a bona-fide stand-up comedian who mentors them before they take the stage. Actor Richa Chadha pairs up with Ashish Shakya, music director Vishal Dadlani with Rohan Joshi—but undoubtedly the star pair of the line-up is Tharoor with Kunal Kamra.

Kamra’s fallback advice for Tharoor? If the joke bombs, one can always blame it on Jawaharlal Nehru.

Say what you will, Tharoor is a sport. At a salon in Mumbai, he was game enough to sing Lily The Pink. Now he goes before a studio audience to make jokes about fake news, colonialism and the Bharatiya Janata Party. And about himself. He is the MP from Thiruvananthapuram, he quips, because a constituency of fewer syllables would just be a waste for a man of his tongue-twisting linguistic skills.

Do all the jokes land? Mostly. Could some of them have been funnier? Probably. However, the best thing about the segment is not the laugh lines in it but that a politician risks becoming the laughing stock. Tharoor dares to poke fun at himself, something most Indian politicians are loath to do. It’s admirable, coming as it is from a very dapper politician who never likes to have a hair out of place. And given his famous coif, that’s a lot of hair he must keep in place—especially with the controversies he has been embroiled in over the years.

If politicians display their funny bone, it’s usually to mock their opponents. Tharoor trains his guns on himself. What was little Shashi’s childhood like? He tells the audience it was very normal. His parents would embarrass him like all parents do. “Shashi, uncle ko Angrezi bol ke sunao na." Then he doubles down on the joke by saying, “I said, ‘Daddy, please. I can’t entertain this. Pardon my recalcitrance’."

In India, where we have turned taking offence into a national competitive sport, humour can boomerang spectacularly. No one knows that better than Tharoor. He discovered that early in his innings as a politician when his “cattle class" tweet misfired. It left his own party red-faced and opposition leaders screaming for his head. Yet, Tharoor just cannot resist the siren call of a good bit of wordplay—even though cartoonists in India have had FIRs being filed against them. As he admits in the episode: “Most Indian politicians don’t have a sense of humour. At least they have the sense to not show it in public." That is especially true of the kind of Anglicized punny humour that is Tharoor’s forte.

These are not good times for Macaulayputras in Indian politics. Their stock, laughing or otherwise, is low. The new powers in Delhi look with suspicion at exactly the kind of St Stephen’s parry and thrust that is second nature to Tharoor. His oversized English vocabulary sets him apart from most Indians and it could have been his Achilles heel—too glib for his own good, too Westernized, too Lutyens. But by unabashedly embracing his plummy English, Tharoor has managed to create his own brand in Indian politics. Like him or hate him, Tharoor always remains authentically Tharoor, the man who cannot let go of the punchline even if he has to take a few punches for it.

Yet our fascination with Tharoor and his Amazing Technicolor Dream Vocabulary really reveals our own fraught relationship with English. English is our language of aspiration and envy and resentment. In Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers, there is Moin Khan, the milk deliveryman who went from not knowing his ABCs to running the American Academy of Spoken English chain, where you could study Basic Communication, Personality Development, Group Discussion and Interview. As Poonam writes, “You can’t crack an interview in India without explaining to a suited man in English why you deserve the job."

This nagging class anxiety lies buried at the root of all those Shashi Tharoor rodomontade jokes that flood our WhatsApp groups. We laugh as we try and parody Tharoorspeak but it is a nervous laugh because deep inside we all want to master the Brahmastra of “How to Improve Your Vocabulary in 21 Days, Win Friends and Influence People".

The sad part is that most of us are not quite as impressed by someone’s Tharooresque Bengali vocabulary or Malayalam vocabulary. The greater tragedy is that we have also fooled ourselves into believing that an opinion delivered in pure English with the right accent has erudition automatically embedded in it. Tharoor, at least, knows his facts and figures and his history, unlike many of the pundits who pop up on television shows merely because they spout off opinions in missionary school English. English becomes a measure of education instead of just the means to communicate it.

Several years ago, I attended a literary festival at the IAS officers’ training academy in Mussoorie. One civil servant in training from a small town confessed how she felt acutely embarrassed about her uneasy grasp of English. She was well-educated, knowledgeable and could hold her own in Hindi. Why does English matter so much, I asked. It’s just a language. Some people are proficient in one, others are proficient in another. My Bengalicized Hindi was the stuff of caricature.

She said she would indeed meet people from Delhi or Mumbai, supposedly native Hindi speakers, who would say, “Oh, my Hindi is terrible." But there was a crucial difference. They were almost proud that their Hindi was so poor. It was a sign of their “cosmopolitanism". Their stilted Hindi was a marker of class no less than their Louboutin shoes. She, on the other hand, was ashamed of her threadbare English. For her, that too exposed her class.

It’s true. To this day I know people who sigh nostalgically as they remember Indira Gandhi’s clipped English compared to Narendra Modi’s rough-hewn accent. There are many points of comparison between the two. Command over English is hardly a worthy one.

That’s why all those photographs of poorly constructed English signs all over India give me pause. Don’t touch yourself, request the staff. The tailor who is a specialist in alteration of ladies and gents. Dragon Mom Corner—Veg Moms, Cheken Moms. The bar that offers Child Bear. They make me chuckle as they bounce around our WhatsApp groups. But they also make me cringe. There is something desperately brave in their valiant attempt to conquer the language that promises the world and then eludes their grasp. In some ways, those signs and the Tharoor jokes are opposite sides of the same coin.

Tharoor once tried to explain that he had no particular love for big words. He just wanted to use the right word and sometimes the right word was farrago. By poking fun at his own image of the nation’s English teacher on stage, Tharoor tries in his own way to puncture that English hot-air balloon. The audience laps it up, laughing at the right moments, and then giving him a standing ovation.

As for me, I don’t want to know the secret of Tharoor’s amazing vocabulary. I just wonder what conditioner he uses.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist

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