The end of wit, grace and dignity | The Express Tribune


July 09, 2023


Renowned humorists and satirists have firmly established themselves as a distinguished class through their impressive body of work. These include Shafiqur Rehman, Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi, Josh Malihabadi, Akbar Allahabadi, Ratan Nath Sarshar and Azeem Baig Chugtai, with Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Samuel Butler, George Bernard Shaw, and the wry wit of Somerset Maugham among the British, and Mark Twain, Art Buchwald and P.G. Woodhouse among the Americans.

Quick and witty riposte can be humour, while sarcasm is neither humour nor wit. It is a taunt. To make a repartee or observation laced with some arsenic, one requires a certain degree of intellect, likewise a sense of wit comes with being well-read. The diversity of reading, from literature to history, from politics to politicians, and from individual behavioural tendencies to social responses determine the quality of the banter.

It is an indisputable fact that engaging in a lively exchange of banter necessitates possessing a substantial reservoir of vocabulary. A tearing and terse ability to use words, conveying the worst thoughts in best chosen words from a vast vocabulary is the art of wit and humour. Perhaps it exists no more in our society and electronic media.

Since journalism is now taught as Mass Communication, the mass produce is of low quality and value, because for anything to be precious and expensive, the attributes of paucity and exclusivity are necessary. Add to this the dilemma of low quality education and the result is the proliferation of mass communication that includes the ever-growing number of television and FM channels, regrettably being served by the untrained. While there is a demand for good quality comperes and anchors, the supply has been inadequate.

A well-read interviewer will ask questions in a manner that entraps the interviewee to maken“off the cuff” remarks, which inspires an impelling urge to comment and that makes the interview juicy. Sadly, we own no Karan Thapars, David Frosts or a Tim Sebsatians. Watch any TV channel and you can gauge the unpreparedness of the anchors, who aimlessly converse with equally, intellectually-deficient guests, and wander and meander into their fertile plains of vast inadequacies.

I was invited to a discussion by a much-celebrated anchor to discuss “financial crisis” along with a journalist and a fellow banker. As the VTR started to roll, the anchor said “We have so and so guests who will discuss financial crime!” I stopped him in the tracks to apprise him that I had no competence to discuss “crime” and was here to comment on “crises.” They took a fresh take.

In our political arena, the preference is to call each other chor [robbers], na laiq [incompetent], na ahl [unskilled] and of course the ultimate insult, ghadaar [treasonous] is reflective of the speakers’ poor reading habits. Uncouth remarks are the result of little or no knowledge. Bill Clinton in a recent interview, revealed that,he read 82 books in 2021. I doubt if any of our leaders would have read even one op-ed of a distinguished or largely-circulated newspaper, let alone a book from cover to cover. Since they do not read, they come up with comments devoid of decency.

Social media warriors take the cake, but in the same breath it must be acknowledged that a few tiktokers do put up shorts that are worthy of being called satirical. Humour, pickled and garnished with some wickedness is most relishing. The ability to hit below the belt, without being improper or vulgar, in the choicest words is a rarity these days. Low blows can be gentlemanly too, but the brazen use of expletives in talk shows and in the parliament is now more in vogue, instead of using discretion to be subtle.

Verbal warfare articulated with dignity and decency is delightful, and a clever insult must be hurled with poise and courtesy. While gracelessness in wit makes it vulgar, there is a condemnable decline seen in the art of invective remarks.

Mirza Ghalib was fond of mangoes and one day whilst he and his friends were partaking mangoes, they were throwing the peels on the street facing their veranda. A donkey appeared from nowhere, sniffed at the peel, but did not eat it. A friend who did not share Ghalib’s love for mangoes took the opportunity and remarked, “Look Mirza, even the donkey does not eat mangoes.” Ghalib squeezing a fresh mango, responded with a twinkle in his eyes. “Yes you are right, donkeys don’t eat mangoes.” He said it all, but with decency.

Henry Kissinger in derogation to the Iranian revolution commented, “An Iranian moderate is one who believes that the firing squad should be democratically elected.” H.H. Munroe wrote, “I love Americans, but not when they try to speak French. What a blessing it is that they never try to speak English.” “Belgium is just a country invented by the British to annoy the French,” said Charles De’ Gaulle, who also said, “Glorified sellers of transistors are all Japanese prime ministers.” And anonymously some wisecrack said, “China is inhabited by too many Chinese.” Charles Dickens made a scathing remark about Americans, but in dignified words. “I do not know the American gentleman. God forgive me for putting two such words together.” “Dutch language is a disease of the throat,” said Mark Twain. “German is the most extravagantly ugly language, its sounds are akin to the sounds made by someone using a sick bag on a 747 flight. (Anonymous)

Literary figures are no less virulent when getting at each other’s throats, but everything said was invariably a class invective. James Boswell was a good friend of Samuel Johnson, in fact wrote his biography, yet Johnson says to Boswell, “Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I’m sick of both.” Oscar Wilde’s comment on Sir Max Beerbohm, “Tell me, when you are alone with Max, does he take off his face and reveal his mask?”

Most literary giants have literally been at each other’s jugulars. Paul Nash in a letter to Wyndham Lewis said, “Although I recognise you as a man of wit, I realise it is not of the spontaneous order. There is nothing of the whistler about you. You like the mills of God grind slow and I might add being exceedingly small, I am at a loss to explain how you should so far forget your pose as to express your feelings in such a laborious boorish fashion, exposing to my astonished understanding the indication of a nature so calculating, petty, malicious and uncivilised, in short so strangely subhuman, as to realise almost the popular estimate of your character.” One can only imagine how the recipient must have been cut up. Even a full glass of slightly-warmed Cognac could not have drowned the insult, even for a while!

George Bernard Shaw showed scant respect even to the legendary Bard. Despite being a fellow playwright, he commented on Shakespeare, “With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise as entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.”

There is a treasure of the choicest insults and invectives used by politicians for each other. A common citizen shouted to the British PM, Benjamin Disraeli, “Speak up, I can’t hear you,” and Disraeli replied, “Truth travels slowly, but it will reach even you in time.”

At the height of an internal squabble within the Indian Congress, a meeting took place between the then PM Indira Gandhi and the opposition leader Shri Rajagopalachari, the erstwhile former first Indian Governor General of independent India, during which it was expected that the impasse would be resolved. Following the meeting, the eager media asked Rajagopalachari, “How did you find Indira Gandhi?” “Devoid of emotions,” he responded. “I first met Indira when she was nine and in meeting her today, I realised she hasn’t changed much!” Low blow.

Sometimes, even hecklers make the better of the most impromptu remarks to a politician, with equally deadly and poisonous reponses. At a political meeting, the following dialogue took place between a heckler and President T. Roosevelt. “I’m a democrat!” said the heckler. Roosevelt responded, “May I ask the gentleman, why he’s a democrat?” The heckler replied, “My grandfather was a democrat, my father was a democrat and I am a democrat.” Roosevelt said, “My friend, suppose your grandfather had been a jackass and your father was a jackass, what would you be?” The heckler spontaneously and instantly replied, “A Republican!”

Discussing political wit, how can one not mention Sir Winston Churchill, who was extremely vitriolic in his comments about his political opponents and even colleagues in the House of Commons. He rose to describe Sir Ramsay McDonald with the following impromptu storytelling. “I remember when I was a child I was taken to the celebrated Barnum’s Circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the programme which I most desired to see was the one described as ‘The Boneless Wonder.’ My parents judged that the spectacle would be too revolting and demoralising for my youthful eyes, and I have waited 50 years to see the Boneless Wonder sitting on the treasury bench.”

Without naming our home-grown politician, I would like to stick on his forehead the following epitaph borrowed from Disraeli, “He has committed every crime that does not require courage.” Like Churchill, Disraeli dominated the proceedings of the House of Commons. Once when he was asked to distinguish between a misfortune and a calamity, he quipped, “If Gladstone (the alternate PM to Disraeli always) fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune, and if anybody pulled him out that, I suppose, would be a calamity.”

Queen Victoria had an arsenic tongue, and exasperatedly once said, “Mr Gladstone speaks to me as if I were a public meeting.” Richard Sheridan writing about Warren Hastings said, “His crimes are the only great thing about him and these are contrasted by the littleness of his motives. He’s at once a tyrant, a trickster, a visionary and a deceiver; he reasons in bombast, prevaricates in metaphor, and quibbles in heroics.”

Our politicians are so knowledgeable that that they can only quote themselves, with no sense of shame. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the last of the educated politicians of Pakistan who could indulge in intellectually charged repartees and rebuttals, and he was possibly also the most well-read politicians of Pakistan.

Is there a Churchill or even someone close to him in the arena of local politics today? Even wit and satire writers are far and few. The current crop of people and politicians have no depth of serious study of either history or literature to be able to come up with anything laughable except their ridiculous personalities.


Sirajuddin Aziz is a senior banker and freelance writer. All information and facts are the sole responsibility of the writer

POST AUTHOR: Sirajuddin Aziz

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