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Radio ha ha
Here's the punch line: it's pretty tough getting Surender Sharma to laugh. When prodded to lighten up for a photo shoot he painfully summons a grin. The hangdog expression, you realise, is not an act. It's just that he doesn't find the ways of the world around him particularly funny. And the fact that he fixes you with a stern, unblinking stare is enough to take the smile off your own face.
The story of his long face is like something out of an RK Narayan story. "There was this tyrant who taught us in Ramjas School whom we nicknamed Knicker. Back in the '60s he would turn up in shorts, a tie and hat. He had a weird fetish - he would make us laugh by pulling comic faces and then cane us for creating a commotion. I would steadfastly refuse to laugh by refusing to look at him. And then I found that no matter what you say, if you look grave you get a lot of importance, " says Sharma who grew up in the old Delhi. His first attempts at humour began at the Sriram College of Commerce where, he says, he became famous for failing a year.
The decline and fall of Doordarshan sent a whole lot of people into oblivion. Sharma was one of them. The closest any humorist ever came to being a star in the country when ye olde Doordarshan ruled the waves has now found himself a new role. He is the joke-maker for FM radio. You can hear his mournful repartee on the radio as he responds to questions from the public. 'Sharmaji, my son managed to score only 99 per cent marks. Why?' 'Because my son scored the remaining one per cent. ' The sawal-jawaab (question-answer ) series Atpatte Sawaal, Chatpate Jawaab, incidentally, had run in the Sandhya Times for 12 years.
Sharma has also done a recent series of public interest radio ads for the Election Commission. "My wife asked me, 'Do I keep the ghunghat when I take a photo for my I card?' 'I said no, you need to show your face for that photo. But make sure you are veiled in the photo I keep in my wallet. ')
As the stereotypical old-style wife to his henpecked husband, Sharma's gharwali (which the Haryanvi drawl shortens to gharaali) is as much a star of the show as he is. She bullies him (Question: 'My wife and I run into a tiger in a jungle. What do I do?'
'Why do you worry? Let the tiger save himself. '), she blows up his hardearned money, is plug ugly, but still looks up to him for worldly wisdom. He insists that his humour is not misogynistic, that it only makes gentle fun at the expense of women.
His own wife, says Sharma, is nowhere close to being a ghunghat-clad naive matron. She abandoned the veil decades ago, sportingly accepts all her husbands gags because they bring in the money and can go toe to toe with him when it comes to repartee.
As Sharma narrates, "I had once bought some good white fabric for a friend from abroad. When she asked me, I joked that it was for her to use when she becomes a widow. She asked me, 'How do you know what colour I will wear as a widow?'"
In the '80s, Sharma had done a poetry series Kaalu on judwa bhai (twins), one of who was naughty and the other straight on a New Year's programme (this was when the only thing you could do on New Year's eve was watch DD's midnight gala, disco balls et al). His brand of humour was current then, it wasn't as uncool or politically incorrect as it might seem now. The gali, mohalla, ladki, chhed-chhad brand of jokes went down well. And the look, the drawl, the famous char lainan (fourliners ), the beat-up family man, the nagging wife - even those who didn't really understand Hindi loved his harried common man with a sad frown (rather like R K Laxman's Common Man) grappling with a manipulative world. He says it didn't matter where he was performing, Ichalkaranji or Jaipur, people understood his jokes even with lashings of his Haryanvi-Marwari dialect.
But like Doordarshan, kavi sammelans too faded from the cultural scene of north India. There was a time, he says, when he was mobbed wherever he recited. Thousands would turn up to hear him even when he was a small presence on a distant stage.
There would be total silence as the audience strained to hear. He is, he admits, a misfit in cable culture. That explains his absence from the many humour shows and comedy challenges. "I need to see my listener. At home, he can sit around scratching his head when I am reciting and I wouldn't know!" he quips.
The poet has another platform these days for his four-liners - dealer meets. He is a popular entertainer for small gatherings of middle-aged executives. And of course there are the many pravasi forums where he is invited to entertain nostalgic NRIs. But he doesn't complain about not being mobbed any more. "Those were days when the world was a serious place so everyone needed humour. Today we live in the age of the ridiculous. Who needs any more jokes?" he asks. And bursts out laughing.
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