Jeremy Clarkson has done it again. The Top Gear presenter has apparently offended Indians now. The Mexicans, Romanians, UK’s striking public servants and Americans have all chafed and been singed before we did. Clarkson as always will save his scalp, as humourists ought to. India, on the other hand, may have just admitted to the world that it’s losing its ability to step back and laugh at the absurd.
Clarkson sells and there are many reasons why. The 51-year-old who has also authored books and columns, makes a living out of being controversial. That’s the DNA of the creature and probably the biggest reason he is watched by thousands worldwide. He has shaped Top Gear into one of BBC’s most-watched programmes, because it goes beyond cars. Its tone is to mock everything outside a car window and inside it.
Clarkson, show master that he is, thrives on being politically incorrect. In a world that gets around by uttering only the right thing, he appeals to the hidden side of his viewers — the irreverent, no-one- is-watching side. He says the kind of things that we would mutter under our breath at home but would never risk saying aloud at a large party. Truth is, at some point, all of us have smiled at some Clarkson joke, and fancied we could crack it too. It’s vicarious sauciness at its best.
In a recent episode, Clarkson asked a young American female audience member if she was really American because she looked too thin to be one. He got more than 20,000 letters of protest when he said UK’s striking public sector workers should be shot in front of their families. He also said track-suicides were selfish as it causes an immense disruption when people throw themselves under trains.
Thing is, when humourists make remarks like this, they don’t really mean it literally. We all know the British rail service doesn’t really need a warm body under its tracks for service to go out of gear, five autumn leaves on the track usually do the trick and the UK doesn’t really pull out the gun at offenders, even if they are rioters setting buildings afire. Clarkson’s humour, like his personality, is overstated and sometimes tasteless, but hardly spiteful.
In the episode that offended some Indians, he was driving around the slums of Mumbai with a toilet seat on a Jaguar boot. Sure there were other jibes as well. There is just as much to feel slighted by that as a recent episode where Clarkson’s solution to expensive rail travel in Britain was to attach caravans to a modified supercar and run that on a rail track. Surely we all know he’s taking, what the British would call, “the piss”.
India would have a strong cause for umbrage if the Top Gear team were to lampoon only some countries, not others. Viewers though will vouch that Clarkson is not one to cherry pick — he attacks his fellow countrymen with the same irreverence that he reserves for foreigners.
Countries cut a lot of slack to stand up-comedians, local cartoonists and writers. India, so far, has managed to smile at its idiosyncrasies admirably. How else do you explain the success of home-grown author Chetan Bhagat who mocks the world of Punjabis and Madrasis in books such as In Two States. It’s also hard to imagine how Clarkson’s digs are more unflattering than, say, Arvind Adiga’s portrayal of modern India in The White Tiger.
As Art Buchwald said, “You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.”
Anjana Menon is a Delhi-based writer firstname.lastname@example.org