Mushirul Hasan writes in the first paragraph of Wit and Wisdom: Pickings from the Parsee Punch, that “As in the case of Muslims, the Parsis, a relatively small community, was savagely attacked in the proverbs, and caricatured more generally. A Parsi loses no time in breaking his word; a Parsi youth never tells the truth; a bankrupt Parsi starts a liquor shop and celebrates the day of Zoroaster by drinking brandy. As for domestic scandal, it is hinted at in the punning proverb, ‘All is dark (andhyara) in a house where you find an andhyara or Parsi priest.’”
If these attacks and caricatures were as general as Professor Hasan makes them out to be, it is surprising they are not more frequently encountered in other writings of the period under study (the late 19th century) or, indeed, why they have not retained their virulence in the public perception of Parsis today.
Brandy drinkers? Very likely — especially if it was cognac! Plain lucky, to have been in the right place at the right time (as Hasan devotes much of Chapter 2 to arguing), rather than especially worthy? Possibly.
But was dishonesty really the first thing that struck the public about the Parsi character then, or at any time? And were the ideological contortions (of which Parsis in general and Jamshedji Tata in particular are accused in Chapter 3) in trying to reconcile loyalty to colonial masters and resentment at the British treatment of Indians, only a problem for this community? Or has Hasan worn selective, algae-covered glasses in viewing the Parsis?
Another disconcerting tendency the learned former Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Milia Islamia University displays throughout the book is his penchant for using the Muslim experience or perspective as the prime reference point for commenting on the Parsis. Thus the Parsis’ willingness to adopt Western ways is contrasted at several places in the book to the Muslim “intransigence” in doing so, without any reference to the larger Hindu community in which both Muslims and Parsis were embedded. Similarly Parsi humour is paralleled with Urdu humour rather than the humour contained in the literatures of the many other languages in the subcontinent.
The Parsee Punch (later renamed the Hindi Punch) was started in 1854 and continued publication till the 1930s. Considering its existence for over seven decades, it is puzzling that almost all the cartoons actually reproduced in the book are from the year 1884.
Another disjuncture in the book is the way in which the main text (as distinct from the illustration notes) and the cartoons go their own merry way. Even in those few parts of the text where Hasan mentions particular illustrations, the illustrations reproduced on that page or its proximity are totally different. It almost appears as if, for Hasan, his narrative is the high historical road and the low cartoon road lies beyond the pale.
As he says about the cartoons in his final note: “Although they are valuable as a reliable and authentic source of history, they belong to a field beyond that of history.” More-over, identifying illustrations for future reference isn’t too easy because on several pages filled with illustrations, page numbers disappear only to reappear after 10-15 pages, depending on the compositor’s whim.
What of the cartoons themselves? If you fall over your chair laughing by looking at these cartoons you must have been pretty precariously perched to start with. A wry smile was all I could muster after seeing caricature after caricature of Chinese hauteur humbled by colonial bullies, Russia and Britain playing the great cartoon game and, obviously, a large number of Indian characters and stereotypes in a wide variety of costumes. One should not, of course, expect political correctness from cartoons sketched a century-and-a-quarter ago. Given this proviso, those of us who have an interest in knowing about the kind of humour that tickled our forefathers in the 19th century, will find passing amusement from the cartoons in this book. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Professor Hasan’s text.
The writer is CEO of Banner Global Consulting
WIT AND WISDOM
PICKINGS FROM THE PARSEE PUNCH
Author: Mushirul Hasan
Price: Rs 795