I am amused and distressed to learn that someone in India has been foolish enough to try to take action against the widely told, harmless, ingenious and very funny jokes about Sikhs.
I first came across the Sardarji jokes in 1974 when I went to lecture at a college in Gujarat. After my first lecture about sociology, a professor of English asked me if I would be willing to give a lecture on the works of that great Irish writer in English, James Joyce. I told him that if he could lend me a copy of my favourite example of Joyce’s work Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I would re-read it overnight and lecture about it the next day. While retiring for the evening in my hostel room, I was able to relive Joyce’s intensely personal account of his early life and hoped to provide some new insights to my Indian students.
There is a striking passage in the book where the Dean of English at Joyce’s Roman Catholic university in Dublin, a rather dim and complacent English Jesuit, contradicts Joyce over the valid use of the ordinary English word ‘tundish’, but which the Dean had dismissed as mere Irish dialect since he had never heard it before. I already knew that the peculiar way in which the Irish speak English had been a source of laughter to the English who saw themselves as the true guardians of the English language. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries it had led to the invention of many jokes about the Irish being stupid and in the 1960s and 1970s they had also adapted the great new wave of jokes about stupid Polish Americans which had swept the United States. In essence, the jokes about Irish and Polish stupidity are very similar.
No Offence Meant
To illustrate my point about Joyce, language and the Dean, I told my students several modern jokes about the Irish being stupid. At this point, one of my Gujarati students puts up his hand and says “We have heard your jokes before. They are Sardarji jokes.” The other students joined in eagerly and soon everyone in the class was telling Sardarji jokes. The whole class laughed including me. Then a tall well-built good-looking woman, dressed in salwar-kameez sitting at the back of the room, rose to her feet and said “Mr. Davies, you must not believe these Gujaratis. We are not stupid.” I reassured her that no one in England had ever thought that the Sikhs were stupid. We saw them as successful and productive immigrants, strong in trade and moving up in to the managerial and professional classes. Everyone in England also knows that the Sikhs have been the backbone of the British army in India and part of the force that drove out the ruthless invaders from Imperial Japan. Her remark was, in fact, unnecessary since everyone knows that the butts of stupidity jokes are not in fact stupid – it is just a joke, and nothing more. No one is ever going to refuse to employ Sikhs or to do business with them because they have been listening to Sardarji jokes. No one within a capitalist market system is ever going to make such a decision because it would lose them profit. When there have been conflicts between Sikhs and other Indians, it has been entirely political in nature. Jokes do not matter.
Any Sikh who protests that the jokes are a problem for them will get no sympathy from me, either in a legal or any other context. Here I am making an entirely general point. If you happen to belong to any group that is the subject of public derision and jokes, then it does not matter who you are and you will have to put up with it. Best of all, you should try to turn the joke to your advantage. The recent Santa and Banta books and the jokes posted online show how it can be done.
Analysing Joke History
As for me the Sardarji jokes were a revelation and the beginning of a big new research project that would lead me to publish three academic books in the United States and another in Japan. It had been easy to see why American jokes about stupid Poles had spread to Britain, just as earlier British jokes about the stupid Irish had migrated to America, but India is further away and culturally different. Where was the Sardarji joke invented? Was it simply a free-floating international joke or were they jokes peculiar to India which only work for Indians? Thus far, the jokes that had been told to me in Gujarat would work anywhere in the world.
This is by no means a new problem in folklore, whose erudite scholars have traced old legends and proverbs through many countries studying how they vary. But how does this work for modern set-piece jokes with a clear punch line?
I started searching for uniquely Indian Sardarji jokes that do not work in other countries. Here is an example:
A Sardarji was travelling on a train. Suddenly he jumped up, stood on his seat, waved his sword above his head and shouted “Hooray!” “Why are you so happy, Sardar?” asked the many Hindus in the compartment. “Because it is 12 o’clock and I have not done anything stupid,” replied the Sardar.
This joke makes no sense except in India where an orthodox Sikh always wears a ritual sword and a metal bangle as part of his religion. No one else does and few people outside India know about Sikh customs. Also an orthodox Sikh never cuts his hair or beard and they are kept neat with a comb. By custom they are held in place with a turban and snood. According to the comic perception of Hindus and other non-Sikhs, this makes the Sikh’s head get too hot at midday and so he starts doing crazy things. There is no truth in this. Nor does anyone behave as if it really did happen. It is just a joke, a humorous matter to laugh at, a short tale or riddle.
Why are the Sikhs called Sardars/Surds? Because they are the irrational fraction of India.
These jokes and riddles are told for fun and then put out of mind while everyone gets on with the serious part of the day. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a slave to political correctness, obsessed with a contemptible egalitarian ideology and usually an enemy of the free society. They cannot bear the thought that somewhere a group is being mocked in jokes. Sikhs are made of sterner stuff than this.
From FF Digital: It is with a deep sense of sorrow that we inform our readers that the author of this article is no more with us. John Christopher Hughes “Christie” Davies passed away on August 26, 2017. He was 75.
Just a day before, we received an e-mail from his wife, Janetta that he is seriously ill and in hospital. She further wrote that he has asked her to forward us two articles which he had promised he would write for FF Digital. It was really touching that even during his last moments, Prof. Davies kept his word and has passed on without leaving behind any debts of his enriching life.
While we will share more details about Prof. Davies in the “In Memoriam” section, we just wish to add here that he has been a visiting scholar at several Indian universities and often wrote for Quest, a literary quarterly of ICCF (Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom). We send our most sincere condolences to his wife and family.