The funniest story I have heard in weeks is a tragedy. It’s presented as a true story (but repeated so often and to such effect that it has surely taken on some less than fact-faithful colouring). The storyteller, a magical man named Rane who summons strange things out of drums, knew someone who had an infection on his leg, which somehow landed him in a coma. The leg turned gangrenous, and in his unconscious state the family was told that they could either amputate or wait for him to die. The festering limb was promptly chopped off. The amputee, out of that danger but still unconscious, spent a few more weeks languishing in his scary siesta. And one day, he woke up, all damn cool, cool as the cucumber he had lain like for those weeks, threw his bedsheets off, looked down at his missing leg, and died of shock.
I wish I could tell you this story as deliciously as it was told to me. Suffice to say that of the many, many funny stories the magical drummer shares, this one was by far the most uproarious. It’s not surprising – macabre humour might quite possibly be the best kind. Deep down, we love laughing at our own wretchedness and mortality. And we love pretending to be shocked by our capacity to.
Nothing illustrates this better than the dead baby joke. When I first discovered them on the net, I was horrified. What kind of gruesome mind could make light of such calamity? The images were repugnant – “How do you make a dead baby float? Take your foot off of its head”; “Why is there always hot water at childbirth? In case of a stillbirth, soup.”; “What’s the difference between a baby and a dart-board?
Dart-boards don’t bleed”.
I didn’t realise until I’d read a long list of them that I had kind of been chuckling away, transfixed by the sheer horror of it all and unable to stop reading.
Schadenfreude may be one reason why we’re able to delight in off-colour jokes. Just as watching a violent movie can be a cathartic release, we’re able to explore the sinister aspects of our psyches through macabre humour. That part of us that is capable of evil – and we are all capable of evil – gets a vicarious spin. Once the initial shock wears off, a certain sordid pleasure sets in. It’s the same one you get upon finding that everyone at the table is bitching about the same person you’ve been silently seething about, and you can just stay coy, no longer having to play the gossipmonger. I would never squeeze babies into a bottle just to see how many it would take to make “baby oil”, but in reading the joke, my mind saw it, felt it, and released the need to ever consider the question out of its own volition.
There’s a bit more gallows humour to the story of the man who rose from a coma and died of a heart attack, because of who the story came from. Rane himself had once sustained a head injury, gotten arrested, and was sent for a medical check-up upon his release. Grave results were expected, and his father spent the whole week fearing the very worst. They were, as it happened, truly shocking – Rane was given the all-clear, and his father was so relieved that he died of a heart attack.
We looked around the table at that point and tried to show some sympathy.
The truth is, we all nearly died laughing.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.