Mistress of Wit

Giraffes Taronga Zoo
At cross-purposes

This week I’ll be reading from my novel (Stirring the Pot) at Novelnights. The theme is comedy in writing. Comedic moments in any form of writing are simple hooks that can immediately fix the reader’s interest – a lot more is revealed through a moment of ridiculousness than in any long swathe of serious literary wisdom. The other day I came across a short story, In the Crossfire, by Ha Jin, a Chinese-American writer, for the first time. The story was a typical one – a domineering mother, a recently retired teacher from China, visits her newly married son and bride in America. Things fall apart pretty soon after. The characters are perfect caricatures – the protagonist, the son, is a much put upon man – in a well-paying but boring job, trying to limit the damage caused by the arrival of his mother on his relationship. The young wife, a trainee nurse, is loving and understanding but allergic to soya sauce – the mother can’t believe it! She bristles at the girl’s fussy nature, criticises her unintellectual family, labels her an irresponsible wife and above all, believes she’s the boss and has the right to stay for however long she wants. The husband and wife sleep in separate bedrooms and the hero is worried that his marriage won’t last very long. He comes up with an ingenious plan to get fired at work, so that his wife would need to set aside her studies to find work and the mother, who had hoped to stay, really has to return to China. The dialogue is so extreme and outrageous that it makes the humour really dark, and somehow all the more believable.

A writer I greatly admire is Salman Rushdie – his flamboyant style is impressive and funny right from the start of his novels – he specialises in narrating stories about every serious matter (Kashmir in Shalimar the Clown, Partition in Midnight’s Children and Islam, in Satanic Verses, to name a few of his works) through truly ridiculous plot lines that we are reduced to blobs of helpless admiration. As he knows, humour is a powerful, even dangerous weapon.

Steepest Railway, Katoomba
All a bit downhill from here

In my experience, women find it harder to be funny – almost as if the joke only belongs to the patriarchal male. In the context of an Indian background, this feels like a recipe for disaster – Rani Moorthy uses humour in her one woman shows to excellent effect. Someone who read the manuscript of my novel told me that I do “a good line in unappealing men” – high praise wouldn’t you say? Being funny says that you are self-aware, able to see the ridiculous and confident enough to express it.  For me, it works best when it is more of an undercurrent that brings the unspoken to the surface. There is of course a danger of losing the plot when chasing that tempting gratification of a good joke. Then it is the ego at work, not the character. Even though my novel isn’t a rip-roaring laugh, I’d like to think my use of humour makes the story more engaging. Because, in my heart of hearts, I’m Mistress of Wit – a female Wodehouse. I imagine that all the years I spent laughing with Lord Emsworth, Aunt Agatha, Reginald Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in my youth have seeped into my bloodstream and remained. I keep hoping. Here are a few quotes from the great man I found that I share with you:

“He was white and shaken like a dry martini.”

“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”

“There is only one cure for gray hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine.”

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3 Comments

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  1. True. His female characters are so very witty and smart. Right from Sally to Vanessa Cook to Florence Craye and Stiffy Byng! Not to forget the inimitable Laura Pyke who is a nutrition expert of sorts!

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