By Raffique Shah
March 13, 2019
Throughout my life, as far back as I can recall, one characteristic I have learnt to value highly is being able to laugh at myself…and then at other people. I think I inherited the importance of humour, of being able to laugh heartily at occurrences that might make other people cry, from my mother whose demeanour belied her propensity for laughter at anyone’s expense, but more so her own, and most definitely ours, her five children.
From early on in my almost addictive passion for reading, the first feature I’d turn to in any copy of the Reader’s Digest I lay my hands on was “Laughter-the best medicine”. In fact, thinking about way back when our family could not afford to buy books (other than school textbooks), I recall my semi-literate father handing me a six cents coin early Sunday mornings, saying, “Go and buy the ‘Mutt and Jeff’,” meaning the Sunday newspaper in which “the comics” section was an important feature for readers like him.
In primary school, almost always being the youngest in the class, I was the butt of jokes from my older classmates, but as I matured in secondary school, I gained the confidence to strike back, especially in ex-tempo verses that could be devastating to the targets, especially when I had an audience of supportive schoolmates. But the key to enjoying good humour was always being able to laugh at myself.
For example, at the first annual cadet camp I attended-it must have been in July 1961 at the Vos Government School in Gasparillo-when the orderly sergeant was assigning cadets to “fatigues” (duties) for the day and he said “ablution fatigue”, I volunteered. I had no idea what “ablution” was, but it sounded decent enough. Within the hour, though, I found myself among a small squad cleaning the toilets and showers. I laughed at my naivety, and learned to never use or respond blindly to a “big” word I did not fully understand.
That didn’t quite help when, as an officer-cadet in training at Sandhurst, an instructor asked: when an army is not advancing (on the enemy), what is the opposite action it takes…Shah? Brimming with confidence, I responded, “Retreating, sir!” To my dismay and to the amusement of my colleagues, he said, “Shah, the British army, and I hope yours, never retreats in battle…it makes tactical withdrawals.”
Pure semantics, of course: at the beginning of World War II, Germany’s armed forces routed the Allied armies out of Europe while their Japanese counterparts did likewise to mainly British troops all the way from Malaya to Burma, and to America’s General Douglas MacArthur’s in the Philippines down to Bataan. Were those “tactical withdrawals? I didn’t think so. Routs seemed more appropriate. But at the time, the joke was on me.
As I grew older, my sense of humour seemed to have changed to the point where, when I crossed 70 (last week I notched 73), the jokes took an almost morbid turn. I guess like most people who have enjoyed or endured the biblical three-score-and-ten years, I have come to terms with my mortality. Given the cavalier approach to life and death I’ve always had-the young often feel they are invincible, perhaps even immortal-I have no fear of death, only concerns over dying. The latter could be a drawn-out, painful process that we all hope to escape. It’s why when we hear of someone dropping dead from a heart attack-bu-dup-we almost applaud his exit.
My one-time columnist colleague Tony Deyal noted in one of his columns the near-compulsion of older people to read the obituaries in the newspapers, largely to see who among their contemporaries have passed on. It’s true. I know many people my age who read that page first. Tony’s advice was if you saw your name thereon, go back and lie down…you may be dead and not know it!
Increasingly, friends complain that their active social lives revolve around attending funerals. Almost every week, they bury or cremate some friend or relative. Many are fed up of the rituals and now attend funerals selectively. I tell them that because I’m stricken with Parkinson’s, I may not be able to attend my own funeral.
Joking about death has become a comical pastime. A good friend of mine, long domiciled in Canada, told me that to make his exit easier on his family, he decided to buy his spot in the cemetery, which is a normal practice in that country. During the transaction, he was informed that for a small additional fee, he could secure a dual-grave, one space for him, another for the wife. He grabbed the deal.
I wondered, but did not ask him, how she responded when he returned home and announced, “Honey, guess what I bought you today? Your own little spot in the cemetery!”
My wife would likely leave me, or maybe kill me, if I did that. She almost did when, after another friend told me about a geezer whose funeral preparations involved buying and storing his coffin, which I found so practical. My friend, in his 40s then, was chatting with the ailing man who was in his 60s, and who said to him, “I ready, you know.” “Eh-heh? In what way?” my friend asked. “Check under the bed,” the geezer replied. So he raised the bedspread…and there was a coffin awaiting usage day.
I rather liked that idea, so I suggested to Rosina we buy two of the cheapest coffins (I often wonder why people waste money on expensive caskets) and store them accordingly. The response was a deadly stare and deathly silence.
On a parting note, I intend to visit this newspaper’s classified advertising department and announce: I have come to place my death notice in your obituaries page. To the staff that have not fled from my ghost, I’ll explain: Well, I see you have an ad here that says, “Place your death notice here.”
Right now I’m dying with laughter.