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being puzzled about Covid-19’s scale and stride: Humor is key to bolster our resilience

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There are many things whose importance are being realized by us in this period of Covid-19 pandemic; one of them being the role of comedy/humour in combating the stress being caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Laughter, as a physical reaction to human behaviour, is entwined into the fabric of our social interactions and mostly it is derived from the monotonous lives of the common man and his perceptions about life. The tragic part of this pandemic is that while we are still unable to impede the huge spike in infection cases; we are also being compelled to put up with this reality alone (especially in India, where there is an element of uncertainty regarding whether we are being locked or unlocked!). Being both powerless and isolated and being puzzled about the pandemic’s time scale and stride across the world, perhaps humour can be a sort of shared social signal of acceptance and to take back command of our social interactions.

 

With this introduction, let me recall some incidents which prompted me to write this article. Few days back one of my friends called me and asked me a question which left me quite perplexed, at the same time made me a bit nostalgic about my time in Belgium. The question was whether I still watched the serial “Taarak Mehta ka Oolta Chasma (TMKOC). The answer was I still did. In the same way, one more incident inspired me to write about TMKOC. Recently a man posted on twitter how a scene of TMKOC brought smile on his father’s face after he suffered a brain stroke (soon after the surgery, his father had asked him to put on TMKOC to watch). One more clip which has gone viral these days is Episode 86 of Lapataganj (Season1) where the main characters talk about the contagious disease, just like coronavirus. However, fear associated with the disease is being inter mingled with a fine sense of humour. In the same sequence, the recent television rating came as a surprise. TMKOC has emerged as the number one show post lockdown. Its success can be attributed to its light-hearted entertainment and a humorous perspective which constructs psychological distance which helps in diffusing the stresses of daily life.

 

Watching TMKOC/Laptaganj/Yes Boss/The Kapil Sharma Show during my meals/having tea was my favourite job (rather it is still my favourite time pass), especially during the period when I was preparing for Civil Services Exam. Obviously my stint with these satire stuffs was just supposed to be for mere fun. At present, when I am facing a stressful time, both on personal (lockdown, isolation, long distance relationship etc) and professional (being a civil servant) fronts, I realize what these shows actually intended to deliver! Now I also realize how I made my niece smile every day (while her school is closed and everyone is in a sort of prison) through TMKOC clips which I used to send her every day.

 

Away from the daily soaps dominated by countless and meaningless saas-bahu sagas, these shows extract laughs from day-to-day situations (especially associated with the middle class) and don’t use double meaning or any inappropriate content. At the same time, without being preachy in the content, the virtues of Bharatiya sanskriti (here I am just talking about the universal moral codes of human behaviour and not being specific to Hinduism) is portrayed through its characters. For example, if we look at our own life struggles through the lens of problematic life of Jethalal, it enlightens us with some sort of coping mechanism.  (By the way, my father is very much impressed by him and he always says that, “जेठालाल बिना कुछ बोले ही हँसा देगा”.

As I said earlier, compare the characters and content of these comedy shows with typical and majority of saas-bahu melodramas which sought to establish that there are only two kinds of women in India; either a sanskari bahu or a gold digger who is always conspiring against every other woman in the family and also show saas-bahu being embroiled in a power struggle all the time. Tell me where in real life do you see such characters? I mean, don’t the comedy shows (like TMKOC. Lapataganj etc), rather than these saas-bahu sagas, represent the ideals which we as citizens of a diversified country should follow where neighbours, despite their minor differences, live happily together?

 

Actually this article is not about only these shows. It’s about all little things which could make us smile while we are facing a stressful time during Covid-19 pandemic. In this corona time, basically we are dealing with the two worlds; the inner world (which is full of all kinds of emotions like anger, stress, anxiety etc) and the outer world (which consists of society, family, friends and people around us). Without putting this inner world into shape, we can’t sail through this phase of stress and anxiety.

 

Today, most people do not want to/don’t have to live their lives in a state of earnest dramatic contemplation of how dark our lives are. And, given that most of us are facing a fear psychosis with maximum disruption to our daily social life, there is a constant need to de-stress and nothing can be a better mechanism than a dose of comedy. I still remember searching for best jokes on Google just to make someone special laugh (while being overwhelmed by the emotions of stress, anger etc).  Even if it is for a moment, we completely find ourselves in a world which is devoid of tension. Therefore it is nothing surprising about the incidents which I have mentioned in the beginning.

 

When we are exposed to negativities (infections, deaths, migrants’ crisis etc.) all around, it makes us dive deep into the depressive episodes. With recent spike in the number of Covid-19 infections and related deaths, we are coming across the news of our closed ones being exposed on a daily basis, there is a high chance that a kind of depressive downward spiral will be triggered. What kind of emotional filters can we use to prevent such negativities from triggering a depressive episode? From the perspective of Covid-19, can visualizing a negative event in a humorous light act as that sort of emotional filter? Are we falling short of the coping strategies during this Covid-19 time? To a certain extent, Yes! Covid-19 has taken away many of our coping strategies like travelling, outdoor sports, get together events with friends/family etc.

 

Another dimension is whether it would be an ethical choice to crack jokes on tragic moments? Someone might say an absolute “No”. But the reality is that even during the current Covid-19 pandemic (still ongoing and evolving), people haven’t stopped joking about it and as a result, we have memes and funny videos are all over social media and on internet. So why is this happening? Why is there no gap between the disaster and the humour created around it? There are many variables associated with the transformation of tragedy into laughter. As the emerging evidences suggest that there might be no early tapering off of the Covid-19 disease and we have to learn to live with corona virus, the tragedy can’t be the only consideration for our daily survival. Instead of feeling helpless about it, we need to change our internal feelings. And humour can a play a big role in that change and gave us a break from the horrifying reality around us.

 

If we look at the stimuli for the humour, especially in the context of a tragedy, it will kindle laughter only when the threat is benign and perceived to be innocuous in the long term (although it can be physically or psychologically threatening in the short term). Just recall the familiar scenarios of witnessing a friend or colleague slip and fall on the road during the rainy season/snowfall. At first the event may induce concern, but the moment we come to know that he/she is unharmed, the incident is likely to evoke laughter. Similar is the case with Corona.

 

One of my friends never took corona seriously and used to joke about someone suddenly taking immunity boosters (Neem-Tulsi-Giloy juice, Vitamin C tablets, Milk-turmeric etc). Recently, his brother got infected and subsequently, other family members also got infected. He became very much concerned at the beginning and he himself started taking those immunity boosters, but then when the family members started recovering, his tone and words become much humorous. Once he called me and asked: “कैसे हैं? अभी तक कोरोना नही हुआ हो आपको? जनता के बीच नही जा रहे क्या?” Obviously he is not praying for my infection. What I was trying to explain is that humour requires just the right dose of threat or tension. Accordingly, time also puts a psychological distance between us and the event, thereby creating the ideal balance of threat and safety in the recipe for humour. By this account, we are able to appreciate the humour in tragic or devastating events after some delay because time reduces the severity of the violation. Continuation of the pandemic and the flooding of humorous stuffs on it can be correlated in this regard. As it is now widely acknowledged that the pandemic is going to engulf the whole of the year 2020, my favourite meme was the one where someone very frustrated with corona stuffs was knocking at the door of an astrologer with slippers to hit him (The astrologer had predicted that 2020 would be the best year!). Apart from the common memes/jokes, every aspect of daily life which has been disrupted by the pandemic is inviting the humour.

 

For someone being wanderlust, this must the most testing and uncomfortable moment on their travelling space time curve. The mechanisms which used to rejuvenate them and was a source of soul enrichment like going on road trips, learning the culture and cuisines, exploring new places etc seem far-fetched now and only memories which can be written on the travel diaries is that of lockdown, social isolation etc . However, people from travel community are giving vent to their frustration on Covid-19 through humour. Like jungle safari has been replaced by yard safari; City tours with tasting beverages and cuisines by a wine tasting tour with different beverages/cuisines in each room; a new nomenclature for terminals/station codes like LVG (Living Room), DNR (Dining Room) etc. Someone put a map for some weekend travel ideas. Someone might be surprised how it would be possible in this Covid time. However, the image put was not of some beautiful destination, rather a poor plan of a his apartment.

 

Similarly, normal office hours have also been disrupted to the extent that “Work from Home (WFH)” seems to be a new normal in this crisis situation. WFH is like a double edged sword. While for some, work from home is a dream-come-true (when we are home, you seek/come across emotional encounters with our family members), but others might struggle to cope. For people staying alone at the workplace, their only source of emotional encounters was with the office colleagues. Now, there is no one for them to get emotional strings attached with. Their all emotions have become virtual/digital. Regardless of which bucket someone falls in, we can all agree on one thing – we all are desperately crying out for a conduit. And one of those conduits is through the medium of humour. Today, we can really come across memes that can relate to all our feelings and can allay our worries. Many of memes on WFH are associated with the household chores where the husband can be seen cutting onions, washing dishes; handling the kids etc. “Work from home” has become synonymous with “Work for Home”.

 

On the work front, when employees are under a lot of stress, it’s very easy for one person to lash out at or start an argument with a colleague.  Yet, saying something unexpected that is also funny can quickly diffuse the situation and allows us to get our point across without hurting emotions. Thus, from the perspective of improving overall morale, comedy has to become part of the workplace’s DNA profile so that it becomes second essence to the employees.  I will give few examples to it.

  1. Once one of our colleagues came to review meeting in a T shirt (it was not supposed to be a formal attire). The boss scolded him by saying whether he had come for the meeting or for buying vegetables from the market. He became very tensed and really introspected whether boss was right in reprimanding for a small mistake. However, the next line just diffused tension a bit when the boss said,” Don’t worry. If you don’t have a shirt, ask me. I have many and would lend you one. इसमें शरमाने वाली कोई बात नहीं है।“
  2. Once in the bank review meeting, the boss was discussing the progress of “Annual Credit Plan” of banks and was very angry at a particular bank for large deviation from the target. After being reprimanded heavily, the bank representative said that the case was not as if his bank had done nothing and talked about some other schemes where his performance was not that bad. Again the mood of the conference room was much tensed. What the boss said was: “बहुत अच्छी बात है। उसके लिए तो हमने आपका धन्यवाद किया ही है। और ज्यादा धन्यवाद चाहिए तो बोलिए फूल माला पहना देते हैं।“And he really asked for a garland. Rest you can guess.
  3. Few civil servants have lost their life while handling the migrants’ arrival like in the states of West Bengal and Bihar. I was handling migrants’ arrival in my district. A temporary set up was there for food distribution, lodging, paperwork etc. At the same time, we knew that most of the migrants were coming from the areas which were on the verge of entering community transmission. Also, in random sampling, almost one-fourth of them turned out to be corona +ve. So there was also a fear psychosis among the staffs. One of the staffs was standing with his hands and face touching the bamboo poles of the tent which were frequently touched by migrants while they came for enquiry. मैंने उनसे कहा की आपके मुँह में कोरोना वाइरस चला गया होगा। He went away from there instantaneously. At a distance away where he thought no one would be watching him, we saw him rubbing his face and hands repeatedly with a traditional “gamachcha” which he was carrying with him. मैंने उसे बुलाकर कहा अब पोच्छ्ने से क्या फायदा सर वाइरस तो गया अंदर। Everyone started laughing. This one moment of humour diffused the fear psychosis at least for few hours and in a theoretical way, distracted our mind from the stress (or diffused the individual sense of fear) which was prevailing upon us while working there.

By the way, these all meetings took place during the Covid-19 time when most of the employees are being fearful of getting infected when they are on field visit or file management in office. The above examples also show that by incorporating comedy into the workplace, we learn how comedic skills translate to business skills.  From the boss point of view also, putting up a laughing point make them feel good (as per physiological explanation, brain releases endorphins!). And when you feel good, you can’t be angry.

 

At an individual level, a sense of humour can be a safeguard when it comes to stress management. We can find a way to laugh about our own situations (whether past or present; for example college days). For example, let’s be funny about the mask, which has become an essential element of our attire. The body part which is getting most of the stress while putting on masks is our ears. With the faulty design of masks and elastic loops (to keep your mask securely in place), they’re prone to causing irritation on the backs of our ears. By the end of the year, do not get surprised when our ears could resemble that of Aamir Khan in PK movie. Also, the way people in India have discovered new ways to put on mask has led to a new whole set of nomenclature like “Kanask” (just hanging from the ear), “Nask” (just covering nose), “Muask” (just covering mouth), “Hanumask” (on the chin) etc. One of the staffs in my office had a unique mask. It covered either nose or the mouth at a time. I don’t know from he bought it and why. These all little things make us realize that although situation is very annoying and stressful, we can make it funny though the humorous interpretations. And there is nothing new in it. We can see this in the standard category of jokes on all platforms; whether it is about relationships, family, sex, money, impotence, bowel movements etc. It can help us maintain a light-hearted point-of-view of the pandemic and find our own style of seeing the world in a different light.

 

WHO has recently said that corona pandemic is the sort of disaster whose effects will last far into the future. Although the knowledge about the new virus has advanced, many questions remained unanswered and populations remain vulnerable; for example, mutations in the virus may occur, sparking new infections. Thus, pandemic is still in its evolution phase. Also our response to it is still evolving as we are shifting gears from lock to unlock (currently restricted unlocking and in many states, there is complete lockdown), masked employees in office to work from home etc. Hence, being stressed about it can’t be an option; at a time when the shock factor associated with it is also getting extended over a long period of time. Give the factors in the beginning of this paragraph; the shock factor is obviously reduced, compared to tragedies like terror attacks for example. Another factor for the diminishing shock factor is a high recovery rate and low fatality rate (the fatality from Covid-19 currently stands at 2.3% in India as compared to global average of about 4%).

 

Whatever laughing stuffs we did in the beginning like “thali pito”, “diya jalao”, “pushpa varsha” etc (although it was supposed to be a serious stuff), what we definitely know is that COVID-19 is no laughing matter.  Hope we get that.  But, to keep up our spirits and bolster our resilience against Covid-19, we all certainly need a little humour in our lives – and it is very much reasonable to employ humour as a shield to confront the prevailing health crisis – it may even be a requisite for  getting past this frustrating and anxiety-ridden time.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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