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Sunday Sentiments

  • The case for wit

    Posted On September 2, 2002

    By Karan Thapar

    By and large we are not a witty people. We tell jokes and play pranks but very few of us – and only very occasionally – are subtle or sophisticated. Our eloquence is of the long-winded variety, strong on emotion, heavy with content but rarely sharp and piercing. Our repartee, such as it is, is smug and childish. Its aim is to put down rather than amuse.

    In contrast the clever answer is both pleasing and effective. It makes its point without hurt or boastfulness. In fact, even the victim breaks into a smile.

    Last week I got to re-interview Kapil Dev – and, no, he didn’t cry. But he was extremely witty. Going over his cricket career I asked him about his alleged rivalry with Sunil Gavaskar.

    “The press used to speculate about your relationship with him” I said. “You were said to be rivals, there was tension between you and they even claimed you didn’t like each other. What was the truth?”

    The smile on Kapil’s face was the first indication of how he would answer. Then his eyes started shining. I could sense that he was up to something.

    “The best part” Kapil began “was that Sunil wasn’t an allrounder. So there was no fight as such.”

    Kapil knew his answer was a winner. Without saying anything he had said it all. That’s why he allowed a little laugh to punctuate the first sentence. Afterwards he went on to praise Sunil, generously and warmly. But he had already made his point.

    My friend Ashraf Qazi had a very similar tale to tell. It was about the legendary Hashim Khan, one of the world’s great squash players. Interviewed on television, Hashim was asked about his nephew, the reigning world champion Jehangir Khan. Hashim praised the young man’s style, his stamina and his

    incredible scores. Jehangir had just won his tenth consecutive British Open, a record that still stands, and was considered invincible.

    “Tell me” the interviewer suddenly asked. “If you and Jehangir were both in your prime and had to play each other who would win?”

    At first Hashim refused to answer. The interviewer pressed him but he continued to evade. Then, at the end, the question was put again. This time Hashim relented.

    “Let me put it like this” Hashim said. “Jehangir plays exactly like his father Roshan and Roshan never beat me!”

    Whenever Ashraf told the story he would burst out laughing well before the end. I’ve started to do much the same when I recount the Kapil anecdote.

    Often the best way out of a tricky situation is to be witty about it. In 1842 Sir Charles Napier had been expressly forbidden to conquer Sind but the temptation was too great. So despite the strictest orders to the contrary he defied them. Now, how was he to bell the cat? Delving into his Latin, he sent a telegram to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London. It was a single word : ‘Peccavi ’. It means ‘I have sinned’.

    Or you can use wit to put someone gently in their place. It’s said – but I doubt if it’s true – that George Bernard Shaw was once sent an invitation by the Duchess of Norfolk, a lady he had little regard for. “Her Grace the Duchess of Norfolk” the invitation read “will be at home this sunday evening between the hours of 8.00 and 10.00 p.m.” He replied promptly. “George Bernard Shaw is delighted to learn that the Duchess of Norfolk will be at home this sunday evening. So will he.”

    But my favourite story – and I’m assured it’s not apocryphal – is one I read in The Times whilst I was still at school. That little fact made it all the more poignant. The year was 1973 and it was, I think, a saturday in summer. In those days The Times used to publish a long essay in its weekend supplement. On this particular occasion the piece was by Peregrine Worsthorne, later editor of The Sunday Telegraph and an Old Stoic like myself.

    In the article Worsthorne described a meeting with George Melly’s wife. In the ‘70s Melly was a famous jazz saxophonist, possibly the best. But forty years earlier Melly and Worsthorne had studied together at Stowe. They were old chums.

    Now, Melly’s wife apparently snubbed Worsthorne. Peeved by her snooty behaviour he strode up and said loudly so that everyone could hear.

    “I don’t see why you should be so bloody stuck up, my dear. Your husband seduced me long before he seduced you.”

    Finally, there’s that little throwaway line. If someone is trying to be funny but proving tiresome you could always take a leaf out of the good Reverend Spooner’s book. Call him ‘a shining wit’ and see if he understands!

    I owe an apology to Vinod Khanna. I’m told that he did turn up at the Agra Retreat although he only made it for the dying hours and arrived after my departure. I stand corrected.


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