When she introduced Papa CJ to the audience at the Kerala Literature Festival, journalist Nandini Nair said that unlike your typical author who’s reluctant to make an appearance in public, much less speak to a crowd, here is one man who is a performer and a writer and takes the stage easily. On cue, Papa CJ, with his long hair bouncing about him and wearing 'half-pants' that he’d later make a joke about, went up on stage and began telling jokes before he sat down to talk about his book Naked.
One of the jokes was about losing a boarding pass in Malaysia and telling the angry woman at the airline counter, “But you lost an entire airplane” to which a young woman in the audience appeared to take offence. “But you don’t know that,” she said, apparently confused by the joke. From then on, most of his quips would be addressed to her: “Is that ok with you? Did that joke make you laugh?”
That’s how most of my acts are, says Papa CJ, one of the pioneers of English stand-up comedy in India, at a session at KLF in Kozhikode. He could begin an unplanned conversation with someone in the audience and keep it going. But the book, unlike his acts, is not all funny. “As a comedian my instinct was to go for the punchline every time. But a childhood friend of mine said that your book is about your life and your life is not a joke. So I resisted the urge to force-fit a punchline every time I wrote an anecdote,” Papa CJ says.
Writing a book, as opposed to writing material for his comedy, is an entirely different process, the comedian says. “In stand-up, you have to remove every extra word!” The book is an autobiography that comes with the description: ‘When an award-winning comedian performs at gunpoint in South Africa and lives to tell the tale, you know it’s going to be an interesting one.’
Papa CJ once had a different career, a Kolkata boy going to live in Delhi, getting his MBA from Oxford University. But during his days in the UK, he came across the Edinburgh arts festival and watched a stand-up comedy act. “Here was a guy holding a beer in one hand and telling a joke and actually enjoying himself.”
At the time, Papa CJ says he was debating between doing stand-up and a bartending course. “But at the bartending course they didn’t teach you how to juggle the glasses and I thought that’s what the girls thought was cool. In the last 15 years, you don’t know how many times I regretted not doing that bartending course.”
Papa CJ with Anu Menon and Shashi Tharoor
In another session he shared with comedian Anu Menon and MP and writer Shashi Tharoor, Papa CJ spoke about the pressures that other people put on your life. Right from the fairy-tales where the prince saves the princess, to life decisions such as doing your degree and post-graduation, marrying and settling down with two kids, there were these set patterns that others expect you to follow. But it is up to you to decide how to live your life, says Papa CJ, who is also a motivational speaker.
Papa CJ also does happiness projects as fundraising projects for charity, and spoke about the times he’d do a performance in a room with a few old people or perhaps one lonely person.
“I moved from my corporate career to a creative one not to be in a rat race here,” he says, when someone asked him why he wouldn’t put up more videos online to reach more people.