Humour comes without warning. Without a board on top, without advertisement. Presenting laughs you laugh and forget about. Khyrunnisa A, English teacher for many years and writer later, does not forget the moments. She files them away for later. With language that’s as pretty as it is funny, Khyrunnisa expands the little jokes into an article, adding bits and pieces of imagination to make it a nice little column for others to read and relax with on Saturday mornings.
A time came when the columns she wrote every two weeks had to end. Readers, deprived of the fortnightly fare, asked if she could compile them into a book. Khyrunnisa thought it was a good idea, so did her publisher – Westland – who asked her to divide them into categories. When Tongue in Cheek: Funny Side of Life came out all categorised (Gastronomical Glitches, Wedding Vows, Just What The Doctor Ordered and so on) and ready to be read, Khyrunnisa waited anxiously. This is the first book she has written for the general reader, for the grownups. She’s known as the author of the children’s book series Butterfingers. Will people classify Tongue in Cheek too as a book for children?
“Beyond that, I’m not worried, for once they read the book, they will understand it’s for older people and then I hope it will win adult hearts and minds,” the author says, laughing, when she’s interviewed for the book.
The book had a grand launch last Sunday, Shashi Tharoor, the Thiruvananthapuram MP who has released all her books so far, conversing with writer Manu Pillai and the author about it. Saraswathy Nagarajan, editor of the city’s The Hindu Metro Plus, which published Khyrunnisa’s columns, acted as the moderator.
Most of Khyrunnisa’s launches are attended by a bunch of her students, friends, fans, and the most regular character in her columns: her husband and another English teacher of many years, Vijaya Kumar. She writes at the beginning of the book: ‘For my husband, Vijaya Kumar, who strayed into the book and stayed there.’
Khyrunnisa and Vijaya Kumar
Khyrunnisa tells her readers that they can ask her husband if all the incidents in the book are indeed real. “Of course, if you continue to be sceptical, ask my husband, the reluctant partner, uneasy accomplice, disgruntled associate, unwitting ally, absent-minded spouse and the yin to my yang in many of the misadventures.”
In the Metro Plus where her columns appeared, there would be an illustration of the author in her home, or somewhere outside, among all her misadventures. If you are in the habit of carrying mental images of people you read about, Khyrunnisa’s, helped on with the illustrator, may look like a woman in kurtas, bulging eyes, curly strands, and generally appearing to be in a state of shock from all that’s going wrong around her. Vijaya Kumar, you imagine, would be a bespectacled man, shaking his head as if to say ‘I told you so’ or frowning at something he didn’t quite enjoy.
In the chapter ‘A Tyre-ing Job’, Vijaya Kumar struggles to change a car tyre and says ‘air, air’, meaning he is going to check the stepney’s air pressure, while an alarmed Khyrunnisa advises, ‘Breathe through your mouth’.
In most of her wedding adventures, Vijaya Kumar finds a mention, especially at parking spaces. In one chapter, Khyrunnisa remarks on the Malayali’s obsession with gold. A serious observation, unusual for her columns that mostly are in a lighter vein. “I bring in a lot of serious social criticism too in what I write. But it is all veiled and oblique. I don’t wish to be preachy or moralistic in my writing,” she says.
Khyrunnisa has been clear about this before too, she doesn’t wish to make statements through her writing. Equality of gender is a topic she has spoken about before. In her columns too, she writes about home affairs and kitchen mishaps, taking on the role of a traditional wife. “I don’t see why the reader should regard this as unfair when I’m fine with it. There’s really no need for them to take up cudgels on my behalf (laughs). I like cooking for my husband and don’t do it reluctantly though I might project myself as a sloppy cook (which I well might be; you should ask my husband, haha).”
In another column she casually mentions she doesn’t thread her eyebrows because her husband doesn’t approve. She writes: A woman can often get away with things by citing her husband’s disapproval, but it doesn’t work the other way around. If a man were to mumble, ‘My wife doesn’t like it,’ he’s bound to invite pitying looks and remarks like, ‘Of course, you poor fish, we always knew you were henpecked.’
Khyrunnisa explains, “About stopping me from threading my eyebrows and such other instances that feminists could well regard as imposition of male authority on a woman, it’s not like that at all. Most feminists make much of these trivial matters, and for them, gender equality often rests on insisting that the husband also cooks, cleans, changes the baby’s nappies and takes care of the washing. There are more serious issues of gender discrimination they should concentrate upon. My contention has always been that a man and a woman are different. The question of equality doesn’t arise if there is mutual respect and understanding between them and the partnership works to the satisfaction of both. In every successful partnership there’s a lot of give and take. If I really wanted to do something, my husband will never stand in my way even if he privately disapproves of it. Once I sense he wouldn’t like it and it doesn’t really matter to me either way, I just decide against it. And, most importantly, vice versa.”
Like her husband, her friends – mostly unnamed – appear in her chapters. So do her doctors and random people she meets on the way, like a vendor or a repairman. “Humour does depend on making fun of something or someone, but the way it is done is very important. I poke mild fun at things or people and use humour but not sarcasm or biting satire. I don’t wish to offend or hurt anybody and I do steer clear of controversial topics. My column is a humour column and within the limits such a column defines, I also bring in different issues that are serious but can be dealt with in a light-hearted manner,” Khyrunnisa says.