That embarrassing question

My search for him/her at the Times Literature Fest at Bandra ended soon. It was during a session on humour that the hand went up. After being given the mike, the male asked a panel comprising writer Upamanyu Chatterjee (of English August fame) and standup comic Radhika Vaz, “Was humour invented or discovered?” I was delighted before the familiar embarrassment set in and stomped all over the delight.

This may make me come across a bit self-righteous or even mean, but I am convinced that the quality of several questions we ask at sessions, especially sessions discussing politics and books, can improve manifold. Whenever a session comes to an end and the host ‘throws open the debate’, I have an uneasy feeling. I am almost certain it is going to be a waste of time. Mostly inertia and some hope get the better of me and I stay back to be red-faced one more time.

I am afraid of the kind of questions that will come forward. I am afraid about the long commentaries that people will start giving without coming to the question once the mike is in their hands. At times the commentary ends without a question. With a limited time span of a session, I fail to understand how these guys do not fathom that they are wasting people’s time. Do they not get that the others are not there to appreciate their opinions. That we all have our set of opinions and share it with those who are interested.

For reasons I cannot understand, I am not able to laugh at the lame questions that come forth so often. (Even if I am laughing on the outside I am flush with embarrassment within) In some sense there is this collective feeling of disappointing the guests as a member of the audience that gets to me I think. Ever so often, I am even embarrassed to look at the person posing the question. I just wish I could vanish into thin air. And then I look at the guests and the host trying to make sense out of question or give it some dignity and feel worse.

There are however those hosts/guests who do not let the podium come in the way of some good old deadpan wit. I remember a few years back, at the times lit fest again, the irreverent Vinod Mehta was present during a session about journalism. During the question answer round, this boy who had been jumping all along to ask a question, finally spewed this into the mike, “It is said the pen is mightier than the sword. Is it true?” Mehta being himself looked at boy and said, “Meet me at the bar later. I’ll answer you there. Next question”

Worse than the silly questions is that stage when another person in the audience will object or join in the original lame question and soon it becomes a free for all. At times when the guest cannot hold his/her own, they too are drawn into this banal discussion, miles away from what was originally meant to be discussed. This is so especially true of sessions to do with politics. Every person, especially the older lot, is convinced that they have the answer to all the questions faced by the nation. Oh if only he/she could be made the PM of India .

So coming back to today, I was looking out for that such a question to be reassured about my opinion on quality of our questions when the male sprung up with the invention/discovery conundrum. Want to know what Upamanyu Chatterjee answered? He answered with a straight face “Humour was discovered by Edison in 1942” to a thunderous applause.


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