Thursday, January 13, 2011

The enigma of Nagaraj Rao–A humble tribute

On a warm summer’s evenin’ on a train bound for Mysore, I met up with the bookseller…

Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s a rip off from the Kenny Rogers song ‘The Gambler’. An account of the magical words/translations of the master needs to start where it all began. The suspense needs to build, the irrelevance unclear and the punch line obscure.

My nephew, being boredom disposed hailed a passing travelling salesman in a train and acquired the now historic manuscript known as ‘Great Jokes’. Little did he or anyone else in our family fathom the powerful and everlasting influence this deceptive book would have on us.

‘The Book’ and the contents are now part of lore and fantasy and while I will not delve in the actual writing, I will make an honest attempt to describe ‘Great Jokes’ to the best of my ability. I have delayed so long on the writing of this piece solely due to the inability to grasp the full depth of the master’s words. Like the proverbial onion, the layers never end. A doctoral thesis is probably the only way to analyze the Sistine Chapel of Humor.

There about 280+ jokes in all. The opening number sets the tone for the remaining masterpieces with a grand finale that ends with ‘Do it before my husband comes’. In terms of comprehensiveness, no genre or discipline is left untouched. Topics cover sports, psychology, horror, sleaze, politics, international, religion, drama, theatre, arts, music education and pretty much anything else you can think of.

The author takes creative and utmost liberties with punctuations. Commas, periods, parentheses, upper and lower case alphabets, quotation marks pretty much appear in the most unexpected of places with the parentheses affecting your sanity the most. Words in braces could appear on either side of the word requiring more clarification but in most cases, either the word in braces is the same or has no bearing on the original word. On a few occasions, both the words inside and outside the braces are not in English so a pure Anglophile  is left confounded as is everyone else. Some gems include a joke with this title  - “Gunda”  (““Gunda””) and one with the title – Gunda (“Able Gundas”).

Most jokes contain names and details which are completely irrelevant to the actual ‘joke’. A few examples here provide some insight – Chinkurli Sheenappa, Kempegowda, Hanumi are just some of the stars that speckle this fine book. The professions of the characters also leave you dumbfounded. Srinvas Rao is a gazetted officer and multiple readings still do not reveal the relevance of his profession.

Of course, there are those jokes where details would have been good but are marked by their complete absence. The abrupt endings and punch lines of the jokes are undoubtedly designed to whet the readers’ appetites as well as providing complete freedom to draw your own conclusion on the humor.

One of the biggest challenges you will encounter when attacking the mother lode of humor is connecting the title of the joke to the actual joke. I can vouch for the fact that many including yours truly have attempted and failed.

The rather abrupt one word sentences are also imposing barriers in comprehension. The sometimes rather sleazy phrases are now part of our family’s everyday vocabulary. While the impact of these phrases cannot be felt outside the jokes, here are a few – On seeing a good looking woman, a man’s reaction is described thus – ‘Mouth watered'. Or this classic – ‘She looked at him with one and a half eye’. Or still better – ‘He made a castor oil face’ and the creative ‘she made an asafoetida face’. Irresistible and spine tingling.

The ‘horror’ section is ably addressed by a lengthy narrative where the ‘doors of the windows kept opening and shutting’.  Liberties have also been taken with spellings ‘She did shought out loudly’ is one such diamond that readily comes to mind.

In a few jokes, the writer invites reader interaction and often provides his own commentary on the events unfolding. In one where he talks about the value of education, he enquires and rhetorically states ‘In olden days, no value for education. But how about now?’. This kind of interactive dialog between the author and reader has so far remained untapped.

At other times, he ensures that he has our undivided attention by simply asking a ‘how’ or a ‘what’ in the middle of a joke and consistently at a totally unexpected juncture. A few classics have jokes where the title is longer than the actual joke. I mean, really! Who else can do that???

I will stop here as I don’t want to spoil it for you and also to give you the opportunity to invest in and get engrossed with the surreal world of Nagaraj Rao. However, I’ll leave you with some titles that you absolutely must not miss. ‘Raised Arrow Cannot be Downed’, ‘When Observed a Handsome Girl’, ‘In Thotadappa Choultry’, the ‘Beechi Told’ series and the ‘Gunda’ series.

Now for some closing words…

(Special writer commentary): Unfortunately, I know of only five copies in circulation and by a twist of fate, all these five copies reside with members of my family. I still hold the Gold Copy which has now been sent for binding since it’s coming apart due to constant use and extensive research. In fact, my nephew had suggested sending the book for binding with a police escort and an armored truck to prevent fraudulent copying, plagiarism or even theft. However, I have been assured that the copy is safe and the book is due back in mint condition tomorrow. I have a good mind to send a copy to the Library of Congress where I know future generations can imbibe the nectar and partake the intense cistern of knowledge that I’m sure is there somewhere in the book. An expedition is in the works to trace the author through the publisher in Balepet which will be prove to be the nadir of our achievements to unravel the powerful works of Nagaraj Rao. (End special writer commentary)

Blog writer’s note: Nagaraj Rao ‘Great Jokes’ is not for the faint of heart or for the faint of humor. Dollops of patience and perseverance are required and of course lots of time. Best handled as a group (of like minded individuals) activity with all members suitably inebriated for the full and lasting effect. And do remember, a raised arrow cannot be downed…



Anirudh.acharya said...

I remember when I asked my father to buy me this book, because he was sure I was not going to read it and its going to find its place in a quiet corner in some room. But this book turned me into a full time reader. I would love to "note to the editor" his utter bravery in publishing this holy grail of humor.

Sarathy, Sydney said...


Good God ! I happened to chance on your blog, when I was searching for info on the web about my all time favourite author Nagaraja Rao !
Like you I bought the book during a train journey on my visit to India and couldn't believe my eyes ! I've had so much fun with this book, and safeguarded a copy at my home in Australia, to hopefully pass this classic on to my next generation ! At our home,
so great is its influence, that I answer phone calls with Guruji's line "What it is you told?"

Additionally, When I was in India last, I located and spoke to Narayana Iyengar, the publisher of this great epic, and was disappointed when he said he did not have any more of Nagaraja Rao's works ! Rao probably believes in quality and not quantity, hence the only masterpiece.

Can't say enough of his gems such as "No salt for Rasa (Saru)", "which boon you want" "then independence had not come" etc

Great tribute Triv, and look forward to more analysis from you for such an accomplished author!

Triv said...

Awesome to find other staunch fans across the globe. I thought we were the only ones. Let's keep the love of Nagaraj Rao going! Even then...

Unknown said...

You cannot imagine how excited I was to see this post! The 'Great Jokes' book has been in my family for a few years now and everytime we want to laugh our guts out, we dig this out! Awesome to see that other Mysore-Bangalore train travellers have been lucky enough to discover this classic piece of literature!
Long live Nagaraj Rao!

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