A Pathan and a Sikh walked into a bar


Don’t hold your breath for the punch line


A pathan and a sikh walked into a bar.

They watched a game, flirted with the waitress, paid their bill and went home.

Were you expecting a joke?

At whose expense?

Because that’s the thing about jokes. They exist at someone’s expense. Good ones take a potshot. Great ones wrap the potshot in discovery and serve it with a side of shock.  Society, ethnicity, race, religion, children; everything that is sacred is fair game for a joke. Bowel movements, sex, praying, dying; everything that is private is a legitimate target for making others laugh. An ordinary joke may make fun of a person, say, a cheating wife or a child who swears. A good one will instead have a broader concept; the end of marriage or the loss of innocence.   Whom the joke targets will reflect society’s stereotypes, its obsessions or its fears. The best jokes, for example, target not religion, but a religious man failing his faith. One of my favorites is about a man who prepares for death by accumulating bribes for the angels who come to interrogate the recently deceased about their deeds. There could be an argument for the symbolism of the bribe. Or how we subconsciously root for the underdog; in this case, a fellow flawed human. Or even how the right use of language, in this case Punjabi, can make the mundane sound hilarious. But really, the joke is funny because a human tries to corrupt the purest of pure beings so that he can get into heaven, that purest of pure places.

Western wit differs from ours. Puns masquerade as jokes, fooling nary a brown person. There are the “knock knock” jokes, bafflingly popular despite their predictability. There are dry observations on life which are hysterical only if you’re British. But then there are also some gems which negate our idea of wit because nobody is in the crosshairs. Or nobody that minds. The hypernet is full of jokes about ducks, of all the things. It’s the equivalent of our talking parrot jokes, albeit quite a bit less raunchy. And then there are the ‘so and so walked into a bar’ jokes. Which brings us back to the beginning: if someone says a Pathan and a Sikh were together, is a joke sure to follow? Depends on how widespread stereotypes are in your community.

The age of political correctness is finally upon us. Slowly, very very slowly, we are readjusting our internal meters to watch our words. Some of us were always sensitive and didn’t want to offend any group. Most of us didn’t care, but now do, or are forced to. We revaluate what we found funny and what we can share with whom. One of Umar Sharif’s most popular jokes was about women being unrecognisable to their husbands when they put on make-up. He’d been cracking that joke since the 80s, and every single time he narrated it, it earned raucous laughter. A few years ago he cracked the same joke at an Indian film awards ceremony. Nobody laughed. Not the actors, not the singers, and certainly not the actresses in the audience. The camera lingered on Sushmita Sen’s face, her eyebrow raised in displeasure, her lips curled down in disgust. Then it panned to Amitabh Bachan, who cracked a tight smile out of politeness. Umar Sharif, not used to his jokes tanking, looked around baffled before forging ahead with the rest of his routine. He got a few laughs after that but the damage was done. Jokes can no longer prey on women’s looks. At least not in public by a famous person.

For that matter, even the word Pathan is not PC. The correct term is Pashtoon, not Pathan. The Pakistani stereotype of the affable simpleton Pashtoon who speaks in grammatically incorrect Urdu is just as insulting as the Indian stereotype of the naïve bumbling Sardarji who fails to understand the most basic of things. So rampant are the Santa Banta jokes in India that Sikhs were forced to file a case in the Supreme Court, asking that humor websites that carried these jokes be banned. They will probably lose the legal battle. The battle for respect will wage on and perhaps one day, might even be won.

There is a fine line between wit and offence. And, to be fair, if everything is categorized as off limits for jokes, then we’ll have a lot of unemployed comics on our hands. But then there is always that one group that we can wisecrack about without being worried about their feelings. And that is politicians. For that, we should be grateful.


  1. In USA, person cracking these jokes and if company platform is used can be sued. You have no idea how much other person can win. India is caste or racist society. Instead of Pathan whom indians have little knowledge they use word MUSLIM.

  2. Well written article rightly pointed out if unchecked the amount of hurt that causes.what should also be mentioned is if one ethnicity contours to claim about ongoing sense of superority that is displayed by all educated and uneducated. A Claim that has no place in religion or a decent human society

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