Society

An Indian Writer's Faraway Farewell To MAD Magazine

Growing up in the 1970s in the hectic but more innocent India, the magazine offered a young man the right dose of irreverence to shape his world view for a lifetime.

An Indian Writer's Faraway Farewell To MAD Magazine
Sidharth Bhatia

NEW DELHI — So MAD magazine is closing down. It will, from now on, only republish old material and annual specials. The ‘Usual Gang of Idiots‘ will no longer put their creative minds together to bring out, month after month, that compendium of insanity, cheekiness and satire, casting a skew-eyed look at the foibles of the world and its big shots, celebrities, film stars and most of all, politicians.

The news has been mourned everywhere. Generations of youngsters have been reared on it, and truth be told, their worldview has been warped — in a healthy way — to allow them to make sense of everything that goes on around them. No ego is too big to skewer, no pretensions too small to prick. It takes one back to a long time ago, when MAD was an integral part of one's reading diet, as much as inexpensive Soviet publications, representing two opposite poles of the spectrum.

For a schoolboy growing up in urban India, the 1970s were a mixed bag. The political turmoil, the economic sluggishness and the social upheaval all loomed large and cast a shadow in the background; but at the same time, life was more innocent, with a lot of time for leisurely pursuits.

Adults talked about agitating students and political splits and there was no escaping food shortages and other economic hardships even for the salaried classes. Yet, childhood and adolescence were about simple pleasures, such as games, movies (with ice cream), books and the most wonderful of them all, comics. (These are now called ‘graphic novels' with the accompanying gravitas). Among the funnies was MAD.

In that quite obviously pre-internet era, books were a lifeline for those interested in the world. Television was relatively new. TV broadcasts started in Mumbai (then Bombay) though Delhi already enjoyed a few hours of programming. TV sets were expensive and everyone landed up uninvited at the home of the better-off neighbour who had acquired one. But books were a solitary pleasure, opening up a private universe to dive into.

A younger person craved for something more popular, even trashy.

The voracious reader did not need to spend money to buy books — every neighborhood had a ‘circulating library" which stocked bestsellers, pulp crime novels and foreign magazines, which were expensive or simply not available.

Many homes subscribed to Readers' Digest and even perhaps National Geographic, but while these were worthy in their own way, a younger person craved for something more popular, even trashy. MAD magazine fit the bill. It was not exactly trash — far from it, and looking at those issues now, one realizes how intelligently put together it was — but it was certainly not edifying enough for adults who would have wanted their children to read more high-minded stuff. The children, in turn, loved MAD for its juvenilia and biting satire that spared nobody.

We were all devoted fans of Alfred E. Neuman, with his gap-toothed grin, somewhat goofy but with quiet intelligence in the eyes, as if he was laughing at the absurdity of it all but still harboring hope. "What, me worry?" was his catch line and our slogan – he was telling us that the only way to understand the world was to look at it upside down.

The names of the contributors, after all these years, still slip off the tongue easily: Mort Drucker for his superb drawings in the movie spoofs (‘The Oddfather", ‘Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid", ‘Antenna on the Roof"), Al Jaffee on his fold-ins, Dave Berg for a wry look at the American way of life, Sergio Aragones and his marginals, ‘Spy vs. Spy", the biting take on the Cold War by Antonio Prohias and above all, Don Martin with his onomatopoeic renditions. Who doesn't remember the spitting contest gag? Only one Indian cartoonist, Sudhir Dar, made it to MAD, with a few drawings featuring cows and the like — he was called ‘A Tasty Indian Nut".

A 1970 Sudhir Dar cartoon

It wasn't immediately apparent to a young reader then, but MAD often provided more insight into American popular culture and politics than the big, mainstream media. A few strokes of the brush and a lot of witty writing offered a take that was immediately relatable, cutting through the clutter of the mainstream press and television channels.

President Nixon was a particular favorite, and MAD was in the forefront of nailing him, in one memorable instance putting him on the cover in a spoof on the movie The Sting, and calling it ‘the big con."

Indians have a sense of humor, but our leaders don't.

For us, in far away India, MAD was a window to America, providing an off-kilter perspective, no doubt, but an alternative view to the other publications that came our way. It did not harm our view of the country, which was then mired in a war in Southeast Asia and was not seen as a particularly close friend of India.

If anything, it reflected a robust public culture that allowed criticism. We read MAD because it spoke to us, in a language we understood, not just about America, but about universal values of liberalism and because it busted phoniness of all kind.

India could do with its own MAD — this was a common thought among many people who felt that our big shots needed to be brought down a peg or two. Someone started Deewana, first in Hindi, then English, which had its own version of Alfred E. Neuman, and all the regular columns, including film spoofs. It was a valiant effort but did not last long.

I have often wondered why there are no local equivalents of MAD, Private Eye or even Le Canard enchaîné? The last two also feature hard-hitting investigative journalism along with sharply observed satire. To me, the answer is clear — Indians have a sense of humor, but our leaders don't. If they cannot tolerate even mild criticism in the newspapers, they would be enraged at any satire that makes fun of them.

MAD"s moment is gone. With the plethora of alternatives available, especially online, millennials have many more distractions. Magazines are dying out. MAD TV remained a modest success and the digital version is just one of the millions of websites clamoring for attention. It's possible too that the younger reader just doesn't "get it," and may find MAD"s humor puerile (it is, that's why it's great.) Besides, people also take offense easily — that will obviously constrain true satire. It's also true that the way the world is going today, the leaders that have emerged are parody-proof.

For a different generation — baby boomer, flower children, whatever they are called — who are now heading to senior citizen status, MAD remains a totem, not just a quaint cultural artefact but a guiding light to make sense of a topsy-turvy world.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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