Read between the laugh lines: Manjeet Sarkar

India’s first Dalit stand-up comedian, Manjeet Sarkar takes the stage for his show, Untouchable, and gives us some food for thought
Manjeet Sarkar
Manjeet Sarkar

"I am a Dalit. I am easily recognisable,” Manjeet Sarkar tells us. On a wooden dais on a rough and ready stage at Aaromale, standup comedian Manjeet Sarkar is holding forth to an appreciative Hyderabad audience. His show, Untouchable is for everyone — people who have lived through casteism and those who haven’t. While the former feels pain, the latter feels empathy for the ‘other-ed.’ One can only hope that the latter understands what it means to live like the former. Manjeet doesn’t talk about politics in his show and yet people call him political.

We don’t have to guess why. “I talk about caste, right? It’s uncomfortable but offers us something to think about,” he tells us. Does the crowd laugh owing to this dilemma? But, it is for sure that Manjeet, who is the first Dalit comedian in India, gets the last laugh. In his Nehru jacket, he may not ‘look’ like a lead, but Manjeet — who is getting laughs from poking fun at India’s caste system — belongs to a community, problematically called, ‘untouchables’.

In contemporary India, Dalits, positioned at the lowest rung of the Hindu social hierarchy, continue to endure discrimination, exclusion, and poverty. Despite the official ban on ‘untouchability’ by the Indian constitution, Dalits often find themselves confined to menial jobs, including scavenging and cleaning sewers, both in rural and urban areas. This persistent marginalisation is a stark reminder of the deep-rooted social stratification, where individuals belonging to the so-called ‘upper-caste’ category assert their supremacy over those in the lower echelons of India’s entrenched social system. If black comedy can be a forte, so can Dalit comedy. Manjeet didn’t venture into comedy, thinking he would bring an uprising. “I am just telling my story,” he says.

Manjeet hails from Kondagaon, a district in Chhattisgarh. Situated at the border of Odisha and Chhattisgarh, it is a tribal region that has been a longstanding battleground between the far-left Maoist guerrilla fighters, commonly referred to as Naxalites and the Indian state. This area witnesses a significant presence of security forces deployed from Delhi, and the conflict in Kondagaon continues to persist, marked by ongoing clashes and widespread human rights violations.

“I talk about my reality like nobody else does. My childhood was fine to me, even if people may not find it ideal. Studying was the only way forward. I didn’t go to college as I felt inferior. I discovered comedy, learned to speak good English and Hindi and tried to overcome my underconfidence,” he adds. The 26-year-old Bengaluru-based comedian has always loved history. On the day of his first open mic, he borrowed a bike to travel 200 kilometres from Bhubaneswar to Berhampore. The journey was arduous, with his mind constantly preoccupied by thoughts of his pending back-paper exams.

Perhaps, to calm himself down, he recalled documentaries on civil wars, Dave Chappelle’s talk about Malcolm X, Varun Grover’s comedy — how there is still hope, how there always will be hope. “I may have felt inferior and been quiet all my life, but I have things to say. I used to skip lunch to save money on travel, and do internships, work as a copywriter to sustain myself,” Manjeet tells us. The artiste will also perform in Bangkok observing the 75th anniversary of UN Human Rights this December.

Tickets at `499. November 11, 8 pm. At Aaromale — Café & Creative Community, Jubilee Hills. —  chokita@newindianexpress.com @PaulChokita

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