Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Laugh out louder

If we were to deconstruct Pammi Aunty, the Punjabi mother-in-law who has taken over social media, what does it say about us?

Written by Parvati Sharma |
August 28, 2016 1:00:07 am
Ssumier S Pasricha aka Pammi aunty Ssumier S Pasricha aka Pammi aunty

The other day, my aunt and uncle, my mother, sister and I were driving out to dinner, doing what families do on such long journeys: discussing the details of our days, and gossiping. But Delhi traffic is such that it will sap all joy from the most convivial conversation, and at some point we lapsed into silence, staring gloomily at the gridlock around us. Then, my aunt said, “Have you all seen the new Pammi Aunty?”

Immediately, the air changed. We hadn’t seen it, and so my aunt proceeded to recount it for us (and recount it, I will add, past any accusations of bias, in pitch-perfect style) — so the rest of the way we were laughing uncontrollably, and hardly noticed when we reached our destination.

In the last few weeks, since Pammi Aunty entered our WhatsApp groups and our conversations, we have all become fans, and in this we are hardly alone. Ssumier S Pasricha’s middle-aged housewife, purple towel wrapped jauntily around her head, speaking boisterous Punjabi with acerbic wit, detailing the travails of everyday existence in Delhi’s Model Town, has acquired thousands of followers and lakhs of views. Much like Mallika Dua’s demanding, disenchanted regular at Make-up Didi’s, Pammi Aunty has a strangely immersive quality: she lodges herself in your mind, and comes alive.

Recently, to a friend complaining about bad network, I said, “Well, that’s why you have ads of people making calls from jungles and mountaintops — you can’t get any signal at home.” Only later did I realise that I’d been quoting Pammi Aunty. (She gets on the subject while proposing a match for her eternal friend Sarla behenji’s daughter Dinky. The boy’s family installs cell phone towers: “Tuade ghar de kamre-kamre vich tower lag jaan hain… ghar baithe gallan karoge tusi, hor ki!” (“You’ll have a tower in every room… you’ll be sitting at home, chatting away!”)

What makes Pammi Aunty funny? There’s no point asking: deconstructing comedy is like dissecting a goose for its golden eggs; you end up with a messy floor and no laughs. But maybe there’s some point in wondering what makes middle-aged mothers such endless founts of humour — the mother in Goodness Gracious Me who’ll cook all the exotic food you crave “at home, for nothing”, save a small aubergine; Moni Mohsin’s frippery Butterfly; the sub-genre of “desi parent” skits on YouTube, in which comedians like Zaid Ali and Lilly Singh routinely drape duppattas on their heads, summon a steely expression, and turn into sub-continental mothers.

The general consensus is that these depictions are “real”: articles on Pammi Aunty call her authentic, typical, everyday. Pasricha himself has said that “Pammi Aunty is in every house we have grown up in”.

But the circumstances of Pammi Aunty’s typical life are not particularly funny. She was bullied by her in-laws (her saas measured how much soap she used to bathe) and she now bullies her own noo (daughter-in-law) with breast-beating glee — though the poor girl’s only fault seems to be that she married Pammi Aunty’s precious Timmy, acquired an MBA, and once — once! — made a foiled attempt at jaadu-tona on Pammi Aunty at the local Shani mandir, while Pammi Aunty was plotting with Hanumanji next door. She despises her own daughter Sweety’s mother-in-law, however, and maintains a scathing contempt for jeths and deors, and a cynical mistrust of devranis and jethanis.

Like Butterfly, she combines fierce and protective insularity with a vague grasp of world affairs: the news has no meaning unless it has immediate, personal resonance (Brexit will send all its boys back to Model Town; Donald Trump and Sweety’s saas share a tendency to complain endlessly, and would benefit from a bit of calming yoga).

If this is typical, it’s also a bit sad; and if I sound needlessly jaundiced, keep a stiff drink by your side when you read Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s dirge for the best known blue-haired mother of all time, Marge Simpson. “Does Marge have any friends?” it begins, before imagining for Marge an emotional wasteland of unspoken loneliness and despair.

Given Pammi Aunty’s dizzying orbit of temples and kitty parties, weddings and funerals, her endless conversations with Sarla behenji — probably the best listener on the internet — it’s hard to imagine her lonely. But through the whirl runs an undercurrent of anxiety and one-upmanship, as, for example, in “Friendship’s day disaster”, when Sarla behenji is invited to four wedding functions, and Pammi Aunty to only two (“Saari salaavan mere kolon, te public nu card!” she mutters, before declaiming, “Jaayegi meri jooti!” — “Come to me for advice, then invite all the riff-raff!”). Sweety lives in America and Timmy makes only one appearance, looking like he wished he were elsewhere. Her husband always is.

When I began watching Pasricha’s videos, I wondered why he wasn’t doing Pammi Uncle; I was a little irritated, even, by a man playing a stereotypically gossipy, small-minded housewife for laughs. But now I think about it, Pammi Aunty and her ilk have depths, both comedic and tragic, that no Pammi Uncle could realise. For one thing, there’s only so much humour you can dredge out of a paunch waxing monosyllabic at the TV news; for another, older women, mothers and grandmothers, combine in them a peculiar mixture of grit and vulnerability that alloys into dramatic gold.

The scene my aunt enacted for us, for example, begins with louds shrieks that frighten Pammi Aunty awake in the dead of night. She hurries out, only to find her silly noo in tears because Germany lost the Euro Cup. “Germany may have lost,” says Pammi Aunty, unmoved, “But your mother’s still alive, isn’t she?” In any case, she sighs to Sarla behenji, the girl only does it for show, she doesn’t even know how many wicket keepers and bowlers there are in a game!

The joke, amongst other things, is that Pammi Aunty thinks footballs are kicked through wickets, which may be a stretch but is also the rub. That old mothers don’t know basic things — Facebook, modern love, slang — is a joke as old as families. But beneath it plays a deeper chord: they do know things; they know what an overreaction is, they know when someone’s showing off, they know, as you will realise long after the fact, which one of your modern lovers never really loved you.

Only the very young would laugh at Pammi Aunty, only the relatively weathered can laugh with her. For the rest of us, we laugh when struck by her — typical, authentic, everyday — weave of knowingness and innocence. And so, maybe, we laugh a little at ourselves, for thinking we know better, when, in truth, the joke’s on us.

Parvati Sharma is the author of Dead Camel and Other Tales of Love, Close to Home and more recently, The Story of Babur.

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