Tag Archives: laughter

The Venus Flytrap: Nothing To Laugh About

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It was the middle-aged waiter’s sweetly apologetic tone and awkward phrasing that gave him away. Clearly, he was not the one with the objection. He was only the messenger.

This is what he said: “You have independence. But please, laugh a little quietly?” Sudhandhiram – the Tamil word for independence; he knew he was infringing on our rights, and he wanted us to know that he was sorry. We were two women who had finished a long lunch, eaten three types of dessert, and paid the bill. We were loitering, already considered a suspect activity for women. Ladies loitering while laughing loudly. Someone – patron or staff or management – had found this worthy of reprimand.

I have a big laugh. People recognise me by it in crowded auditoriums. Strangers turn to look upon hearing it (possibly to check they haven’t wandered into the set of a horror movie). I do not cover my mouth with a dupatta when I laugh. I do not usually wear a dupatta, in fact, because I don’t believe that anything should be covered unless in the interest of weather or aesthetics, rather than decorum.

I’ve jumped ahead a few paces because there’s something you and I, and everyone in this uncomfortable status quo, knows axiomatically. No one would have dared to go up to a chuckling man about to leave a restaurant and told him (politely or otherwise) to can it.

A woman who makes her presence felt – merely through function, existence or expression – in a public space is a public nuisance. And a woman who does not invisibilise herself makes her presence felt. Anywhere. Women who breastfeed on overnight buses. Girls who sweat through their football jerseys until their coloured sports bras show. Women who have to buy three movie tickets just so that no one sits on either side of them. Women who scream for help through thin walls while the neighbours turn the TV up louder.

I believe in silence in libraries and in meditation halls. I believe public walls should not be pissed against, and bhajans shouldn’t be played on loudspeakers. These are courtesies. They affect large numbers of people as they study, reflect, commute, sleep. They are intersections at which personal liberties can infringe on others. They are not gendered. Not even the open urination thing.

In conversations about women in public spaces, the topic we discuss the most is safety. In this painfully unequal world of ours, it is a concern. But a group of four women will still be asked, “Are you out alone?” (“No, each of us is out with three other people for company”). This is because the conversation has yet to extend to the notion of rights to public space. To be there, basically. To step into a public space should not mean giving up one’s autonomy over one’s body, voice or mobility. It should not mean adjusting (that delightful term used for everything from marriages to train bunks to bra straps) one’s very presence so that it looks, sounds and seems more like an absence.

In a world that makes one weep, we must take every chance to laugh out loud.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Die Laughing

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The funniest story I have heard in weeks is a tragedy. It’s presented as a true story (but repeated so often and to such effect that it has surely taken on some less than fact-faithful colouring). The storyteller, a magical man named Rane who summons strange things out of drums, knew someone who had an infection on his leg, which somehow landed him in a coma. The leg turned gangrenous, and in his unconscious state the family was told that they could either amputate or wait for him to die. The festering limb was promptly chopped off. The amputee, out of that danger but still unconscious, spent a few more weeks languishing in his scary siesta. And one day, he woke up, all damn cool, cool as the cucumber he had lain like for those weeks, threw his bedsheets off, looked down at his missing leg, and died of shock.

I wish I could tell you this story as deliciously as it was told to me. Suffice to say that of the many, many funny stories the magical drummer shares, this one was by far the most uproarious. It’s not surprising – macabre humour might quite possibly be the best kind. Deep down, we love laughing at our own wretchedness and mortality. And we love pretending to be shocked by our capacity to.

Nothing illustrates this better than the dead baby joke. When I first discovered them on the net, I was horrified. What kind of gruesome mind could make light of such calamity? The images were repugnant – “How do you make a dead baby float? Take your foot off of its head”; “Why is there always hot water at childbirth? In case of a stillbirth, soup.”; “What’s the difference between a baby and a dart-board?
Dart-boards don’t bleed”.

I didn’t realise until I’d read a long list of them that I had kind of been chuckling away, transfixed by the sheer horror of it all and unable to stop reading.

Schadenfreude may be one reason why we’re able to delight in off-colour jokes. Just as watching a violent movie can be a cathartic release, we’re able to explore the sinister aspects of our psyches through macabre humour. That part of us that is capable of evil – and we are all capable of evil – gets a vicarious spin. Once the initial shock wears off, a certain sordid pleasure sets in. It’s the same one you get upon finding that everyone at the table is bitching about the same person you’ve been silently seething about, and you can just stay coy, no longer having to play the gossipmonger. I would never squeeze babies into a bottle just to see how many it would take to make “baby oil”, but in reading the joke, my mind saw it, felt it, and released the need to ever consider the question out of its own volition.

There’s a bit more gallows humour to the story of the man who rose from a coma and died of a heart attack, because of who the story came from. Rane himself had once sustained a head injury, gotten arrested, and was sent for a medical check-up upon his release. Grave results were expected, and his father spent the whole week fearing the very worst. They were, as it happened, truly shocking – Rane was given the all-clear, and his father was so relieved that he died of a heart attack.

We looked around the table at that point and tried to show some sympathy.

The truth is, we all nearly died laughing.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.