This article originally appeared on VICE India.
It is 6.30 a.m and I’m at the Japanese Rose Garden in the Indian city of Nagpur, a hotbed for morning activities for at least a couple of hundred people who come here to exercise, socialise, jog or pretend to jog. I’m standing in front of “Guruji”, officially the president of the Central India Laughter Club, but from the looks of it, a charismatic cult leader.
In front of Guruji, about 50 people stand in white circles imprinted on the ground at safe intervals to ensure social distancing. Dawn has just broken but there isn’t a single yawn in sight—only forced laughter. In his booming voice, Guruji sermonises, “If you’re ever summoned by Yamraj (the Lord of Death), tell him to get the fuck away from you and come back in 10 years. Why? Because you go to a laughter club and laughing adds 10 years to your life. So, everyone ready?”
The Central India Laughter Club is one among many “laughter clubs” in India, a common sight in most cities and one you’re bound to stumble upon if you’re into early morning jogs in/around parks. Some call it laughter yoga, but what it essentially is is a series of breathing and relaxation techniques followed by forced laughter. This hinges on the science that says that laughing—even if fake—has tons of benefits, including improved heart rate and immune system function, lowered blood pressure, reduced stress hormone production, and elevated pain tolerance. This therapeutic exercise is a favourite amongst a senior demographic, and is also popular in other Asian countries like Japan and Thailand. Founded by a physician called Madan Kataria way back in 1995, its basic premise is that laughter literally is the best medicine, even if it’s a forced guffaw. Regardless of how funny anything is, we’re more likely to laugh when we hear laughter. It’s been proven that laughter is contagious, as we know from so many unfunny TV shows like The Big Bang Theory that are watchable only because of laugh tracks in the background.
Back in the park, Guruji changes the geography of his face out of nowhere as if it’s the Indo-China border, breaks into a wide grin, and sings, “aee aee aee” followed by raucous, unbridled laughter from his attendees. He goes on to do the “lawn mower laugh”, in which you rev up with giggles to build momentum before unleashing laughter that sounds like a running motor. He follows this up with “rhythm laughter” in which you change the intonation of your sound, with your laughter rising and falling to sync with the dancing hand of Guruji.
He apologetically explains to the group that the “gibberish exercise”, in which you loudly babble with your tongue and lips has been banned for now. Despite being a crowd favourite, it increases the chances of sending spitballs flying around and with the pandemic still raging in a country that is in the top three list of the worst hit countries, that’s too big a risk for even those gathering in groups.
Strictly ensuring that people stay in their designated spaces, Guruji keeps reiterating that we have to be cautious. But I look around, and see just a handful of people in masks. Before the session started, when I was waiting for everyone to assemble, I was stopped in my tracks by a man sprawled on a park bench. Next to him were women hula hooping and an old man contorting in implausible Yoga positions. “Why the hell are you wearing a mask, bro?” the man asked me. “At your age, your immunity is so strong that if you eat stones, you’ll shit bricks.” His comment was reflective of the general attitude some of the people around had about masks, which were either absent or dangling from their necks.
But as a young person in a park with a largely older demographic, wearing a mask was the least I could do. I was already risking the lives of others around me by having a community experience––which in the COVID-19 age can be lethal. With large gatherings banned in India, the usual avenues that give you the illusion of being a part of humanity––parties, weddings, movies, concerts, eating out––are shut off to the public (legally), which is cornered in isolation and starved for a sense of community. The laughter clubs function in this grey area of legality as well for now, where they continue unhindered by cops because of the basic social distancing guidelines they follow but also, in a grey area because gatherings of groups are actually banned countrywide.
I ask a particularly jovial gentleman, whose laughter resounds at such an astounding volume and bass that it can be heard even outside the garden, whether he feels the need to wear a mask while laughing into a crowd. Flummoxed at my question, he answers “No, not at all. We all ought to do that in large gatherings since it’s also a government order. But I have a positive attitude and so, I’m fully free from this fear.”
His confidence and optimism momentarily made me a COVID denier before sense prevailed and I tightened my mask to save the life of this old, smiling uncle. I’m such a hero! To get a sense of how the situation was in cities with more numbers of COVID-19 cases, I checked with friends in Mumbai who informed me that laughing sessions have now moved online—which is great for safety, but not quite for “spontaneous” laughter. When I asked friends in New York about the laughter clubs around them, they were convinced that I was fucking with them by asking about this make-believe concept.
Laughing in public, easily one of the most fun activities in the pre-COVID world, has suddenly become a bit of a taboo. While it releases endorphins, it also ejects saliva droplets that are the perfect carrier for the virus, known to stay active for half an hour after the fall. When Guruji gave the count for the stretching exercises that precede the laughter routines, my paranoid mind thought of the countdown as keeping track of the limited time we might have because of the risks we’re exposing ourselves to. But I quickly remembered that Guruji had assured us we were adding 10 years to our lives by laughing, so maybe this all evens out with the risks, right?
“There are two types of laughter—one comes from a joke or a situation,” Guruji tells me after his morning session. “The second type of laughter, what we practice here, is natural. It involves laughing from the heart, and is very different from laughing because something is funny. I’d argue that this laughter is natural because it comes out only because you want to laugh, and not because something is making you laugh.”
He demonstrates his Lassi laughter, in which you hold two imaginary glasses and pour laughter like you’d pour lassi, a yoghurt-based drink, from one glass to another. “Everyone comes here in the morning fatigued from their everyday stress, and the purpose is just to give them respite from their worries. It provides a community experience while transporting you to a different, happier mental place altogether.”
Laughter in an imagined mental space sounds especially appealing in our country where comedy clubs are vandalised, and comics are threatened with violence and rape over jokes that address anything held sacrilegious by fragile citizens. As a stand-up comic myself, It’s painfully frustrating to see some people hold jokes by stand-up comics to factual standards, while not reserving the same scrutiny for TV journalists whose job is to inform, but who’ve been known to recklessly broadcast fake, unsubstantiated news that panders to those in power. Irony from comics is intentionally misconstrued to fit whatever agenda political leaders are trying to propagate to distract from what we should actually be discussing. A pattern has emerged over the last few months as orchestrated harassment campaigns are run against stand-up comics as old tweets dug up or stand-up segments on religion are taken out of context to incite right-wing, frenzied mobs.
In such an environment, laughter clubs seem like the way out to get one’s laughter fix. The main case for laughter clubs is that there’s laughter without a punchline. The laughter is the punchline. There can’t possibly be any controversy then either.
As I’m leaving, Guruji initiates another type of laughter, in which you look at an imaginary wristwatch, and laugh—as if almost laughing in disbelief at the times we’re living in. While it’s true that laughter connects people like no other activity, the disregard of masks by the people around me made it clear that this laughter wasn’t rooted in reality, and was possible only because of a wilful disconnect from reality.
But laughter is infectious, and so, despite my paranoia, I laugh. I laugh because others are laughing. Others laugh because I’m laughing. Even if we’re too fragile to deserve jokes, we can’t give up on laughter. But please, please, I beg of you (from a safe distance) to wear your mask!