When loud, mocking, female laughter was heard in Parliament, Vice President Venkaih Naidu chided the boisterous MP Renuka Chowdhury, asking her what was wrong with her, did she need a doctor? To which Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked him to let her be, since he hadn’t had the good fortune of hearing such laughter since the serial Ramayan.
The comment was made in jest, but Union Minister Kiren Rijiju posted a video clip of the cackling demoness Shurpanakha from the Ramayan. Social media was in an uproar, though Chowdhury was not directly called a demoness. Why did Rijiju and so many on Twitter assume the reference to laughter had to be directed at Surpanakha? Because according to the rules for women in Indian culture, good women do not laugh loudly. So, it could not have been Sita, Urmila, or even Mandodari, right?
Good women do not laugh at men, and if they do, it is a disaster. Shurpanakha’s lust and arrogance led to Laxman cutting off her nose, which led to the abduction of Sita, and the war to rescue her.
When Draupadi laughed at Duryodhan for taking a tumble into a pool in the palace of illusions, he was so insulted and enraged he found a way to insult her in court with the ‘vastraharan’ and eventually pitted the Pandavas against the Kauravas in the destructive Kuruskshetra War.
Good women laugh softly if at all they do, they must cover their mouths and not bare their teeth. Even in English, the words for women expressing amusement is giggle or chuckle, while men guffaw and chortle. The onus of shame is on the woman — the line sharm aur haya to aurat ka gehna hai (shame and shyness is a woman’s jewel) was heard so often in Hindi films. The roadside Romeo believes, “Hasee to phasee” — if she laughs, it means she is trapped. The nice guy sings “Hans mat pagli pyaar ho jaa-yega” — Don’t laugh, silly, or I will fall in love.
Award-winning poet Lisel Mueller wrote:
The laughter of women sets fire
to the Halls of Injustice
and the false evidence burns
to a beautiful white lightness
It rattles the Chambers of Congress
and forces the windows wide open
so the fatuous speeches can fly out
The laughter of women wipes the mist
from the spectacles of the old;
it infects them with a happy flu
and they laugh as if they were young again
Prisoners held in underground cells
imagine that they see daylight
when they remember the laughter of women
It runs across water that divides,
and reconciles two unfriendly shores
like flares that signal the news to each other
What a language it is, the laughter of women,
high-flying and subversive.
Long before law and scripture
we heard the laughter, we understood freedom.
The wonderful poem encapsulates why men continue to fear the laughter of women. They don’t see it as amusement but subversion.
A few days later, Manohar Parrikar, Chief Minister of the most progressive state of Goa, commented, “I have begun to fear now, because even girls have started drinking beer.” He is still being trolled on social media. Girls drink stronger stuff than beer if they want to, some are still reticent enough to hide their booze in soft drinks. But that’s not the point, if he is against alcohol then why target only woman? Men who drink are more dangerous — they brawl, harass women, and cause accidents when they drive.
But then again, in our culture good girls don’t drink. It says in the Manusmriti (the cause of half the problems Indian women face!): Consuming liquor, association with wicked persons, separation from her husband and sleeping for unreasonable hours — are demerits of women. Such women are not loyal and have extra marital relations with men because of their passion for men, immutable temper and heartlessness.” Needless to add, a sexually liberated woman can be a social hazard!
In some of our old films, if a woman wanted to make a man hate her, she would pretend to drink. Remember the song, “Aur zara si de de saqi” sung by Sadhna in Inteqam and Haan ji haan, maine sharab pi hai by Hema Malini in Seeta Aur Geeta? By the time Kajol danced to Zara sa jhoom loon main — having drunk by mistake — in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, she was risking her chastity by getting
drunk — if the guy with her was not a good Indian man, he would surely have taken advantage of her!
And to top male idiocy for the month, Sabyasachi Mukherjee is reported to have said that women who can’t drape saris should be ashamed of themselves.
So, women who wear trousers (or skirts or salwars), drink beer and laugh loudly,
may need a doctor, even though this is 2018 and not 1918.
The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author.