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The last laugh came all too soon

JUST FOR a laugh, my friend Tara and I woke before dawn and took my car to a park on the far side of the Yamuna river. Such behaviour runs counter to our natures, as both of us are night owls and slugabeds, but we were literally looking for laughs.

Our destination was Noida - the New Okhla Industrial Development Area - a name not usually associated with comic possibilities.

But we had heard that in this vast commuters' suburb adjacent to Delhi, you can awake to the sound of laughter - not the playground shrieks of tiny kids but deep resonating hoots of 50 adults who gather on the grass at dawn for laughter therapy.

As a wake-up call, it must be superior to an alarm. If it is a sense of humour that gives our species its humanity, this would be the defining sound effect. We wanted to check it out. Forget the cosmic giggle and go for the belly laugh.

Our search led us to Colonel H K Singh, a retired army officer. He was keen on this new-fangled therapy, even though it seems to be based on the tired truism of "laugh and the world laughs with you". But laughing in unison, at nothing? Was this some new-age joke marketing the wisdom of the East back to itself?

"There are no jokes, just guffaws," Col Singh explained. "This kind of laughing is contagious. It is supposed to ease tensions. Very good for the health. The first group I ever heard of started up on a Bombay beach but now there are hundreds."

Personally, though, Col Singh had yet to turn out for one of these public laugh-ins.

It was because the timetable for these sessions is no laughing matter, according to Renu, Col Singh's Noida neighbour. Occasionally, she hears hearty laughs wafting in through her window while she is still under her covers.

"It is a joyful noise," she smiled. "But they do this very, very early, between five and six in the morning." Her dreams are stirred by this laugh track, but she sleeps on.

As the birds emitted their first chirps, Tara and I wondered what possible reasons to be cheerful existed at this hour. Mosquitoes feasted on our ankles. Local health alerts are out for dengue fever and even dropsy - a swelling disease of leaky blood vessels more familiar from Raj-era gravestones.

Already 47 dropsy deaths in Delhi, and more than a thousand cases in hospital have been traced to profiteers who top up cooking oil tins with used motor oil. The victims frequently go blind. If this wasn't enough to make us feel vulnerable, there's the nuclear peril following tit-for- tat atomic testing by India and Pakistan. Such worries are not so easy to laugh off. Maybe a wailing session would be more appropriate.

By the time we crossed the bridge - passing up the opportunity to breakfast on fried and thereby possibly poisonous parathas - we felt annoyed to be in Noida instead of in bed. But following Col Singh's directions, we found the public park at dawn in a state of hyper-animation, with hundreds of energetic people greeting the sun.

Entire families, balanced with yogic contortions on motor scooters, dismounted for a brisk walk round the track. Office clerks and middle-aged women in saris wheezed through their morning calisthenics. Vigorous youths did kung fu warm-ups while others flung frisbees or practised football. A yogi with lank white hair twisted himself into a tight pretzel.

On the lawn beside him sat a small group ready to laugh. Chortles, sniggers or titters won't do for this therapy: what's required is classic cachination, a jolly loud burst from the solar plexus. It sounds nothing like the mocking or nervous laughter we usually hear. It is uproarious ... but, in this case, puzzlingly brief. After a half dozen laughing outbursts, they stopped abruptly. Next, everyone flipped on to all fours, stuck out their tongues, arched their necks, and began to roar.

We loitered at the edge of the lawn, the only ones not actively pursuing self-improvement. Tara toyed with a cigarette but didn't dare light up, though the smoke might have warded off the mosquitoes.

As soon as the class broke up, we asked about laughter therapy. It is useful for breath control, the yogi told us with a dour expression, but he preferred to teach only traditional yoga postures. A woman suggested brightly: "You should try laughter therapy in sector 15, just around the block. By now, today's session is finished, but you can come tomorrow." Tara rolled her eyes and whispered: "I guess the laugh's on us."