The young girl’s boss was a large man who had returned to India recently, having worked in Berlin. Like most bosses who have worked abroad, he was unpleasant. One afternoon in the conference room, he got an asthma attack. The Berlin Bully crumbled. Male colleagues held him, groaning under his corpulence, a result of innumerable sausages chomped over the years. Someone went looking for an asthma spray. The girl, too junior to directly help, stood around.
Then the boss started wheezing and a strange thing happened. The girl started to laugh.
“I found the wheezing funny. I simply could not stop laughing,” she says. “There was some tissue paper around which I stuffed in my mouth. The tissues and willpower saved me that day.”
The girl is prone to inappropriate giggling. It is a problem, yet a blessing. Insensitive to others, but fun for the perpetrator. Of all types of laughter, it is the most enjoyable. This is because it is forbidden. Unlike other illicit pleasures, however, people do not partake of it intentionally. It visits them and not the other way around. Their body does it even if they don’t want it to. So, don’t take it personally.
The more serious the situation, the harder they laugh. They shove the handkerchief in the mouth as a dam against the waves of laughter rising from the belly. They think of dead people or visualise themselves in old age, without teeth. They summon the memory of the maths test in which they got nine marks out of 100. Yet, it does not always help.
The drawing room of the house of this religious family was full of people in a serious mood. Among them was their newly-minted son-in-law. He did not know what exactly was about to happen. But he was not worried. “Perhaps another dumb ritual. Will get it over and done with,” he thought. He closed his eyes and folded his hands, thinking, for some reason, about toy scooters. Suddenly, a deep voice emanated from a woman in the room. She started to shake. Her eyes were half closed. The Holy Spirit had seized her. The other women in the house started singing bhajans, tunelessly. Some wept.
A fear gripped the son-in-law. He knew he would not be able to take this. An untimely explosion of laughter seemed imminent. But something happened. Some of the ample divinity in the room smiled on him. Biting the lips (the Heimlech manoeuvre of inappropriate gigglers), clenching fists and rocking on the feet, he managed to ride the storm out.
There is a girl who believes that prevention is the best cure and simply avoids looking at potentially funny things. Like her father-in-law’s glasses, especially during a pooja. He wears bifocal lenses because of which he is forced to look at things from over the rim of the glasses. She finds this funny. At other times, she manufactures jokes so that she gets an excuse to laugh.
“I work with film people. I found it funny when a beauty pageant winner turned actress kept referring to cheating spouses as ‘infidels’,” she says. “It was a serious conversation, but I made a contrived joke. I had to release the laughter.”
Inappropriate gigglers can laugh even at their own parents. Sometimes, right after being shouted at by them. This happened to a young man a few years ago, when he was still a boy. His father screamed at him. It was severe. His father called him “worthless”. And that was among the milder titles he conferred upon his son. The boy’s cousin was home too. So it hurt more. The air was tense. No one spoke. The atmosphere was such where you go to the bathroom just to breathe. The kids wished the doorbell would ring and a guest would walk in. Immediately, the mood would change. The father would entertain the guest and the boys would be free. No such thing happened.
Around evening, however, the boy’s parents started to watch a movie. They got engrossed in it. At one point it seemed they would soon enter the TV set. The cousin noticed this and found it funny. He gestured to the son. The son did not find it that funny, yet started to laugh (the other thing about giggling at the wrong time—it’s contagious). Luckily, they were sitting at the back of the room, behind the elders. At one stage they were laughing so much they had to bite into pillows. For a while they managed to keep it silent, but at one point there was a sound. The father turned. The kids felt like the zoo-zoo in the telecom service ad whose phone ring wakes up a crocodile.
“Why are you laughing?” he asked.
“Um... er… the film has so many songs,” the cousin said. It was a weak defence. But they got away with it.
Human odours are the other laughter triggers, though unpleasant ones. Gas is a common problem on public transportation, like local trains. It is amusing to scan the compartment for the culprit. You just know when you find him. (Usually it’s the guy who continues to do the crossword while everyone else around him is collapsing from the attack).
Sometimes, laughter is set off by vague factors, ones that you cannot put a finger on. At times, a little incident provokes a huge reaction. During a work meeting, a senior staffer tried to pour ketchup on his plate. When nothing came out, the old man gave the plastic bottle a bigger jerk. After a few tries, the small red cap attached at the nozzle fell on his plate. He had been trying to pour ketchup with the cap on. Two colleagues present at the meeting have for years been laughing at the story.
Why do rational human beings laugh when they should not? Or when there is little reason to?
Dr Yusuf Matcheswala, a psychiatrist in Mumbai, answers the question, starting surprisingly with a remembrance of Mrs Abhishek Bachchan. “Giggling reminds us of Aishwarya Rai, doesn’t it?” he chuckles before explaining, “People laugh out of nervousness or anxiety, or when they are in denial of something traumatic, like a near one’s death. You also have those with hypomania, which is a state of euphoria. Then there are those who simply have an ebullient personality. They see the funny side to everything.”
A bout of giggles is like the mother-in-law. When it visits, it does not leave in a hurry. The only thing that you can do is minimise the damage. You either control your laughter or conceal it. The things people do to achieve either are amusing on their own. As mentioned above, many think of dead relatives. Some chant the Gayatri Mantra. Remembering random chemistry terms, like H2SO4 or Dobereiner’s Law of Triads, is worth trying.
When the methods that involve thinking fail, one could attempt the physical solutions. Always keep a notepad handy. A notepad is a giggler’s insulin. Adopt a posture like The Thinker’s, resting your chin and mouth in your palm, and scribble. Write anything. Maybe an essay on ‘Why no stripper will be named Romila’. The marketing guy talking in a fake American accent at an unnecessary meeting might just be deceived into thinking you are taking his nonsense seriously. Mobile phones are a boon. When you feel the man opposite you in the train is thinking of hitting you, look at your phone, adjust your earphones and pretend that you were laughing at a joke on air, not his continuing satisfaction with himself for securing the window seat.
There are occasions when all attempts fail. You are beyond control and laugh shamelessly. At a badminton camp in the 90s, the photographer who had to take the players’ group picture was a dwarf. He took the picture standing on a stool. There was no need to say ‘cheese’. In the print of the photo, even the coach, usually too polite to laugh at someone, is seen grinning helplessly.