Why Renuka Chowdhury’s laughter is more powerful than that of Modi coterie
While the Congress MP was laughing at PM’s ‘experiments with truth’, his rebuke was about patriarchy unsuccessfully silencing women who laugh.
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Our history and mythology are full of women punished for laughing. Laughing in an open court at the king’s follies, when everyone would rather please the emperor, is blasphemy, a written and/or unwritten code. Laughing at untruths peddled as fierce rhetoric, combatting willful instrumentalisation of historical ignorance to farcical and fearful ends is a heroine’s job. Standing out is a heroine’s way of being, laughing at the powerful whom no one dare displease is what she does for a living.
Renuka Chowdhury, Congress MP, 63, laughed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday (February 7), when he was delivering a speech in Rajya Sabha. He was going on and on about how Gandhi wanted a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, just like hours back in Lok Sabha he had claimed without Sardar Patel, Kashmir wouldn’t have been divided. These historical distortions, fraudulent claims, these lies, that PM Modi utters in Parliament, the highest legislating body in the country, in the garb of “roaring”, or “declaring war on the Nehru-Gandhis”, as much of the media would have us believe, are enough to drive anyone with a secondary school sense of history into peals of hysterical laughter.
On Twitter, historian Srinath Raghavan tweeted out the obvious “facts” of 1947 and the case of Kashmir, and many shared his words with a hearty laugh at the PM.
On the contrary, entire Kashmir might have been theirs. Patel was at one point willing to offer Kashmir to accede to Pakistan in return for Junagadh & Hyderabad's accession to India (1/n) https://t.co/atrZXv62Ts— Srinath Raghavan (@srinathraghava3) February 7, 2018
By August 1948, Patel thought that partition of Kashmir would offer a "permanent, immediate and realistic settlement". Nehru thought the same. But the Pakistan is rejected the idea. (5/n)— Srinath Raghavan (@srinathraghava3) February 7, 2018
Chowdhury laughed inside Parliament, in Rajya Sabha. While she was laughing, she was breaching “etiquette”, written down rules of good conduct, usually reserved to maintain order in the House, but also to preserve equality among the representatives. Yet, Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu interrupted PM Modi to chastise Chowdhury, saying he needed to report such “loose talk and unruly behaviour”. Naidu didn’t interrupt Modi once, or contradict his claims of counterfeit, his downright disgusting humiliation of the most luminous star in India’s historical firmament, Jawaharlal Nehru. Naidu interrupted to reprimand Chowdhury instead, give her sermons of discipline, egging on PM Modi in his act of hysterical fraudulence.
It was then PM Modi, in a matter of pointed rebuke, said the chairman mustn’t say anything to Chowdhury, because it was after a long time since Ramanad Sagar's Ramayan serial was aired, did they get to hear such a laughter. MoS home Kiren Rijiju tweeted out the clip, describing Chowdhury’s laugh as “vexatious”. Some headlines called it “cackling”, others reported how BJP national president and Rajya Sabha MP Amit Shah burst out laughing after Modi’s rebuke, along with the men and a few women in the upper House, laughing along, because they dare not laugh at.
Despite such vexatious laugh by Renuka Chaudhary ji PM Narendra Modi ji didn't get irritated. pic.twitter.com/pc5TGOYhZV— Kiren Rijiju (@KirenRijiju) February 8, 2018
There are many Ramayanas, but in the version most pleasing to the north Indian patriarchy that has a fetish for the warrior king Rama, the laughing women are not the female protagonists. Surpanakha, Ravana’s sister, supposedly laughed at Lakshmana, and had her nose cut off. Manthara, the hunchback aide to Kaikeyi, the middle queen, the muddle queen, of Dasharatha, perhaps laughed while whispering the lure of power and the throne into the queen’s ears. Laughing in Ramayana is akin to evil; laughing is dangerous because it liberates women from the rib cage of patriarchy. In turn, patriarchy, its scribes, retellers, turn them into deformed minds and bodies, monstrosities stinking of deeply racial stereotypes, making them responsible for what’s ultimately a challenge to the inevitability of primogeniture - eldest male succession - and male control of everything around.
In feminist rereadings of Ramayana, Sita laughs often, as she sings the blues, controls her womb, makes decisions. In male fantasy version of Ramayana, Sita immolates herself for the sake of her husband, to prove her chastity. However, in the superior epic that’s Mahabharata, the female protagonist Draupadi laughs a lot, menstruates, has sex with five men at least. Draupadi laughs at Duryodhana when he falls into a pool thinking it’s a crystal floor in a palace at Indraprastha. Duryodhana takes his revenge by having his younger brother try disrobe Draupadi in the court of king Dhritarashtra, before a manel of royal loyalists, some tied to the throne, some to sycophancy, turning away their gaze from the injustice. The Kuru clan gets decimated in a “just war”, desired by the Kurus themselves.
Not so much Ramayan, but this scene did play out in Mahabharat. The whole court of Dhritarashtra rebuked Draupadi because she had laughed at Duryodhan once. The clan was reduced to nothing soon after. May more women openly laugh at dictators, liars, pathetic insecure men. https://t.co/ygiUXPM34N— Angiography (@angshukanta) February 8, 2018
Laughing women appear in Greco-Roman myths. Helen (before she was of Troy) had laughed at the uncouth Menelaus, whom she was wedded to. She eloped with Paris, and Homer made her the peg on which to hang the male imperial and sexual insecurities. In The Laughter of Medusa, French feminist Helene Cixous wrote how the laughing woman is always the outlier, the biggest challenger to patriarchy’s self-replicating tropes. So, she must be turned into a demon, a gorgon. The laughing woman is seen as a castrator, an antithesis to the power of the male pen and the penis. Laughing women are punished by gods everywhere, turned into stone, raped, turned into animals, cast away, chained, imprisoned, rebuked, called a witch, bitch. Laughing women’s agency makes the gods shiver, so they take to collective punishment.
Even Milan Kundera, the great Czech writer of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Joke, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Immortality, Slowness, Laughable Loves - weaponised the male laughter at the powerful as worthy of his writerly attention, critical engagement. Female laughter deflated even men like Kundera; so characters like Zedna laugh but also complain, nag. Female solitude was erotic - but female laughter too challenging, too uncomfortable, in fact “emasculating”. Men laughing at men, or men becoming victims of the political consequences of their unscheduled laughter, men refusing to join in the chorus of orchestrated laughter, the theatre of cheerfulness at a totalitarian time - they happen to people Kundera’s universe of laughing men in a laughable world. But women are either props of that laughable world, or outliers incinerating the self-worth of these leading men, prompting the writer to scavenge the myths in search of a bogus salvation.
Renuka Chowdhury laughed at Narendra Modi, in Parliament. It’s the laughter of powerless at the powerful, the laughter that momentarily inverts the order, as it were. Chowdhury’s laughter resembled that of Baubo, the Greek goddess of mirth and laughter, whose liberation is bundled with her wisdom, for she knows she must laugh at the powerful, and heal the powerless.
And that solitary laughter at power is incredibly more powerful than a court laughing at its single female challenger, the harbinger of the imminent fall.