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Renuka Chowdhury’s cackle must be seen by women as an indicator of the right to happiness

A smile is often an indication of pleasantness. A laugh is often an expression of approval. But a cackle is many things. It is instinctive, impulsive, and hard to hold back. It speaks of an abandonment of reserve. At its very core, a cackle is the sound of freedom. When the source of the cackle is a woman, it rings of many uncomfortable truths in a conservative society.

This is why MP Renuka Chowdhury’s cackle, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Parliament last week, made headlines. When Mr. Modi mentioned, during his speech in the Rajya Sabha, that the idea of Aadhaar was first mooted by L.K. Advani, Ms. Chowdhury guffawed. Mr. Modi picked on this, paused his speech, and suggested she sounded like a demoness from the Ramayana.

The discomfort and the national debate around this laugh are telling. A cackling woman is a dangerous thing. Look at any public place. It’s rare to see a woman laughing. When a girl laughs, she’s advised — at home or in school — to do it noiselessly, and to politely cover her mouth. Mirth isn’t womanly, it speaks of a certain recklessness, an inability to rein yourself in. For, if a woman does not even have the will power to stifle a laugh, the logic goes, think of all the other, larger pleasures she is unlikely to say no to.

In our society, even in the relatively progressive urban parts of the country, a woman is judged entirely by how much control she can exert over herself. A “well-brought-up” girl is one who’s visible, not audible. Her opinions aren’t important. Her laughter implies trouble.

Enter, the cackle. It’s laughter on steroids. Loud, and often dismissive of the statement that provokes it, the cackle carries all the negative qualities of laughing in public with the addition of a sense of superiority. It highlights a perceived ignorance in the speaker. The cackle is the Meryl Streep of the smile — it singes, without any apparent effort.

It is, particularly, the dismissiveness of this gesture that riled the Prime Minister. But in using that to equate Ms. Chowdhury to a demoness, Mr. Modi endorsed exactly the kind of patriarchy that has brought us to the place where it is inappropriate for a woman to laugh.

Public discourse criticising Ms. Chowdhury has largely focussed on the decorum that is required in a House of Parliament. But, as decades of TV news has showed us, parliamentary behaviour is not always concerned about decorum. Microphones are broken and chairs are flung often enough.

If our Parliament can be a venue for slugfests over power and pelf, it can just as well be the place for a woman to cackle. It is telling that while images from other parts of the world show women parliamentarians working with babies slung across their chests, in India we are intolerant of even the audible presence of a woman.

If anything, Ms. Chowdhury’s cackle must be seen by women as an inspiration and an indicator of freedom of expression and the right to happiness.

-Veena Venugopal

-Courtesy: The Hindu

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