The Man Who Laughed

The man was arrested because he laughed.

He laughed at a time when laughing had been strictly prohibited. It was an unusual time, when people were not supposed to laugh, or even open their mouths. They were only meant to listen; it was only a select few who would do all the talking while everyone else simply listened – that was the rule in those days. At that time, people lost their tongues, their jaws turned stiff and their lips quivered but emitted no sound. And the privileged few – their faces looking like mouthpieces – were to be found at every important street-corner. They talked, and kept on talking, rattling off words, while the others, the tongue-less, merely listened.

It was a time when all words became promises.

The wrongdoing by the man was that he refused to listen; rather, he laughed, he burst into laughter, his entire body writhing. And so he was arrested.

“What makes you laugh?”

“I don’t know”, replied the man.

“Why do you laugh? Speak out!”

“I laughed because I could not help laughing.”

That was the only answer they could squeeze out of the man, and obviously, not satisfied with that, they sent him to jail.

Some months later …

In the meanwhile, times had changed. Those who had been longing for power were now in power. Promises were now only words on paper. Laughing was no longer prohibited. Rather, it was encouraged. A jubilant mood prevailed throughout the land. On television, one saw faces brandishing teeth. “Laugh, it’s the time to laugh”, insisted the Ministers. Advertisements displayed smiling faces. Laughing was now promoted as the order of the day. It was on such a day that the man who was once arrested on charges of laughing was released from prison.

“Laugh”, they told him, poking him with a stick. “Laugh your head off, you rascal! Why don’t you laugh?”

They kept on prodding him, but the man refused to oblige.

But now they became adamant. They would not let the man go unless he laughed. They forced him to lie on a slab of ice. Someone pissed into his mouth. An iron rod was inserted into his private part. He was made to hang upside down for hours.

“Laugh. Laugh. Laugh.”

But the man did not. “I can’t laugh. I’ve forgotten how to laugh.” That was all he had to say.

They were furious, and determined to make him laugh by any means whatsoever. They tried out new methods. The country’s best comedian was summoned. He giggled for hours on end, stripped himself naked and somersaulted around. But all to no avail, as the man did not laugh.

The country’s best storyteller was summoned. He was known for his funny tales, which, people said, made one laugh so hard that one finally ended up crying. The storyteller exhausted his bag of tales, tired himself out laughing, but the man only kept gazing at him.

They turned desperate. An emergency meeting was called, during which they decided to take the aid of technology. The country’s best plastic surgeon was summoned.

“Can you make him laugh?”

“Sorry, I’m not a clown.”

“Can’t you at least make him appear to be laughing?”

“Appear to be?”

“Yes, why don’t you inflict a smiling expression on his face?”

“Well, let me try.”

The surgeon worked for three hours. And finally, when the man was wheeled out of the operation theatre, he was a transformed man. His face had been pulled, stretched and fixed into a smile. Seeing him, one would get the impression that he was really smiling.

The surgeon received his fee and went away. And the man was taken to a specially designed cell.

He had a very busy schedule now. His services were often called for. Sometimes he had to assume the appearance of a peasant, sometimes that of a worker, sometimes it was a tribal and sometimes a dalit. He was placed on a stage and the speaker pointed to his smiling face with a schoolmaster’s stick.

“See how he smiles. Even the lowest of the low is smiling now. Yes, we have ensured that. We, who are in power.”

The speaker carried on, while the man with the seemingly smiling face remained standing. His face was now the most sought after part of his body. Special care was taken to keep it in good shape. Thousands of photographs of his smiling face were taken. Videography of some live expressions of his face was probably going to be taken up. In all likelihood, his face would be embalmed and preserved after he died.

They needed it badly.


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Sandip Bandyopadhyay lives in Kolkata. He is a writer, researcher and barefoot historian.

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