27 March 2007

Laughter on the beach

Above: Sunrise on Marina Beach in Chennai (Madras)

One of the things I love to do while I’m in Madras (now known as Chennai but I prefer the more romantic ‘old world’ ring to the sound of ‘Madras’) is to go to Marina Beach. At night the whole city seems to descend on the world’s second longest beach to take a breather, dip their feet in the waves and feel the cool sea breeze after a day of scorching heat.

But dawn is my favourite time. The day’s first morning rays are magic. Since Madras is on the eastern coast of South India, on a good day when there’s not too much mist, there’s a spectacular view of the rising sun as it suddenly appears from the depths of the Bay of Bengal.

I checked the newspaper the day before to see when the sun would be making its appearance: 6:15. As I reached the wide sandy shoreline and headed towards the shore, I thought about a similar Sunday morning in December 2004 when the tsunami hit. The scene was probably the same. It was just past 6:00 but there where already many people on the beach. By the Gandhi statue, people were meditating or doing yoga. A group of middle-aged women chatted together on a stone bench. Joggers ran barefoot along the shore and children were holding their parents hands tightly while they ventured into the waves. Two young girls walked in right up to their waists, not minding that their salwar kameez-es were getting soaked. The sea seemed rough, causing a string of fishing boats a few kilometres from shore to bob up and down. A group of young boys were doing handstands in the sand. A man was sitting by the shore singing.

When the sun finally appeared from behind the mist, it was already above the horizon. I watched as it slowly inched it’s way up and up further into the sky, signalling the start of a new day, ready to warm the sand on the beach, dry the clothes hung out on the city’s rooftops, heat the water tanks, beat against the city’s roads and buildings, and sunburn the backs of tourists’ necks.

After the sun had stopped its steady climb into the early morning sky, and the fishermen had pulled their boats in with the day’s catch, the heat started to settle in. Time to head back. The sand was still cool under my feet but in a few hours it would be scorching. As I approached the main road that runs parallel to the beach, a peal of loud, exaggerated laughter came from somewhere near the Gandhi statue. This was my first encounter with one of India’s popular and numerous ‘laughing clubs’. A jovial man led the group of men and women through a series of exercises accompanied by a chorus of hee hee hee’s, ho ho ho’s, and haw haw haw’s and then, on signal, the whole group burst out in one big ‘BAWHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAA!!!’. But the group of onlookers witnessing this surreal and outrageous early morning ritual were laughing even harder…

Watch a video of the laughing club in Pune here:

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