- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 26, 2012

MUMBAI — For the past week, the laughter around Sheetal Talao pond in suburban Mumbai has taken on a muzzled quality.

On June 18, Mumbai’s high court told police to do something about the laughter that erupted beneath Vinayak Shirsat’s windows each morning, causing his family “mental agony, pain and public nuisance,” according to the Press Trust of India.

Since then, members of the Sheetal Jogging Association - who have been coming to the pond for three years for laughter yoga, devotional singing and light exercise - have been trying to contain their mirth.

“Nobody’s laughing now,” said member Badruddin Khan.

Sheetal Talao is, in truth, not a nice pond. The water is low and full of trash. But it’s the only open space in a neighborhood of winding lanes in the northern suburbs of India’s densely packed financial capital.

The single spot of constant shade - a small gazebo - is right in front of Mr. Shirsat’s apartment. Nearby are two curved benches, rising from a small plot of red mud and weeds, that the club uses for meditation and laughter.

“Only this much space we’ve got. Where can we go?” said Prabhakar Naidu, 45, who said that since he started laughing he has been able to walk up stairs without getting winded.

Before the police and courts became involved, a dozen club members would gather around 7 a.m. to sing bhajans - devotional songs - and clap for seven minutes. Then they laughed out loud for two minutes.

Kamal Ahmad Khan, 60, a doctor with a square, bushy beard, said laughing brings peace and good health. “If you are laughing, the mind becomes cool,” he said.

Physician Madan Kataria claims to have founded the first laughter yoga club in Mumbai in the mid-1990s, based on the notion that laughter - real or fake - confers physiological and psychological benefits. His website says there are now more than 6,000 laughter clubs in 60 countries.

On Tuesday morning, it seemed as if the members of the Sheetal Jogging Association were trying to whisper as they laughed, opening their mouths to gasp, “Ha ha ha … ha ha ha.” They kept a pillow of air in their palms as they clapped and sang out timorously to their gods.

Some days, in fact, they don’t laugh at all anymore.

“People are afraid. He’s from a family of lawyers,” Mr. Naidu said, referring to Mr. Shirsat. “We tried to mediate with him, but he’s not interested. He said, ‘We’ll see you in court.’ “

Mr. Shirsat declined to comment for this article.

Other neighbors are more tolerant. “It was not bothering me or my family,” said Flory Rufus Leitao, 50, who lives just down from the gazebo. “They weren’t shouting or screaming.”

Sadanand Ghate, 43, the jogging association’s president, said he and a dozen other members went to the police station and tried to explain that they are seeking peace, not disturbing it.

The next hearing is Thursday. Some members want to fight for their right to laugh; others don’t.

“We come here for health and mental peace,” said Ranjana Agarwal, 70, a cancer patient. “If we get into fights, the whole purpose of coming is defeated.”

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