Charles Bukowski, a German-born American poet and novelist, had once said: “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us.” Perhaps, this inspired the title song from the film Mukaddar ka Sikander. There is definitely some truth that the person who can laugh at death is mukaddar ka sikandar. That could also be the reason why in Mexico there are festivities surrounding the Day of the Dead. But talking about it is not everybody’s cup of tea since it does remind man that he is, after all, a mere mortal. However, there are some bravehearts who have plaster to make you laugh before they depart. SANGEETA YADAV talks to some terminally ill patients who have taken to stand-up comedy to bring you a moving yet heart-warming story
‘God is giving me tareek pe tareek’
She is a lawyer and getting tareek pe tareek… tareek pe tareek by court was nothing new to her. But then she had Dengue and the doctors treating her gave up on her survival. On her deathbed, it was time that she asked God what tareek He had set for her. “Apparently, He too has give me another tareek,” 85-year-old Pooran Issar Singh who has become viral on social media for doing stand-up comedy titled Laugh At Death laughingly says.
That she is witty, cheerful and a fighter can be gauged from the fact that she has the ability to laugh in the face of death; something that few are able to do.
“Laugh At Death talks about how near I came to die but didn’t die. The whole idea of laughing at it really touched my heart and therefore decided to laugh at it. I have been a blood pressure and a heart patient for years. In November 2016, Dengue struck and I nearly died. But I must thank God for giving me another lifeline,” Singh says.
While Singh takes her health problems in a stride, it is the family who worries about her all the time. Her 75-year-old sister, Sarla Issar Singh, who stood by her like a pillar of strength, tells you that their world came crashing down when the doctors said that she would not survive. “We felt so helpless in the face of the fact that there was nothing that we could do to save her. All we could do was pray for her recovery. God heard our prayer and she is back home. The entire episode had left us shocked but we are relieved that she has now recovered,” Sarla says adding that the best joke that she likes is — ‘Aaj kal mai achi tarah make-up karke selfie nikalti hoon. Kya pata shayad woh selfie mere obituary mein kaam aa jaye’.
But going on stage and laughing at death was not so simple. To help her, professional comedians Kashyap Swaroop and Vinay Sharma prepared her for the stage. “Both came to the house and helped me draft the jokes. We talked about my lifestyle and life’s experiences and that helped in writing the gags. We soon became good friends. I had never done comedy before; all my life, I have been serious. The stage was new to me but I had decided that I had to do this,” Singh tells you.
For Singh, staring death is nothing new. She had her heart surgery, she was calm. “During angioplasty, I was on the table and doctor asked me: ‘Do you want angioplasty or an open heart surgery?’ I told the doctor to do what the right treatment was. I was not afraid to die. If death has to come, it will come. I was in the hospital for a week or so; don’t remember a thing. When I regained consciousness, someone is the ICU said: ‘Oh you are smiling’. I said: ‘Should I cry’,” Singh recalls.
Believe it or not, her visits to the hospital didn’t end with the heart surgery. She has had both the knee caps replaced. “There was a time when I used to love driving the good old Ambassador car. Today, I have become an Ambassador because all my body parts have either been repaired or replaced,” Singh tells you.
Her many visits to the doctors has also had some fun moments. Recounting a recent visit to a doctor, she tells you that this one doctor was more of a salesperson that someone interested in finding a cure for Singh.
“This doctor told me: ‘Ma’am had you come to me earlier, you would not have had to suffer so much. I would have given you the best treatment in the world’. I told him that the best medicine is ‘laughter’. This is something that I can give you when you come to see my show for free,” Singh says.
That is the reason why other stand-up comedians find it easy to work with Singh. She has natural talent to make others laugh.
“Usually, the elderly take life seriously and are more disciplined in their outlook towards life. They think that the younger generation has no sense of responsibility. Hence, the young find it difficult to identify with them. But Pooranji is just the opposite what we perceive of an elderly person. She is fun, warm at heart and spreads a lot of happiness and joy around her which is strange coming from someone who has a lot of health issues. At her house, we had loads of fun when she talked about her growing up days — life before the Partition and how she became a lawyer. When we were guiding her, all we asked her to do was time her jokes and structure the thoughts. We just had to work on a punchline. When she was performing, we were super nervous but she was very calm, smiling and born to rule the stage. She remembered everything that was taught. It was she had been on the stage all her life,” Kashyap says.
The comedy style that they adopted is dark humour mixed with self-defecation form and presented it in a storytelling format. “Self defecation comedy is about making jokes on one’s weaknesses or flaws. The instances that we picked were actually very true and anecdotal. Be it stories of Narendra Mhatre who talks about his kidney transplant or Pooranji talking about how she went to the hospital so many times that she feels herself like an ambassador car. This is dark humour as you don’t expect anyone to laugh at these things,” Kashyap says.
He also tells you that to laugh at death is not easy. The only people who can actually make fun of it are the ones who have faced it. “Though the intent is to make others laugh while talking about death, patients feel apprehensive about cracking jokes as it may offend others. There is always a grain of truth in your joke but there is also some dishonesty to make it funny. Pooranji was little apprehensive about cracking a joke at the expense of her sisters. She felt that they would be upset. I told her that people take the person on the stage seriously, they do understand that the intent is to make them laugh and therefore not everything that is said is gospel truth. There are aspects that are difficult to teach because stand-up is very different from real life,” Kashyap tells you.
Singh, on her part has a message to give to the people. “Live your life fully and comfortably. Death is inevitable and it has to come. Why think of it daily and die daily? Why not laugh at your sickness rather than cry about it daily?”, she asks.
‘I have got a chhota recharge’
Jab mere dono kidney fail ho gayein, wife ne mujhe apni kidney donate kar di. Thirtyfive saal ke baad pehli baar wife ne mujhe koi gift diya hai. Socha hoga ki yeh sher (tiger) abhi boodha toh nahi hua. Per thoda ghayal hua hai, let me boost it with life again. Usne mujhe kidney nahi booster de diya aage jeene ke liye,” 64-year-old Narendra Mhatre, standing on stage, in front of a large audience says. The audience claps and hoots at this punchline and comic timing.
Mhatre, who at present residing in Mumbai with his wife and three daughters, works with a steel industry in Panvel. His life was great until, in 2013, both his kidneys failed and he was on dialysis for a-year-and-half. But I knew that dialysis was the cure. It is just a support and that too had its fallout. Some would go into depression, others would see a drop in their blood pressure. My wife couldn’t watch me get dialysis and decided to donate her kidney. While taking out the kidney, her two ribs had to be removed which, sometimes, causes discomfort and pain to her. But she, too now needs to take care of her health and we strictly follow a regimen to stay healthy,” Mhatre says.
The good part is that he can joke around all the discomfort and pain. “Four years back, both my kidneys failed and I was put on the dialysis. You can also say, God gave my life a push by giving me a tapli. It is amazing to know what science can do today. I got kidney transplant. You can say I got chhota recharge,” he laughs.
It was his daughter, Sampada, who told him about Laugh At Death show; he grabbed the opportunity. “It felt good to be on stage and was not nervous. Why be nervous? Whatever I said on the stage was reality. I did this show so that I can give a message to all those who have an illness to laugh since laughter is the best medicine. Death can come anytime any day. So, one should always be happy. That’s how I took it,” Mhatre tells you adding that making others laugh and keep working till he dies is his life’s purpose now and takes a crack at President Trump as well. “America mein sab yahi chahte hai ki naya President mere jaisa ho; jo zayda din nahi tikey,” he says.
Trained by Puneet Pania, a stand-up comedian and producer of Chalta Hai Comedy, Mhatre followed the guidelines given to him. To make others laugh on a sensitive issue like death was tough. “To do comedy on a sensitive topic like death is not easy since people usually cringe at the thought of dying. To get people who had faced death or were terminally ill and laugh at themselves was something that clicked. What helped was that the patients were very comfortable being on stage,” Pania explains.
One is told that it is usually the family, caregivers and even doctors who hold the patient back to avoid any awkwardness that may arise since in many cases patients have only months or a couple of years left of their life. But for the patients, it is the biggest reality of their life —that they are going to die. This show has given them a platform where they can speak how they feel and laugh at the face of death appears appropriate.
Before Pania could actually get to work with Mhatre, he met a doctor to understand how to talk about death which is a sensitive issue for the patients and not appear blunt to them. “Somebody who is over 60 has seen much in life and will have a certain level of confidence as compared to a young man. But to make fun of things intentionally is a different ball game. When we briefed Mhatre, he said that he had done this before. I wanted to tell him that was exactly what he didn’t have to do. He said ‘mai kuch bhi bolunga jo mere dimaag me aayega,” Pania recalls.
While for Mhatre, it was all about what came to mind, Pania had his work cut-out since in stand-up comedy, whatever subject you choose, the end result has to be to evoke laughter. “It is not just about penning down jokes. Voice modulation, timing and punchline matters. What worked for Mhatre was that he is old school. The fact that his wife had never given him a gift in 35 years worked in his favour. It said a lot – that theirs was a very conventional marriage,” Pania says.
(The article also got published in Pioneer Newspaper – http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/special/laugh-at-death.html).