Saturday, August 24, 2013

Lay Low

Years ago, as a journalist for that intrepid fortnightly, The Intrepid Fortnightly, I had occasion to interview the executive committee of The Great Indian Laughter League (GILL - a trying-too-hard acronym, but I hypothesized that it was probably crafted this way for numerological reasons).

Word on the street, i.e. Cubbon street - beside where the club met every Sunday, was that the club's numbers were dwindling. Surely this must've been of concern to their executive board.

I showed up towards the end of that week's session of GILL on a yellow-gray Sunday afternoon in Bangalore, expecting to have a few words with John Joseph, the club's president. The sound of a hundred different people laughing can be a little unnerving - the low rumblers, loud guffawers, the shy gigglers and the high cacklers together make for an unearthly cacophony, but if you listen closely to the cycles, punctuated by when they pause to fill their lungs with air, you can tell that the old birds are generally having a good time.

The median GILL member was about 80 years old, middle class and of uncertain gender (perhaps smarter to say that GILL didn’t discriminate based on sex). I rode with them to their premises in a small office building in Indiranagar. I'd had no idea that they were this official. Three of us walked through a dimly lit corridor. I could hear strains of Adnan Sami's "Mujhko bhi toh lift karadey", but the music was so low that it might've been my imagination.

John must've been 80, but was still a giant of a man, so he had to crouch as he entered the little conference room. There were a couple of chairs at either end of a stretched-circle table.

'Shalini, your good name, correct? Very common name' said John.

'That's right', I replied. 'On both counts' I said, but this time using my inner voice.

'You have come for interview purpose?'

'Yes, I wanted to learn about GILL. I've heard that you've lost 15 members over the last two months. Is the charm of laughter therapy decreasing among Bangaloreans?'

Muthu, who was the treasurer of GILL, had been quiet all this while. He had lively eyes, hidden under the bushiest, whitest eyebrows I've ever seen. His mouth was twitching. I wasn't sure if this was because he wanted to speak, or just general loss of muscle control. I decided to turn towards him, hoping to find a friend.

Turned out he did want to speak. 'See, people actually do not understand laughter therapy. What happens no, it actually does not do any good for your heart or anything. No heart benefit, no intelligence benefit, not even sex benefit. Still, we are okay. We like to laugh. When we laugh, stress is gone. For a short time only, but it is gone. Sadness is gone. Only happiness. Tough, very tough to be sad when you are laughing like that.'

'I see', I said. I hadn't been following the latest studies on laughter therapy, but I did imagine it was all a bit of fluff, like Muthu had explained. 

'Is that why you're losing members then? Are they realising that simply pretending to laugh will not solve their medical issues?'

Muthu looked over at John. John in turn was staring daggers at me. My impertinence hadn’t done me any favours.

'Muthu’, John growled, ‘I said that time only, we are not requiring this interview business, ma. Why you called her?'

Muthu blinked from under his eyebrows. He rubbed the back of his hand against his white stubble while squinting at me. He turned to John - 'She is Lila's granddaughter'.
'Oh', said John. In that moment, I felt his gruffness leave the room. His eyes suddenly became warm and he leaned forward in his chair. I could feel a gentleness diffuse through the room.

My grandmother's name was indeed Lila. She had lived a full life - colourful, adventurous, never still and never short on love. In fact, she loved as ferociously as she was loved. If you wanted sunshine today, you headed over to my grandma's. She was never more alive, more positive about life than when she moved into a senior's home three years ago, where she had made a number of friends. She died in her sleep a couple of years ago, peacefully, and as we were told, happily.

'No, actually, we are having a waiting list. Too many people are wanting membership. Every month we become more popular'. John's voice had grown unmistakably loving.

'I don't understand. Why are some of your members leaving then?'

'They are not leaving our club. They are leaving this life.'

I was surprised to hear this. It was true I hadn't bothered to check where the members were leaving to. All I was interested in was why the number of GILL members that showed up every Sunday at Cubbon park had started to drop off so steeply. I suppose I was also surprised because though I didn't believe laughter therapy did you any good, I didn't think it killed you off either, advanced years of these members notwithstanding.

'See. Firstly, please you turn off the recorder, ma', John said, and I complied.

'Laughing is good when we are together. But afterwards, when we have gone home, that time?'

I felt the weight and pause of this question. This wasn't rhetorical. I knew. I usually chose to ignore, but I knew. The curse of old age, its ills and banes, valleys and trenches, I knew. I'd visit the odd elderly relative perhaps once a month. I'd bring him some sweets, ask about his health. Then when he was midway through his answer, which was this immutable drone of soft complaints to god, I'd cut him off by telling him the latest on that ne'er-do-well nephew, or about the plans I had for my career and where I was going to travel. It was like walking the dog. Surely that was entertainment enough. 

And even as I'd leave, I'd feel relieved that he wasn't asking me to stay. I knew he would like it if I did, but then I also knew that he would feel awkward about it, and so he wouldn't. I relied on that awkwardness. 

Worse, I knew what his life would be like until I visited again. I knew the bleakness. I would see it in his smile the next time I visited. In its benevolence. That smile would say 'Thank you for visiting. Thank you, thank you, thank you.' And yet, it'd have a measure of restraint so as not to pressure me into staying longer than I wanted to. Or committing to visit the next time sooner than I realistically could.

'That time, how we can able to laugh? If we laugh, we will be sounding like fools ' said John.
'And not because there is nobody to laugh with us, but because there is just nobody', added Muthu.

He continued - 'Two years ago, we were in the same home as Lila. She was a very joyful person, no doubt. Every night at the mess, she would sit down to eat and ask us to pray with her. Same prayer every time "Hey Bugvaan, mujhe lay low". Everyday we would laugh and then eat. One day she told me "You know Muthu, I am not joking about death. I miss my husband. I miss my children. I cannot remember your name or anybody else’s name most of the time. Every day, I am having thirteen medicines and then dialysis. It is too expensive. And for what? I have seen everything I want to see. Now, I just want to go." '

I didn't know where to look. We had obviously failed her as a family, but she didn't let it show. Or perhaps she did, and we chose to ignore it.

'That is when we are formed our club', said John. 'We first started with only three members - Muthu, Lila and myself.'

Muthu joined in - 'We would meet every day to discuss options, like psychiatry, or telephoning your family to explain the problem, but Lila made us understand that she had lived a full life.’ 

‘Then one day, we read one article about euthanasia', said John.

He didn't have to say more. The Laughter League was a front, a call to bring in those that needed help. I looked at them, helplessly, and thankfully – the founders of the Great Indian Lay Low club.

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