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Monday, August 29, 2005

The Laughing Ground

Every morning, on my way to work, I used to whiz past the laughter club, or the comical fraternity of septuagenarians and over. Not far from my home is the huge open ground where they met and laughed. The land has been bordered by a jogging track: the surreptitious overture of the local gold-toothed MLA. The jogging track in itself is not extraordinary; people of all body frames use it indiscriminately. But the land enclosure - that's a different story.

Season after season, the laughing ground – as I like to call it – takes cues from the altering ambience and exaggerates it unabashedly in its fabric. Summer calls open jagged cracks in the hard, dry ground and makes homes for thousands of bugs and mites where they take refuge from the bitter heat. In the monsoons, life bursts out of these cracks with unrestrained pleasure. The aroma of wet mud lingers in the surrounding atmosphere and brings about looks of wonder for the miniature Amazon that has sprung up. Winter lures the marsh over the edges of the jogging track and leaves a faint fog stalled in the air like a crowd of floating ghosts. Huddles of Bedouin-like tribes and gypsies settle down unnoticeably on the hard ground below it with their cattle and passing motorists will often hear the quaint tinkling of bells at night.

Notwithstanding these seasonal transformations, the laughter club reclaimed the land every morning. It was a difficult proposition, since almost sixty-five other parties already had claims to it. Moreover, the laughter club had not even the stipulated stamp paper to prove ownership. But their hiccoughing movements and bizarre attempts at laughter seemed to, at least temporarily, assert their ownership. Occasionally I was driven to philosophize that the laughter club used to repeat their cheery ritual daily only because stamp paper lasts much longer than laughter.

I am so accustomed to watching this ageless group of fun that I can simply close my eyes and see them come alive in my head. I see this stocky woman in a bright pink salwar kameez who seems to be the brightest kid in this class, executing every manoeuvre faultlessly. Then there is this man of medium-height, whose shock of white begins only three-quarters down his skull. Unlike the other members who are usually padded with shawls and pullovers, he wears simply a T-shirt and shorts. He’s easily the most energetic in the group and is often seen encouraging other members. And then there’s the leader. It would be hard to single out the leader of a group that stands in a circle because it is the prerogative of the circle to lead and to be lead infinitely. However, the tall thin man who bears this responsibility is distinctive by his voice, which shouts directions loud enough to sever the din of early traffic and even outdo the bird calls of nature, while she stretches and yawns lazily between the beams of an eastern sun.

“HO HO HO HA HAAH”: thus begins the first routine, accompanied by a parallel movement of the arms, initially stretched forward and joined and jerked open partly with each syllable until they are completed outstretched. These gestures read to my mind as an action of opening the doors and welcoming life with open arms. For some reason beyond the hilarity of their performance, I would be tempted to smile. A brief glance into the rear-view mirror would show me that I was, in fact, smiling.

One of the other days that I was running late, I came across them engaged in another interesting exercise. They were breathing heavily with sounds of “HEE HEE”, one syllable uttered during the inhalation and the other during the exhalation. They were also hopping like a bunch of Bugs Bunnies in rotation, the hop being implemented on the inhaled “HEE”. Looking around furtively at my fellow motorists, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t help laughing at this curious drill. And I wondered about the purpose of the laughter club: was it to laugh, or to make others laugh.

I must confess that I secretly fancied being a part of the laughter club. For me, their appeal lay in their ability to let go of their apprehensions, of what passing motorists like me thought of them. I envied their oblivion, their profound adherence to their comical rigour, their earnest absorption in a mediocre act like breathing. I began, out of sheer habit, to let myself be with them if only for a few moments as I drove past. And my envy forged a mysterious bond with them: seeing, silent and smiling.

One morning in October, a morning that had followed a late night of revelling at a friend’s birthday party, I drove by the laughing ground as usual on my way to work. I was late and was a little woozy from the hangover. But the acute stillness in the air cleared my head almost at once. I peered through the mist across the ground and heard a faint tinkling of bells. I noticed the regular throngs of joggers sweating it out with occasional nods of acknowledgment as they passed each other. I felt the whoosh of cars and scooters speeding past me. And I stopped.

The laughter club was gone.

Beside myself with curiosity and a certain amount of dread, I deviated from my normal route and came to park besides the makeshift tea stall along the jogging track. Almost mechanically, the proprietor of the stall poured out a dribble of hot, creamy tea into a glass tumbler the size of my little finger and held it out to me. I was going to refuse it, but the vapours rising from the tumbler caught my nostrils unawares and I knew I just had to try it. I soon realized why this man who owned the makeshift tea stall was in business. As I cautiously tried to sip the hot brew without scalding my tongue, the man was inundated with customers, some of them passing like me, and others who came out of tradition.

I waited impatiently for the opportune moment to ask my question, but the tea man had his hands full all the time. Finally realizing that I might be in for trouble at work owing to this delay, I just blurted out, “Hey bhaiyya, do you know the laughter club?”

The question brought about something like a freeze frame. The tumblers going to and fro chattering mouths stopped moving. The mouths went silent. The tea man’s hand immobilized midair from where it was pouring out fresh tumblers. And a dozen pairs of eyes turned towards me simultaneously.

I flushed darkly at this unexpected reaction and was about to begin scheming my escape from the uneasy silence when it broke down. All at once, everyone started speaking.

“Who doesn’t know the laughter club?” said one.

“My father is member”, said another.

“Oh yes, you can see them here every morning”, said the only other woman in this gathering.

“But it’s really sad now”, said a voice that I recognized as belonging to the painter who was employed at my place once.

“Sad indeed! But these things are all in His hands”, said a pundit gesturing towards the heavens. His body bare save for the thin garment worn below his waist and a cord tied diagonally across his chest reeked of sandalwood. He was perched precariously upon his scooter that he was balancing with one foot.

As my eyes were already fixed on him taking in his manner and his attire, I addressed him. “What happened? What sad news are you talking about?”

But it was the tea man who answered. “Col. Varma passed away last evening - heart attack. He was eighty-four.”

“Oh my God!” said the other woman. “I know his wife very well. I must pay her a visit.”

Other members of our gathering now asked for and exchanged a variety of notes on the details of the deceased man’s medical condition prior to his death and the arrangements for rituals that would now follow. That he was a healthy individual was agreed upon unanimously, and with a little encouragement from the pundit, they even came to accept that such matters are unavoidably beyond the scope of human intervention. However, perceiving the blank look on my face, the tea man asked in a low voice, “You do not know Col. Varma, do you?”

I replied with silence, but he went on. “He was the leader of the laughter club.”

And then, the congregation began to talk of the deceased man’s disposition and his benevolent characteristics with admiration for the man and some pride for knowing about it. Now that I had my information, I hastily paid for the tea and started off. As I pulled away from the tea stall, I last heard, “ ... he would have wanted them to carry on with their laughing exercises but they can’t be that strong.”

That day was not among the better days of my life. I didn’t know Col. Varma personally, but my bond with the laughter club had compelled me into mourning his death. My hangover, which had disappeared before my conversation with the tea man and his customers, returned with new vigour and I passed the day restlessly. The days that followed were no less solemn. I had looked out for the laughter club half-heartedly and was not surprised when I didn’t see them. But I longed for them to return and continue with their old routine although the laughter club without Col. Varma and his booming voice did seem weird.

About a month later, when I did see them back on the laughing ground, where to my mind they belonged, I could jump for joy. But my ecstasy was not really new because only the day before I received a promotion at work. The newspaper that employed me had finally after two frustrating years realized my potential as a journalist and had decided that I was worth more than the bunch of reporters that scurried after every burning bush. The sops that came with the promotion included the designation “Senior Reporter”, an overdue increment, flexible hours and a profile that incorporated a lot of travelling within the country and abroad.

For the following couple of weeks, I kept my usual hours at work despite the promotion and consequently did not miss the laughter club. But as my initiation period with the new job profile drew to a close, I began receiving assignments that required me to leave base for increasingly longer periods. Eventually when I returned home only during the monsoons of the next year, I had been away for roughly seven months.

Returning home after my first ever spell away was an experience that could even surmount my experiences abroad with alien cultures and perceptions. The changes I had brought back with me in every facet of my personality, not including the drastic loss of weight due to my hurricane lifestyle, made me feel the pressures of adolescence all over again. Everything around me seemed new and distant and yet I knew the fountainhead of change was I, not my surroundings. The encumbrance of readjusting notwithstanding, I was extremely gratified at my accomplishments during the time I had been away and I knew that the glow on my face could only be explained by the supreme satisfaction I felt inside.

In an attempt to progress with my new life by introducing at least some flatness, I began my old routine of getting to work every morning on time. It helped me to slow down a little and get used to the difference. I also had pleasant nothings to fill my mind with during this monotony. My short stint in Turkey where I assisted the coverage of an insurgence by an underground army of rebels found me taking shelter during a raid in the company of man whom I fell in love with immediately. Luckily for me the feeling was mutual. He was a cameraman then working for a TV news channel. One of the changes affecting my present conduct was our recent engagement and the imminent marriage that we had planned for a year later.

I was thus in high spirits as I drove to work on that first morning after my return despite the fact that the skies were dull and there was an insistent fine rain battering every surface on the land. Inadvertently I turned my gaze to the right as I approached the laughing ground, expecting to see the laughter club with which I had got myself inexorably bound. I quickly checked myself, though, because the rain was not agreeable and the cheerful group of septuagenarians had been known to bunk a schedule now and then in the face of bad weather. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see them as arduously as ever laughing their aches and pains away with the rhythmic “HO HO HE HA”.

Something came over me then, perhaps due to the effect of my homecoming, or due to this newfound love in my heart, which made me want to express openly everything that was warm and emotional inside me. I was elated to see this circle of bliss impenetrable to the gloom of the heavy shower outside it. In a way they were just like me at that time and I was urged to consolidate the mysterious bond I had felt with them since the past two years by telling them how much I appreciated them.

I stopped by the side of the jogging track that was vacant except for a couple of hardy joggers determined to beat the weather. I took my first step on the laughing ground and felt it sink into the soft muck that was now colouring the edges of my foot that were exposed through my sandal. My second step was a similar experience. Each footstep forward made loud funny plopping sounds and I giggled quietly to myself. Walking through this miniature Amazon was complicated: sometimes it seemed that the ground didn’t want you to move ahead easily and so held back each step. I pondered about how the laughter club managed negotiating through this terrain and instinctively looked up for them. They seemed to be a little farther from where I was.

I advanced very slowly trudging each foot along with a giggle at the loud plop and looked up to measure how far away I was from the laughing circle. I was amazed to find that they were still further than I had initially imagined. I had somehow taken it for granted that they were located closer to the jogging track that bordered the laughing ground and now it seemed inconsistent with my former conclusion. My feet were now completely soiled and the hem of my trousers had stained. Still, as I had covered a lot of area and they had no doubt seen me approaching, it seemed silly to turn back without speaking to them. So I carried on.

Within a minute I was standing in the centre of the ground and was thoroughly annoyed to see that the laughter club was still farther. By now, I had begun to doubt the reality of what I was seeing and was suspecting a trick by my mind in terms of a hallucination. I blinked a few times but the image of the laughter club stayed rooted where I could see it before. There was a sense of desperation overcoming me but I deliberately followed this vision of the laughter club because of a gut feeling that I could solve this mystery if I only got to the other side of the ground. What added to this feeling was that the image of the laughter club was not still; they were moving in their regular routines and changing exercises and I could even hear the hiccoughing sounds they made with their breathing. That was also when I noted the loud booming voice that was shouting out instructions and felt a chill run down my spine.

As if in conspiracy with this mirage, the rain turned severe just as I looked up to clarify if the loud voice belonged to whom I feared it belonged to. However I did decipher the tall figure of the man who appeared to be the leader. Although, I can’t claim a thorough visual, it seemed to my mind that he had all the appearance of Col. Varma.

By and by, driven on by the powerful illusion of the laughter club, I hadn’t even realized that I had reached the other end of the laughing ground. When I looked up I saw that the laughter club had vanished. It did not astonish me. I wearily looked around the deserted jogger’s track and the isolated roads with the hope of finding at least one person. I did not have enough heart to go back alone to where I had parked. As my eyes spotted the makeshift tea stall, I let out a sigh of relief.

I made for the tea man’s as fast as I could and reached there breathless. The tea man had made an insignificant roof to provide his customers with some respite from the rain. It was no wonder that his stall, like the jogger’s track and the road, was empty. Therefore, I would have expected him to be more delighted to see me than he appeared to be. In fact, he gave me a wary look, but quietly set about making me some tea. It seemed that my long absence had not only been beneficial for me, but it had also allowed the tea man opportunity to ameliorate his circumstances. He was now pouring tea into cheap porcelain cups.

He threw me a curious look as he handed me a cup of tea and did not divert his stare even after that. On any other day, the tea man’s behaviour would have made me most uncomfortable, but in this moment of peril, he was my saviour and I would gratefully accept anything he threw me. The silence between us was casually filled by the beating of rain on his makeshift roof until I was warmed by a few sips of tea. Then I asked my question.

“Hey bhaiyya, do you know the laughter club?”

He did not answer my question, but retorted with one of his own. “Are you new here? I have never seen you before.”

“Oh yes, you have”, I corrected him. “I was at your stall some months ago, when Col. Varma passed away. Do you remember?”

“No, I don’t. There were so many people here then. But if you know about Col. Varma’s death why are you asking about the laughter club?”

I searched my head for a suitable reply to this question. “Well, I’m a journalist. I want to write an article about the laughter club. They are an inspiration to this neighbourhood, wouldn’t you say?”

The tea man’s manner softened a little bit at my sensitive explanation. “They were an inspiration. I get a lot of business now”, he said indicating his improved tea stall, “but do you know in the beginning it was only them?”

I quickly tried to use his reminiscing to my advantage. “So then can you tell me where I might find their members, the other members, I mean, besides Col. Varma?”

The tea man shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. No one knows. You see so many faces in your lifetime – how does one remember? They were people from around here, somewhere in this neighbourhood. But there are thousands of people here – how does one find a few?”

I persisted, a little irritated. “But you see them everyday, don’t you? Why don’t you ask them when they drop in next time? Here keep this extra buck and let me know when I come next.”

The tea man pushed the money away. “They don’t come anymore. Don’t you understand? The laughter club dissolved after Col. Varma’s death. They couldn’t find a new leader.”

“What are you saying, man? I know they took a break after he died. But they were here a month or so later. I know because I used to see them everyday on my way to work.”

But the tea man stubbornly shook his head. “Impossible! No one knows more about what goes on here than me. I tell you honestly there was not a day after the old Colonel died that they came back. Not even once.”

The tea man’s words gave me a sinking feeling, but I gambled with my luck. I said in a hoarse whisper, “I saw and heard them even today.”

That was when I caught him flush and saw his eyes flutter. But he quickly composed himself and coolly replied, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

I looked down the stretch of the jogging track that lay before me and sighed. One of the lone joggers I had spotted before ran towards me and nodded with a curt smile. I dragged myself on my way with mixed emotions. As I did so, I looked across the laughing ground and replayed my excursion across it only a short while ago in my head. It did not bear a trace of my struggle. It only wore its thick coat of green and pretended to be lost in its sphere of existence, oblivious to my presence.

Land, typically in the realm of the inanimate, would be merely an asset to be bartered on paper, the matter that composes the earth, and the foundation that bears Colosseums. But sometimes, when human emotions of gigantic proportions bombard it, it grows out of its mediocrity: like the cricket ground in a stadium, like the sacred ground beneath a temple, like the graveyard of a forgotten war and like the laughing ground.

Sometimes, I still go back there, early in the morning. They are still there: the joggers, the traffic, even the tea stall and its regulars, although the old tea man has moved now that he owns a small restaurant. And right out there in the middle of the ground, laughing vigorously, I see the laughter club and I exchange a knowing smile with a passing jogger.

5 Comments:

Blogger SPECKLED_BAND said...

Wonderful! Very, in fact!

JJ.

9:36 AM, August 30, 2005  
Blogger Max Babi said...

The wash of fatigue on your face
before the cup of coffee
soon after you delivered
this masterpiece, and
hurrriedly left it on
the flickering monitor
to join me

foretold the meteoritic impact
that I hankered for

I wasn't disappointed-
in fact I am elated
after regurgitating
your thoughts
again and again...

Keep writing.

Amazing stuff!

cheerz!

Max

11:32 PM, August 30, 2005  
Blogger Student of Life said...

Hmm...twisting facts. So is the middle eastern stint and the wonderful guy real ? I liked the story but honestly I think it a little long. If you got bored writing an essay you short story could have been shorter. In some places I like your writing and the way you described things. In some places I probably did not as I skimmed over words. But nice story! Keep it up.

12:46 AM, September 01, 2005  
Blogger Sunny`s Corner said...

laughter is the best medicine pal

3:35 AM, September 26, 2005  
Blogger r r said...

i'll have to agree with paawun. i did skim over words too but it was a nice read nevertheless. i can visualize the laughter club and the experience will probably last with me for a bit now :). so wonderful guy? he around?

8:59 AM, October 09, 2005  

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