Whenever he thought of a funny story or good material for a stand-up act, he’d jot it down in a thick leather-bound book. He said that it was his retirement investment.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Prasanna Rao is one of the winners of the November 2020 Muse of the Month.
Vedavati sat down wearily on the sofa and looked at the dusk falling behind her window. It had been a very long tiring day. There were numerous meetings with lawyers, insurance companies and then family and friends who wanted to offer condolences.
Veda knew the inevitable would soon happen, but she was not prepared for it. How do you prepare yourself for the death of your loved one? How can you begin to accept the fact that one day you’ll be sitting all alone reminiscing about the lifetime you spent with that one person who means the world to you, but you can’t accept the truth that the person is no more? How will she live without Vasu? Was a life without Vasu even worth living?
The grief came crashing down in waves and great sobs escaped her lips as she mourned the loss of her husband.
Eight months ago, when Vasu visited their family physician after experiencing fatigue and nausea, they never suspected that their little world would come crashing down around them into rubble.
Cancer. Final stages. A year to live if we are positive. The snatches of the conversation that the doctor had with them played in her head like a broken record. Veda had put up a brave face in front of the world. That’s how she was to the outside world. Tough, indomitable, stern and even grouchy, these were some of the words used to describe Veda by her colleagues in her college. It was only Vasu who knew her from inside out. He had seen past her veneer on their first date. One question they were asked numerous times when they attended any social gathering was how did they meet?
It was glaringly obvious to all who knew them that Veda and Vasu were as different as day and night. Vasu was the life of any party while Veda, well she had to be cajoled and coaxed to even attend one. Vasu loved to entertain friends with his jokes. It was Vasu’s passion, to make people laugh. During the day he was an architect, drawing elaborate plans for multistoried buildings but once he was out of office, he loved to watch stand-up comedies. Vasu was outgoing and vivacious, always with a ready joke to make his friends laugh and Veda, a grim, humorless woman who believed in hard work and perseverance.
Veda was in her third year of engineering college when she went into depression. Things were not going well for her family back in her town and she felt the financial stress build up on her shoulders. She was the eldest of four children and her parents were relying on the fact that Veda would get a high paying job after her graduation. She was studying hard, but her grades were not good enough for campus placements.
She was wallowing in misery, when her best friend Sulekha thought that enough was enough.
“You have to snap out of it, Veda. Things will work out in its own way, but you can’t be stressed all the time. You need to get out and live a little.”
Sulekha could be as stubborn as a mule. She succeeded in making Veda accompany her to a small get together held in her college by the comedy club. Some of the club members were going to perform a live show and Veda sat distractedly among the audience, when her eyes fell on a man on the stage. It was Srinivas, her batchmate, that popular guy who is part of all the clubs in college.
“You know how Indians and Chinese share a close bond because we are both competitors for the title of the most populated country in the world and of course we Indians love to plagiarize Chinese cuisines. They gave us Manchuri and now we’ve created so many varieties of it that even the Chinese will not recognize it as one their own recipes. I mean we even have Idli manchuri.”
Srinivas had a natural charm on the stage and engaged with the audience. His joie de vivre was contagious. Veda felt herself enjoying the evening.
“Anyway, once there was an Indian and Chinese student sharing a room together and no that’s not the joke, okay? Although they couldn’t communicate in each other’s language they were good friends. But it so happened that one day the Chinese guy met with an accident and he was hospitalized. The Indian guy went to visit him in the hospital, and he saw his friend lying comatose on the sterilized bed with a lot of pipes hooked to huge machines that were beeping continuously. He sat on the bed near his friend and looked at him sadly. Suddenly the Chinese guy wakes up and shouts “Hoo Chii Miin, hoo chii min, hoo chiiiiii miiiiiin” and drops dead.
Now the Indian was flabbergasted. He didn’t speak Chinese, so he had no idea what those words meant. What did his friend’s last words mean? Were they his last wishes? Or maybe a deep dark secret of his? He went to another friend who spoke a smattering of Chinese and relayed the entire incident.
His friend got up, slapped the Indian and shouted back at him, “You idiot he was screaming, get up from my oxygen tank, get up from my oxygen tank, get up frommm myyyy oxygen taaaaank.”
The audience dissolved into laughter as he delivered his punchline but there was one person whose laughter could be heard above all. Veda was doubled over with laughter and she had a stitch in her side because she couldn’t control her guffaws. Sulekha looked at her surprised. She had never seen Veda laughing so hard in her life and they were together since their third grade. This was a miracle.
On stage Vasu was watching Veda with a twinkle in his eyes as he continued “Now don’t you go searching for the meaning of the words “Hoo Chii Miin” in a Chinese dictionary. I just made them up. Anyway, you know the worst kind of job is customer service. Last Thursday I went into this shop and bought something from there but when I took it home, I found out it didn’t work. So, the next day I returned to the shop and asked for a refund. The customer service guy said “No, can’t do that”. The cheek of him! Then I asked for a replacement. Again, he said “No, can’t do that either.” Now I was fuming but that man did not relent. No refund, no replacement he proclaimed. I walked out swearing to never buy a lottery ticket from that damn shop.”
By the time Vasu got down from the stage the audience was applauding and cheering him loudly. Veda had tears in her eyes from laughing so hard. As he passed their table, he looked at Veda and gave a disarming smile. Their eyes met and Veda felt a small tremor in her heart, and she felt the blood rushing to her face. What was happening to her? Her mind was light, and she wanted to whoop with joy. She sniffed her glass of juice thinking that maybe it was spiked but it smelled like sticky, sweet orange. She turned around and glanced at Vasu and Sulekha was confounded to see a smile spread across Veda’s face.
Sulekha was seated now beside her, consoling and persuading her to sleep for a little while. Veda had refused to eat anything, and she hadn’t got more than three hours of sleep in the last two days. Finally, she agreed to rest for a while on the sofa, it was too painful to sleep in the bedroom that she shared with Vasu.
A tear escaped her eye and fell onto the soft cushion as she remembered how weak he had become in last few months. Even though his body was drained of all energy he never complained of the pain. The nights were the worst. Vasu wouldn’t be able to sleep, and he’d confine himself in his study, writing in his book of jokes. Whenever he thought of a funny story or good material for a stand-up act, he’d jot it down in a thick leather-bound book. He said that it was his retirement investment. He wanted to try standup comedy once he retired from his profession. Before cancer struck their lives, he would try out his material in open mics on weekends. He always said that Veda was a very bad beta tester for his jokes. She started cracking up even before he delivered his punchline.
Veda didn’t even realize when she had slipped into a deep sleep, but she woke up with a jolt as she heard Vasu’s light yet upbeat voice.
“You know my friend, Asif, wanted to open an optical shop. So, he asked me for suggestions on the shop name. I thought for a while and said, “Asif Eye Care”. He left in such a huff. I can’t think of a reason why. Can you? Did you hear of this…”?
Veda walked into Vasu’s office which sounded like the source of his voice. Was this a dream? Veda saw Sulekha sitting on Vasu’s chair and looking at his laptop. She glanced up as Veda came in and gave her a piece of paper.
“Few weeks back, Vasu called me and said to play these files for you.”
She left her alone in his office. Veda looked at his laptop and the letter. It had just a small line scribbled.
“Play the file named First Date and you’ll know what to do.” Veda searched for the file and double clicked on it and Vasu’s voice played in my ears.
“Veda, if it was my choice, I’d have wanted to write this letter for you, but my strength fails me every day. Talking is much easier for me now. Darling you have always questioned me on why I fell in love with you. You always say that it’s easier to see why you chose me. I make you laugh, yes, I don’t mind being the clown in your life if that’ll bring a smile on your lips. But why did I fall in love with you?
That day, many years ago, when I was doing my first performance, I was nervous. I didn’t know if my jokes would go well with the audience. But there you were laughing like every sentence of mine was the funniest joke you’ve ever heard in your life. I saw you and I felt like my world had turned upside down. Your laugh does strange things to me and I cannot get enough of it. The fact that you don’t laugh enough makes my heart cry. Your lips were made for a smile and don’t you dare disagree with me because I know you better than you know yourself.
After much deliberation I came up with this brilliant idea. I decided to record all the jokes I have in my journal in my own voice. I know you are feeling lonely and probably a little angry too at me. We had taken vows to never leave each other in peace but damn, this cancer. I’ll have to bail out. But I’m making sure that you still have a small piece of me in your heart, in your life. I have recorded the jokes, our memories, the small snippets of our amazing life together and our funny inside jokes that only you and I are privy to.
Don’t you feel that we are in some Indianized version of the movie PS. I Love you? I always fancied that I look a little like Gerard Butler. What do you think?”
Veda laughed knowing that she would be alright. She would always have Vasu. Maybe it wouldn’t be enough, but it would do. She would be alright.
Editor’s note: Mexican portrait painter, Frida Kahlo, was an influential artist who combined traditional themes with a contemporary style and also helped to promote the role of women in the art world. She had to make her style big and bold as an artist, as it was the only way at the time to succeed as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Self portraits were to dominate her career, as the artist in her constantly experimented with new twists around this same theme.
The cue is this quote by her: “There is nothing more precious than laughter”
Prasanna Rao wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the film Piku
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After completing her degree in Engineering, Prasanna Rao joined the IT industry in 2006 and
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