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But Kanaklata strangely felt neither sad nor despondent. Rather, she felt liberated. Finally, she was in charge of her own life.
“Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha”
Kanaklata stared in amusement as a group of men and women, with hands raised parallel to each other and clapping gayly, were laughing uproariously. She couldn’t remember the last time when she laughed so much, that too without any reason. Maybe, these men and women lived a care-free life, unlike her. Kanaklata sighed silently. She had only known struggle and hardship in her sixty years of existence on earth. And these days, the business of living seemed to be almost like a burden to her. But what option did she have anyway, other than carrying on with her wretched existence? But yes, seeing other people happy and such rapturously in love with life made her smile.
That was one of the reasons behind her daily morning walk in this park. A Laughter Club named ‘The Great Kolkata Laughter Club’ happened in the park. Kanaklata watched it’s members laughing together every morning as she took a stroll around the park. Nandini, her sister-in-law suggested this to her at a time when even getting up from bed in the morning seemed like an uphill task for her. But then, Kanaklata never imagined that one day she would need someone to ask her to perform such tasks as walking regularly for a few hours, taking a shower everyday or eating the greens. Perhaps nobody can know beforehand how things would pan out in future.
“Boudi, Somu will not come back to you no matter how much you grieve. He is dead, but you are alive. And you have to live your life,” she said.
“You know Nandini, I don’t want to live anymore. I can’t imagine my life without Somu. I have spent all my life nurturing him. And now he too is gone. What’s left for me?”
“All these years, you have lived for your son. Now try to start living for your own sake. I am also alone like you. Your brother-in-law passed away and my daughter is busy with her own family. But that doesn’t mean I have stopped living.”
“But your daughter is alive and happy. My Somu is dead, Nandini. Our circumstances are not the same.”
“May be. But both of us are alone in our own way. Do whatever you like. Socialize with people of your own age. Eat whatever you like. Take a vacation. Trust me, this pain too will heal with time.”
And so Kanaklata started to walk every morning at a nearby park at Nandini’s insistence.
One day, out of nowhere, one of the members of the Laughter Club said to her, “Hey Madam! Come here.” Kanaklata was nonplussed. And all the members of the Laughter Club started laughing.
For the next few days. they kept on asking her, “What will you like to have, Madam? Chai or coffee? Or lassi?” And they started performing the mime of preparing these things. Kanaklata couldn’t help but smile at all these fun activities. Soon she became a regular in the Laughter Club.
Still she found it difficult to laugh without any reason. The energetic and vivacious Harishankar, the founder of “The Great Kolkata Laughter Club”, tried to make it easier for members like her. He guided everyone to laughter with his comedy and jokes. Harishankar’s laughter was contagious. But despite all his efforts, Kanaklata only managed to smile at times. A weary, languid smile of a woman cumbered by the trials and tribulations of life. No matter how hard she tried, joy and laughter seemed elusive to her.
Kanaklata made it a point to visit the Laughter Club on a daily basis, even if she couldn’t join in their convivial laughter. It was like a breath of fresh air in her otherwise drab and dreary existence. And Harishankar seemed to have such a magical aura in his personality unlike her long dead taciturn husband. He was tall, ramrod-straight with a handsome countenance. His bright eyes were always twinkling as if in amusement. He looked nice when he combed his hand down his salt and pepper hair. Often Kanaklata found herself ogling at him. What a stupid thing to do! That too at the age of sixty years!
Harishankar was a doctor by profession. Divorced at a young age, he had been a single father to his only daughter all through his life. Now that his daughter got married, he suddenly found himself lonely. He was a fun-loving person and loved to see others around him happy. Soon he founded the Laughter Club. He thought that the club would give him ample opportunity to socialise and at the same time, it would bring happiness at least in some people’s lives.
Kanaklata was married off at a tender age when she was still in college. She wanted to finish her education first, before thinking about marriage. Not because she was a particularly bright student, but because she valued her independence dearly. She loved to go to the college everyday. It was her window to the outside world. But her parents didn’t pay heed to any of her objections and married her off.
Kanaklata felt like a bird immured in a cage in her matrimonial home. Her mother-in-law monitored her every movement and criticized her upbringing whenever she made any mistake in performing household chores. She wanted to study further, but her dream never materialised because of strong opposition of her mother-in-law. Her husband remained busy with work all day. Nandini was her only friend and confidante in that hostile household. After Nandini’s marriage, when she was feeling lonely, Somu came in her life like a blessing. All her attention shifted to raising her son. But life had other plans for her. When Somu was just thirteen, his father suffered a cardiac arrest and passed away. Kanaklata’s bereaved mother-in-law couldn’t take the shock and died soon thereafter.
But Kanaklata strangely felt neither sad nor despondent. Rather, she felt liberated. Finally, she was in charge of her own life. She completed her graduation through correspondence and found a job to sustain herself and her son. Though the salary was meagre, she managed to make do with whatever little she earned. Though she never mourned her husband’s death, she was a widow to the outside world. She was still young and beautiful. She made it a point not to drape any bright coloured saree. The white or soft shades that she put on, made her look distant and sombre. This strategy helped her to keep predators at bay.
Somu turned out to be a brilliant boy. He excelled both at academics and sports. He completed studies and was working as a senior executive with a tech firm. He was also a professional cricketer and served as the captain of his office cricket team. But again life took a turn for the worse.
The subway construction site near Somu’s office had eaten up half of the road space. Somu was already late when he left the office. The truck in front of him was moving slowly. Riding his two-wheeler, Somu impatiently tried to overtake it at a high speed. But since the road had become very narrow, he couldn’t cross over and had to slow down when a car hit him from behind. By the time he was taken to a nearby government hospital, he was declared dead.
Kanaklata was preparing dinner when she got a call from Somu’s mobile. A stranger on the other side of the phone informed her that Somu had met with an accident. When she rushed to the hospital, all was over.
It was a cloudy January morning. A drizzle in the early hours of the day prevented Kanaklata from going to the park. Kanaklata snuggled inside the quilt and tried to sleep. When the mobile started trilling, she answered groggily.
“Kanaklata, Harishankar speaking. Sorry to disturb you.”, Harishankar said in a hesitant tone.
“Not at all. Do you want to say something?”
“Err… would you like to join me for brunch today at ‘The Foodie’s Delight’?”
“No problem. I am coming.”
Kanaklata dragged herself out of the bed and hastily took a shower. Then she made strong coffee to get herself going. She chose a pink dhakai saree to wear. Then instead of putting her signature black bindi, she put a red bindi.
When Kanaklata reached ‘The Foodie’s Delight’, Harishankar was already there. He was absorbed in reading a book. In a striped formal shirt and black trousers, he was looking rather handsome.
“Hi!” she greeted him.
“Kanaklata! Please be seated.” He looked up from the book he was reading. Then he closed the book and kept it on the table. It was named ‘Laughter: A Scientific Investigation’ written by Robert Provine.
“You are looking beautiful today,” he said.
Kanaklata blushed to the depth of her soul.
Soon the food arrived. They ate in silence. After finishing the meal, it was time to leave.
“Kanaklata, today I want to tell you something.”
Kanaklata looked at Harishankar inquisitively.
“You know that I was a single father. Since Maya, my daughter, got married, each day seems difficult. I founded the Laughter Club in the hope that it will keep me occupied while giving me opportunities to socialise. But still I feel a void inside me. I long for a companion. Somebody with whom I can talk, share, sip the morning tea together, read the paper aloud. Would you be my companion, Kanak? I promise that I’ll try my level best to give you back the laughter that is missing from your life.” Harishankar placed his hand reassuringly over Kanaklata’s quivering hand. Kanaklata’s eyes were moist.
Six months later
It was a cloudy July morning. A drizzle in the early hours of the day prevented Kanaklata from going to the park. Kanaklata snuggled closer to Harishankar and tried to sleep. When the mobile started trilling, she answered groggily.
“Boudi, is it true that you have shacked up with a man?” Nandini was aghast.
“Yes. It’s true,” Kanaklata said in a calm voice.
“Why? That too at this age? What did you find in him that you took such a crazy decision?”
“I was afraid to die alone, Nandini. I never felt so lonely and vulnerable before as at this age. I just wanted to talk to someone. And do you want to know what is special about him? Well, he gave me the most precious gift- laughter. This love and laughter was missing from my life so long.”
“Then at least marry the man. You are living with him without getting marriage. This is not socially approved, you know.”
“I don’t want to go through the complications of marriage yet again. Cohabiting has no legal complications. Moreover, me and Harishankar have signed an agreement to avoid complications before we started living in, deciding on the terms of our relationship, including finances and cohabiting arrangements. I am happy, Nandini. And I give a damn to your society. When I was raising my son alone, did this bloody society care for me? NO. Then why should I?”
Kanaklata was beaming with happiness. Now-a-days she laughed with gay abandon. She draped a red saree. Looking at herself at the mirror, she put her signature red bindi.
Author’s note: Acknowledgements to various news articles on Laughter Clubs like this and this.
This story was shortlisted for our November 2020 short fiction contest Muse of the Month.
Image source: a still from the film Listen, Amaya.
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