Mala was 45. Mother of two. She grew up in India in a middle-class family. There was love and silence at home. Tolerance of individuality was an unwritten rule of her family. It helped each one to be their normal self without having to pretend ever. She had migrated with her husband to America when she was 30. Initially, it felt strange. Everything looked different. Food, people, culture, roads, and even the air felt different for her. She missed the confident familiarity of homeliness. She missed the unpredictability of existence at hometown which kept everyone always on their toes. She felt her new abode as a luxurious cage.
Eventually, she started adjusting to the environment. She created a shell of habits into which she withdrew whenever escapism was the only solution in daily life situations. Her husband Mahesh was an IT professional and was totally immersed in his compelling work. Her children, ever since they migrated to USA, seemed aloof, independent and became lesser and lesser dependent on her. She felt that they got matured overnight. Sometimes, she felt she did not know them at all. Over 15 years, there was not even an emotional companionship with her children or her husband. They spoke to her only when they needed something. She had little support or friendship outside as well.
Thus, she lived a cloistered life. Coming from a Communist – Intellectual background, she hardly had anything to do with Religion or God. She kept the popular news channel which incessantly streamed bad news non-stop as a sound accompaniment while she went around with her daily household chores. An occasional call to her aging parents reminded her where she began her journey from. They were contented people. They were happy with what they had. Otherwise, she was like a boat in the deep sea without any reason or destination.
Mahesh was literally wrecking his health in his work. He was working day and night. He was earning well though – but at the cost of any happiness or relaxation whatsoever. He would have gladly shed the rest of his body except his hands and head if given a choice. That was sufficient for him to earn his livelihood. The rest of his bodily functions were quite a burden and nuisance for him. Hence they steadily deteriorated. He was so preoccupied with his work that he hardly cared for Mala or their children. When she wanted to apply for a job a few years before, he objected saying that there will be none to look after the children. When she said that their children are minding their own business, he said it was all her imagination. So, she continued to lead an empty life of complete dependency and total vulnerability.
Stress was visible on Mahesh’s face and as each day passed, he became grumpy, serious and more often than not, angry. He snapped at every sound in the house. Whenever he came home, he wanted pin drop silence. He hated any questions, answers or demands from his family. He stopped attending calls from his parents or relatives. He refused to go home even when he was informed that his father had fallen down, broken his hip bone and had been hospitalized. He did not pay any attention when he was informed that his mother had had a heart attack.
On both occasions, he sent some money and completed his obligation. He was too preoccupied with his work, that he cared nothing about others or even himself. Eventually both his parents died and the only thing that he did was send 2500 Dollars for their funeral. His sister’s family conducted their funeral. The money he sent was not received and returned to the sender. His family members stopped communicating with him. One day, he got an envelope from a lawyer in his home town which said that his parents have left their house and compound in his name and he should come and complete the paperwork for its possession. He put the envelope in front of Mala and said, “You handle it”.
They talked less. There was nothing to say. They did not even have much eye contact, let alone any quality conversation or time together.
Soon enough, Mahesh increasingly became abusive. He started shouting at Mala and children for no reasons. Its intensity increased and once or twice their neighbors intervened. That made him angrier. He felt insulted. He accused that she was discussing about him with their neighbors. He started beating her. She became more and more helpless each day. Soon the children left for higher studies and moved to hostels near their universities. The verbal and physical abuse continued.
Mahesh was increasingly becoming paranoid about everything and this made Mala’s life totally miserable. She was totally dependent on him. She had no income of her own. Finally, after years of abuse and zero love situations, one day she decided that she cannot take it any further and to leave him. She had no idea where to go to. After an evening of verbal and physical abuse, when Mahesh finally became tired and slept, she packed her suitcase, took some money and left the house.
Her mind was filled with mixed emotions. It kept bubbling up. Anger and helplessness kept taking bizarre forms in varying intensities. Even though she never believed in revenge against anybody because of her stable upbringing, internally she wanted him to suffer at least a bit because of her absence, which she doubted will happen at all. Perhaps her absence would give him more freedom! At that point in time, it was overwhelming helplessness and a mild need for revenge interlocking itself in her mind. Yet, all the while, she hated to see anybody sad, let alone the father of her children. Her mother had told her “Being revengeful is a deplorable weakness and a personal illness. It will destroy oneself more than the other.” She just wanted Mahesh to feel what she feels, at least for a moment. She would have compromised everything for just a word of kindness, love, or appreciation. None came from him since years. And to top it all up, verbal and physical abuses too. First she thought she would go to the police and register a complaint.
It was close to midnight. She was sitting alone at the bus stop thinking and contemplating, with a firm decision to leave for somewhere. It was cold. There was none at the bus stop except an old homeless man. He was covered in an old torn blanket and was puffing a cigarette. She was sitting and crying without a sound. There will not be any buses until morning. She knew it. Still, she thought it was better to stay in the cold bus stop steel chair than in the abusive fluffy cushions of her uncomfortable home. She had no idea where she was going to. She had no destination. She was sad and confused.
The old man looked at her and smiled. She did not respond. She was not interested. There were many serious problems to tackle even though she did not know how. She was not used to responding to strangers and she was in no mood for any small talk in the middle of the night – especially in her confused state. She was getting more upset when her thoughts brought Mahesh into the canvass of her mind and knew that he would be in deep sleep unaware of his wife leaving him. He probably wouldn’t care either, even if he knew that she had left him.
The old man looked at her and smiled again. He asked, “Young lady, why are you at the bus stop at this time? There won’t be any buses until morning.” She nodded, but did not speak. He knew that she has left home after a fight. It was obvious. He said, “Young lady, you have left home over a quarrel. Am I right?” She nodded again. But she was in no mood to explain. He said again “This place is for people like us, homeless, in the night. This is not a good place for a beautiful lady like you at this time. Are you not afraid?” She thought for a while, turned to him and said “I am homeless too” and continued without thinking “You are here to protect me.”
She surprised herself with this reply which appeared to flow out of her mouth quite unconsciously. Was this an instinctual response which had the fuel to create a potential adversary into a saviour?
He laughed. She looked at his laughter. Toothless, innocent, child-like laughter. She liked it. She wanted him to laugh more. Just to see laughter. Just as an entertainment to while away the night. It was as if she was inventing something precious – the laughter. He was probably giving her back her laughter.
The old man asked, “You are angry. You are upset. Why?” She said “Oh! It is a long story. Not worth the breath”. He persisted. “Tell lady, all of us have our stories for our predicament. What brings you to this bus stop on a cold winter night?” She said “Problems.” He laughed again. He laughed and laughed. “Problems! I am sure. It has to be problems. I am sure a young lady will not leave her homely comforts and warm bed in the middle of a winter night for better pleasures. It has to be problems”. He laughed again. Seeing his contagious laughter, unknowingly, she also broke into laughter. They both laughed together. For a second, she realized that she has not really laughed in abandon like this since her childhood! She laughed. The old man laughed. They both laughed.
The old man asked again. “What problem?” She briefed about her home situation and abusive husband. He said “Good you did not go to the police. It would have sealed yours and his fate. It would have officially established the state of being abusive and being abused. Good you did not tell the world either. It would have made the same effect. Others would have nurtured your agonies more than you. Too many cooks would have spoiled your personal broth. Good. Good that you are sitting here, giving an old man company in the cold winter night. I have no place to go. I have nobody to make me a warm cup of tea. I have no family. Nobody wants to call me a friend because I am penniless. You have everything, but, inside you have nothing. I have nothing, but inside, I have everything. I have no treasure to guard. I have no emotion to safeguard. I have nothing. I need nothing. I am free. So, in that way, I have everything.” He laughed and she laughed.
She started feeling warmer. She felt as if the winter is not as harsh as she thought. The winter inside her mind was harsher. This old man had warmth inside his heart because he had no expectations. It is expectation that spends the warmth of heart and creates deficiency in us. It was a deep realization. She started feeling better.
The old man looked at her face and laughed again, as if she was wearing a clown’s mask! He said “I am sorry. When I look at you, the irony strikes me. An affluent woman sitting at a bus stop in a cold winter night, totally poor inside. And a penniless old man sitting in the same bus stop on the same night fully rich and contented! One is cold inside with overwhelming sorrows. One is warm inside with overwhelming nothingness!” She looked at him with eyes of warmth.
He continued. “Here is the rub lady. You know how to warm yourself up. Laugh. Laugh. Laugh. This is the rub. Counter all your sorrows and anger with laughter. Laugh. Let your husband be abusive, he is frustrated in the material world. Let him be. Nobody can change anybody. But, you can change yourself. Laugh. Through laughter, you could change your world and others world too. Your husband has forgotten laughter. The heaviness of greed is obscuring the child in him. Bring that child out with laughter. Laugh. This is your medicine. Go, young lady, this is not your place. This place is for unwanted beings like this toothless old man.” He laughed. His laughter was contagious and child like. She laughed with him. They looked into each others’ eyes and laughed. She felt that she found herself at last. She found her real self. She found the remedy for all her ailments. She felt that all her internal bindings and chains were totally broken. She laughed and laughed. Her whole being laughed. She felt as if she was born again. She felt the winter warmth. She felt that she has much to do in the world. The fire of optimism made warmth in her brain. Both of them looked at each other and laughed out loud, in the cold winter night. The old man stopped for a while and said “When life weighs you down, our God given gift is laughter”. “Laugh.” They laughed again. Tears of joy were streaming down each one’s cheeks. Still they laughed and laughed. Both of them got up. Hugged each other and laughed. Collective laughter sprayed warmth like electricity in their veins. They felt warm in their laughter.
She did not know when she slept. She was sleeping like a baby. She was sleeping blissful with her head on the old man’s lap. She slept unaware of anything, totally ego-less, without inhibitions.
Time ticked on. Soon she woke up and realized it was close to day break. People had started to come out of their shells. The morning always brought people out of their shells. Nights put them back into their shells. She realized that she was sleeping with her head on the lap of the old man who was sitting on the bench at the bus stop. She jumped up. She apologized profusely, for giving him inconvenience. He laughed. He said “Lady, you are a newborn. Newborn babies need to sleep well”. She laughed again. She felt good. She pushed her hand into her pocket, dug out some currency and put it in his hands. She whispered “Thank you teacher. This student is indebted”. He looked at the rolled up currency that he had kept in his hand. “My God, so much money! Lady, you have given me enough money for a decent burial!” He laughed and she laughed. She bid him good bye and left. While walking, she thought. Even the thought of death is a laughing matter for a man who is rich inside and the one who has lived his life selflessly. No amount of money can buy this richness.
She came home as the sun broke and when she opened the door; her husband was standing at the kitchen with a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. His eyes were heavy. He looked like having a hangover. The moment he saw her, he did not ask where she has been or why she has come back home. He never cared. Instead, he started shouting at her. He abused her for not keeping the coffee mug handy, not being able to find coffee powder and so many other things. He looked at her. Suddenly she felt him very funny. She started laughing. He looked at her in bewilderment. She was seriously laughing. Shock of unexpected behavior was written large on his face. He tried to shout back at her. She felt that more funny. She laughed again. She laughed and laughed. Mahesh felt totally drained. His jaws dropped in wonder and confusion. He stopped shouting and stared at her as if he saw a ghost. He thought he did not know this woman. “Has this woman gone mad?” “Has she been drinking or taking drugs?” His surprise made her laugh again. First he made a vain attempt to ignore her. He could not hold it much. Seeing her uncontrollable laughter, a smile broke on his face. Initially he started laughing mildly and cautiously. In between, his mind that is not used to laughter tried to stop him. But, the contagious laughter took over. They both started laughing. They laughed and laughed. The cloud cleared and the sun finally shone bright.
The power of laughter changed Mahesh. He took leave, booked a flight the next day, went to his parents place and completed the formalities of their property. He gifted them over to his sister and family who looked after their parents in their old age. He performed the rituals connected to the death of his parents with an attitude of repentance. He gave a part of his wealth for providing food for the abandoned children and old people at a hermitage. He donated for a new shelter for abused children. He came back and visited his own children. Took his family out on a holiday! The whole family woke up to a new life. The whole family came together with the new learning. Learning to laugh!
Maya was indebted and thankful towards her teacher, the toothless old man of the bus stop. When she returned from India, she did visit the bus stop many times especially to tell him about the change that took over in her family. She wanted to thank the old man. But, she could never meet him, even though she even visited the bus stop in the middle of the night. On one night, she saw another man sitting at the same place where she had met the old man, puffing on a cigarette. She asked him if he knew the old man. He said that the old man had died a few weeks before and when they came to pick up his body, they found a bunch of rolled up currency with a small note attached to it, saying “For a decent burial”.