The Red Book of Laughter
Indrani Rai Medhi
I am Nisha, the night. It could have been a mysterious name, had it not been so common. My new Facebook profile shows me in glasses. I suddenly want to look serious. I want to be taken seriously. For I have a job. At twenty-one. Guwahati, where nobody seems to give a damn about anybody and that kind of seems dangerous, exciting. I like the word edgy. I have been here before – at ten, playing on the swings at Nehru Park, while Ma and Baba watched. Then, being sick after an ice-cream. Ever since, a queasy feeling comes over me when anyone mentions Guwahati. Now, at twenty-one, there can be worse things that could happen. I am now a paying guest at an old house at the foot of the Navagraha hills. A crumbling old box of a house run by a tall, grim looking woman who looks like she has never smiled in all her life. That first night, she eyes me up and down, as if wondering what to do with me. She is unwilling to have me as her paying guest. “But I called you last evening!” My voice rises to a whine. “You said you had a seat. Where will I go at this time of the night?” “Five thousand.” “Pardon?” “Five thousand per month.” She says tonelessly. “Three meals a day. Lights out after ten o’clock. Television for one hour. Two buckets of water for bath. No boyfriend allowed to visit. Payment on second day of every month. No boyfriends pretending to be brothers.”
Sure, I say in a small voice. I take out five crisp thousand rupees from my wallet. She offers me rice and dal with a stingy wedge of lemon. I am to call her Madam. Like me, she too wants to be taken seriously. The advert on the second page of The Assam Tribune called for a female graduate with a pleasing personality and computer skills for the post of a Marketing Executive. I arrive at Pegasus Enterprise at nine fifteen, running up the flights of stairs of a run down building that has a pharmacy, a PCO and a men’s saloon on the ground floor. The Pegasus office is a long room with brown cartons stacked all over. In the centre there is a desk behind which, as I read on the plaque on the table, is seated a gentleman named B. Biswas. There are some people you like and trust from the beginning. “Miss Nisha!” he beams, rising ponderously and offering a plump hand. “Welcome, welcome. So you are an early bird, heh? Good, good.” Sipping my chai, I listen to Biswas Sir. “We are living in bad times.” He says, steepling his fingers, frowning, “Everybody running like mad after success, cars, flat screen TV. But people are not running after books. This is serious, Miss Nisha, what will happen to civilisation? At Pegasus, we are thinking out of the box. If people are not coming for books, we are taking books to them.” Biswas radiates energy and purpose. He is wearing a pink shirt with a yellow tie. His graying hair is combed the way mothers combed the hair of their five-year olds. His glasses enlarge his eyes and he waits for me to respond. “You mean I have to be a door-to-door sales person?” I feel the queasiness after licking that long ago ice-cream. Biswas pulls open a drawer on his desk and hands over a bright, thick red book with ornate gold letters scrawled on the cover – Red Book of Laughter. He settles back, “This is respectable work, Miss Nisha. You will meet students, professionals, housewives. Be polite. Show them the book. There are thousands of jokes about everything under the sun. Can you think of jokes about war, about money? It is all here. You must be polite, speaking nice English, showing the book but not letting them read too many jokes.” “There’s this problem,” I am apologetic. “I am new to Guwahati.” He hands me a map of the city. “Experience is the best master.” He scratches his chin, “Your work is from today. Remember the book is eight hundred rupees. Give a ten per cent discount. Today you will carry two books.” “S-Sir”, I stammer. “What about my salary?” He smiles expansively. “You will be getting commission for every book. And some travel allowance. When you are having some experience, we will talk.” For two weeks I wander in the city’s streets. I get a tan and tear a sandal strap. All I eat at times is a plate of momos stuffed with cabbage at a roadside stand. I ring the doorbells of flats. Dogs bark or maids tell me to go away. Bored housewives call me in and want to know why I am doing this kind of job. Three men in an office room pore over the section that has non-vegetarian jokes and chuckle, leering at me. A sweet old lady invites me in and sits listening to me as I describe how laughter is the best medicine, and the book could be an endles source of amusement. When I am quite out of breath, she puts on her hearing aid and quavers. “Sorry, can you repeat that?” By now I know the city – the river bank, the clogged streets, the glittering stores and the hollow feeling of never having much money, I find out I am good at lying. When Ma calls at night, I say I sit in a big desk in an air-conditioned room. I have a telephone at my desk. I am in charge of hundreds of important books – sending them to people who order them. That I go to important meetings. There are three other girls at the hostel. They are younger than me. Two from Manipur and one from Shillong. While they occupy the larger bedroom beyond the dining room, I have to make do with a camp-bed in the living room. It does not occur to me to demand a proper bed. After dinner, I bolt myself in and sit in one of the sofas before getting into the camp bed. There is so much to think about… whether I will meet anyone who will buy the Red Book of Laughter, or would I have to pack my bags and go back. And how strange it is that the only time I hear anybody laughing is when two urchins splash about in a puddle after a shower. Then, when I am too weary to think, I look at him. He is Madam’s husband. She talked about him once. How he had been an important government official, always busy with meetings and files and one day he just dropped dead, of a stroke. He has his hair brushed back, a lean, clean-shaven face and eyes that look melancholy. I think he was shy and found it difficult to express his feelings. I think if he had kept the Red Book of Laughter by his bed side he would have lived longer and Madam would not have had to run a hostel with meals to cook and so many rules to enforce. If only… Then there comes a day when the Red Book of Laughter saves me. After a long morning in the July sunshine, dressed… as always in my grey trousers, white shirt and dark blue scarf knotted loosely on my throat, I climb into one bus after another, walk into offices and homes. Approaching people who don’t believe that laughter makes life livable, I finally ring thedoorbell of Flat No. 13, Belmonte Apartments. It is a posh place, with a massive, ornate black and gold gate, uniformed lift-man, fancy cars in the basement on the second floor. The door is opened by a middle-aged man in grey sweatpants and a white T-shirt. He has a stubble on his chin and smiles uncertainly at me. I begin my sales talk and he says pleasantly, “Come on in.” The sofas are beige, with dark wine red cushions. There are potted plants here and there. I see a book case and coffee table editions. Someday, I want to live in a house like this. He gets his spectacles and goes through the book. Hmm, interesting, he murmurs. He reads a joke and chuckles. He turns the book over, checks the price and says he will take it. He puts the book down and smiles at me. “Now that this is done, tell me about yourself, young lady.” “I’m Nisha, Nisha Saikia. I’m from Dibrugarh. My father retired as a tea garden manager. My mom is a teacher.”
“So you are new to Guwahati, aren’t you?” “Yes, Sir.” He laughed. “No sir, Nisha. I’ve never believed in formalities. Let me get you a Coke.” “No, Sir. It’s perfectly okay. I’ve got to go.” “You are in quite a hurry, young lady.” He pretends to take offence. In the next instance he has moved to my sofa, with one forefinger drawing back my hair from my forehead, as if its the most natural thing in the world. I lean away clumsily, then try to get up. And all at once his hand is gripping my knee and his flushed face is close to mine. Scrambling to my feet, I pick up the Red Book of Laughter and swing it at him… It catches him on the jaw and with a moan he falls back among the cushions. I am out through the door, down the lift and into a world where nobody cares just what happened to me. It is only afternoon but I return to the hostel. I feel feverish and want to wash the hair he dared to touch. Madam is home alone and she shows no interest in knowing why I am back so early. I use up one bucket of water shampooing my hair. I think I will cut my hair in a way no creep can lift it from my forehead. I sit silently on the living room sofa. During the day, setting up the folding bed is not allowed. I look at Madam’s deceased husband. May be he had nothing to laugh about. I too have nothing to laugh about. I had read a book once, Darkness at Noon. Then Madam brings me a chilled glass of nimbu-paani. I drink with surprise and gratitude, I swallow, gulping frantically. She looks at me and suddenly, I burst into tears. “I’m a liar and a cheat. I am not a Marketing Executive. I don’t have an office. I don’t have a salary, only a commission which I may never get. I am a door-to-door salesgirl. My Ma and Baba don’t know about this. I have been all over and people have insulted me, ignored me, kept me waiting. And all I wanted was to sell them a book of jokes, to make them laugh and not take life so seriously. And Madam, what happened today is the limit. I will resign tomorrow. I will vacate your hostel, I will shift to Dibrugarh.” “What happened today?” So I tell her everything – the beige sofas, the wine red cushions, the potted plants. And that brief struggle ending with the book hitting him on the jaw. She listens. She purses her lips, looks away and then begins to laugh, her shoulders heaving, her mouth open, her eyes nearly shut, leaning forward and holding her stomach. Her bun loosens itself and her hair falls on her shoulders. She looks young and all her cares seem to fall away from her. I begin to laugh too and then because of the nimbu-paani, I begin to hiccup. She rubs my back and I feel closer to her than anybody in this city. “I’m buying your book.” She says softly. “Rana, my husband, loved jokes. He was always cracking one. I do not remember them. Maybe I will find those lost jokes in your red book.” That’s how my first book was sold. Then I sold the second, and the third. I still wear my uniform and venture out every morning. As Mr. Biswas says, experience is the best master.
Indrani Rai Medhi is a journalist, columñist and author. She has won the Kunjabala Devi award for investigative award for women issues and the Yamin Hazarika award for excellence. She has authored 12 books.