A group of four terminally ill patients recently took the stage in Mumbai to tell jokes about their condition.
As a latecomer in the audience hurriedly made his way down the aisle, one of them quipped: “If you’d been a few minutes later, my act would have been over, and I might have been gone too.”
Another spoke of how his wife donated part of her kidney to him when his own failed. “After 35 years, she finally gave me a gift,” he said.
As laughter rippled across the hall, the faces on stage beamed with relief and pride.
They had worked on their acts with help from professional stand-up comedians, as part of an initiative by the Indian Association of Palliative Care (IAPC) called the #LaughAtDeath Campaign. In the audience were their loved ones and their doctors.
But elsewhere, people are taking the stage in rooms filled with strangers, telling jokes and reciting poetry about their deepest fears and what used to be their darkest secrets.
That’s Sundeep Rao, a Bangalore-based sociologist turned stand-up comedian who is partially blind. “The jokes just write themselves,” he says. “And though my sight may be dim, my wit is pretty sharp.”
Rao was diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration at the age of eight, and first took the stage in 2010.
Laughing at himself is therapeutic, he says. “Making jokes about my eyesight or lack of it came naturally to me and I thought it was unfair to sit on my treasure trove of material while others mined their lives to find something worth making fun of.”
“Stand-up has made it easy for me to talk about my disability, and made it easier for people to accept it as something that can be joked about,” he says.
Meet Rohan Sabharwal. He’s 37, suffers from bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, and was institutionalised in 2014. He says he jokes because he knows no other way to bring mental health to the table for discussion.
“I remember dialling the number of a national suicide helpline one evening, and getting a recording that asked me to call the next day because there was no one in at that moment,” Sabharwal says. “That gave me fodder for my first stand-up performance, and made me determined to try and bring about a change in our approach to mental health. I feel I have to take the stage to tell it like it is.”
But being critical through comedy serves its purpose, he adds. “The audience laughs along,” he says, “knowing the real joke is that I’m not joking at all.”
Delhiite Divya Dureja, 24, has been a spoken word poet for three years, but it was only last April that she managed to speak about vaginismus, a condition that causes painful spasmodic contraction, rendering intercourse impossible.
“I emote best through my poems, so I wrote ‘An ode to Vaginismus’ in an effort to come to terms with the condition. My partner was very encouraging of the piece and a dear poet friend of mine ultimately prodded me to perform it in front of others at an event,” says Dureja. “I have continued to perform it for audiences to sensitise them towards this stigmatised condition faced by countless women across the globe.”
It’s so natural for her to talk about it now that she can bring it up on a first date. “As for my audience, I’ve had men come up and ask for help because they feel their girlfriends might be suffering from the same condition. That’s when I feel the message is being spread, and being spread right.”
Spoken word poet Shamir Reuben, 24, first performed this poem at Blue Frog, Mumbai, two years ago. It’s called ‘Dear Mom’ and it’s dedicated to his mother, who died of cancer when he was 18.
“My legs felt wobbly, the spotlight was blinding and the next six minutes went by in a blur,” he says. “But standing in front of a large audience and talking about something as personal as the loss of a loved one was a cathartic experience.” Since then, Reuben has done 45 shows in eight cities. He is now head of content and social media at Kommune, which curates performances by poets across India.
“I’ve spoken about losing my mother, about losing friendships and about facing your inner demons while pretending everything’s fine,” he says. “But most importantly I’ve spoken to a room full of people who I don’t know and every time, I’ve only gotten stronger knowing someone out there feels the same.”
Spoken word poet Anu Elizabeth Roche was only 12 when she started feeling the urge to pull out her hair. By the time she was 16, there were bald spots on her scalp and she had been diagnosed with trichotillomania (TTM).
Her family was not keen on her seeing a therapist, because of what people would say. “In school, my friends would be horrified and ask me to ‘stop it’. But you don’t just ‘stop’ a mental condition,” says Roche, now 31.
She wrote the poem ‘Hair’ four years ago. In January 2016, she performed it for the first time in front of an audience, at a brewpub in Mumbai. “It was my way of responding to everyone who told me to stop pulling out my hair without knowing how hard I tried not to,” she says.
Since then, she has performed at poetry events across the country. “I feel at ease when I perform. My fear and anxiety ebb.” It’s even more gratifying when people come up to her after her shows and tell her that they have similar symptoms, but never knew there was a word for it or that it was a medical condition.
“I recently had a Spanish woman with TTM connect with me on social media saying she wants my poem translated so that she could spread the word within those in her community as well,” says Roche.
Watch the cancer patients #LaughAtDeath here