At the 29th minute mark in your Netflix special, Nanette, you say, “Punch lines need trauma.” You’ve just told your audience about how over the years, you feel that comedy has suspended you in a state of permanent adolescence, that by joking about your trauma, you had altered the memory of what had actually happened. And that now, instead of telling a joke, you knew that in order to heal, you would have to tell the story instead. “Jokes have two parts, a beginning and a middle. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end,” you say. The end is the bit that comedy has no place for.
My eyes pricked, the rumblings of a howl gathered in my belly, but before I could make it to the bathroom, where I usually do my crying, I found myself on the bedroom floor, sobbing my heart out. There was nothing left to do after hearing you say what felt like the truth of my life in a single sentence.
Hannah, for as long as I can remember, I have been one of the funniest women my friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, domestic help, grocery delivery guy and some others, know, and in some cases, know of. In school, college, university, office, ATM line, public restroom, police station, hospital — it is safe to say that if you put me in a space with just one other person, you’ll hear them laugh in a minute or two. On Facebook, I curate a version of myself that people are familiar with, because being “liked” offers more validation than words can say.
I know what a joke is. A joke is a story you tell yourself first, before anyone else. You do it so that you may change the outcome of an event that you had no control over. It’s not that different from a lie after all. As I watched you speak, my nine-year-old self, my multiple teenage selves, my 19, 24, 29, 30-year-old selves felt as though they had been seen for the first time ever. Not by the three psychiatrists/psychotherapists who’ve told me: “Are you always this facetious?”/ “Humour is a cloak you’re using to hide away from your problems”/ “Would you say that you have a tendency to turn everything into a joke?” But by you, who seems to know all too well where the trouble with laughing at myself lies.
I finally made it to the bathroom, Hannah, no thanks to you. You said self-deprecation is not humility — it’s humiliation. I cannot say when I chose this brand of humour as my weapon of choice. Nobody wants to see the tears of a clown, and the ability to make people laugh by laughing at yourself is a powerful thing — it’s like reloading your gun with the bullet that hit you and aiming it at everybody you need to win over. I picked up that bad habit so early in my childhood, I don’t quite know how to relinquish every bit of armour, of steel I have amassed to protect myself, so that I can break the cycle that began nearly 25 years ago. For so long, I told myself that I am funny not only because of the things that happened to me — I am funny in spite of it.
From the time I was four years old, I’d avoid mentioning that I had an elder brother. He was my tormentor, my abuser, and I was too young to laugh about the 3Bs: the beatings, bruising, and barbs. When I was older, and if people asked me if I had any siblings, I’d say, “I’m the only child. My brother is the only imbecile.” It has never failed to elicit a grin or a chuckle.
When I was 13, and after I failed Class VIII, I would joke that it was the best thing to have happened — knowing the course from the year before gave me a lot of free time. One does not simply joke about how one kept a knife under their mattress for months, waiting for the day they could pluck up the courage to kill themselves because the shame of failing a school year was too much to bear.
When I was 19, I used to joke that a sure-fire way to kill a guy’s ardour is to sing Joan Baez songs in bed. I didn’t talk about February 14, 2004, when I did just that, singing half an album just so that the “friend” who had tied my hands to keep me from fighting him, would lose interest. He didn’t, he stuffed my dupatta into my mouth and shut me up. Baez did save me from rape, though — he couldn’t get it up after Diamonds and Rust.
When I was 24, and the gynaecologist told me that my body had undergone a “spontaneous abortion”, I reached down and patted my belly and said, “That’ll do, uterus, that’ll do.” Talking about how I had reached the hospital alone, faint from bleeding dark, almost black blood for over 10 hours the previous night would only garner sympathy. So, I published an account anonymously in a national magazine, and I’ll have you know that there were at least three chuckle-worthy lines in there.
When I was 29, after a nervous breakdown, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “Oh, I have the less crazy type,” I’d said and laughed at the doctor’s office after he confidently pronounced the Type 2 diagnosis. Deep inside, it felt like a death sentence and I cried all night because I hated myself and felt that my funny mind, my only true friend, had now become my greatest enemy.
I’m 34 now, and I have inhabited these patterns for so long that like you, Hannah, I am tired. What is my sense of humour today? Is it dry, wry, sharp, and bitter? Or is it laugh-out-loud and laugh-till-you-cry? I cannot say. What sustained me all these years was also what dented my ability to look at life in the eye, and see things for what they really are. Now that you’ve shown me the mirror, Hannah, where do I go from here? All this time, the joke’s been on me. This is not feedback, Hannah. This is thank you.