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Mustafa’s Wife

Rajni Mishra

“What has the world come to?” Mustafa throws the newspaper onto the table. His wife hands him his chai and sits on the edge of the chair. “Look at this. They are stealing laughter now.”

“Laughter? How can anyone steal laughter?” she says, sipping on her chai. “Oh, the sugar is not to your liking.” She springs to her feet and takes his cup back to the kitchen.

“They can do anything these days. Can you believe what the world has come to? Why not just kill a person?”

She returns, places the cup on the table and picks up hers. She tilts her neck, straining to read the headline: ‘Wife Steals Cheating Husband’s Laughter’.

Serves him right, she thinks.

“Why not just kill him? A person without laughter is as good as dead. Can you imagine living without the ability to laugh?”

She throws a glance at her husband’s face and shifts her gaze. She finds his knitted brows intimidating. She wraps her palms around her cup and inhales the smell of the chai infused with ginger and cardamom. “How bad can it be?” she whispers into her cup.

“How bad can it be? Are you insane, woman?” Mustafa’s eyes widen. His burning glare pierces through his wife’s skin. “Oh, of course, it wouldn’t make much of a difference to you. You lack both a sense of humour and the sense to appreciate it.” He gulps down the remaining chai and storms out of the room.

She leans back into her chair. She doesn’t like her chai when it’s piping hot, she drinks it when it’s warm. She likes to drink it slowly, feel it move through her throat down her body, leaving the tinge of ginger and cardamom on her palate. Mustafa would often remark, “Did you fall on your head just after you were born, you weird woman?” Now, he will only come out of his room when he is ready. He will eat his breakfast while watching videos on his phone and laughing with food in his mouth. If Mustafa’s wife has to eat with him, she avoids looking at him. He is always laughing as if at his existence, he laughs even while eating – his big mouth full of his dirty laughter and half-chewed food mixed with saliva. The thought is enough to nauseate her. She pulls the newspaper towards her with her finger and reads it.

Vijay Manohar Tiwari | Nagaur

The Lofar police have registered another case of laughter theft in the city. Kamal, 33, claims his laughter is stolen. He told the police that he almost died of the chest pain due to the lack of laughter when he was watching a comedy movie in his room. The police investigated Kamal’s neighbours and relatives.

Sunita, Kamal’s wife, left him last month when she found out that he had an affair with another woman. Neighbours told the police that after a huge fight, Sunita left home with their 5-year old son and hasn’t come back home. The police suspect Kamal’s wife is behind the theft but they haven’t been able to get in touch with her or her family.

The police sent the victim to the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Ajmer for a detailed examination. The doctors, however, are still clueless about how the laughter theft is being carried out. Dr Shanti Prasad, the head of the neurology department told Ajmer Now, “We have never encountered anything like this before. It hasn’t happened anywhere in the world. We are trying to get in touch with bigger hospitals in other parts of the country to get the best brains together and figure out what’s happening.”

Dr Prasad says, “The loss of the ability to laugh can have serious psychological effects that can vary from social ineptness to severe depression. The stress can also translate into physical issues as the immune system may become weak with the lack of laughter and mirth.” The doctors are still trying to understand this mysterious theft and its effects on mankind.

Mustafa’s wife gets up and scurries to the kitchen as she hears Mustafa’s approaching footsteps. She scoops the food onto a plate and begins preparing his next chai, to be had with breakfast. She has grown accustomed to making two cups of chai; even on the days he is not at home, she prepares two cups. She places the plate on the table and looks at Mustafa. He wipes his glasses with the edge of his white shirt and puts them on. His rectangular glasses sit perfectly on his nose, which is bent like the beak of a giant bird and aggrandizes the smug look on his face.

“Is chai ready or what?”

She rushes to the kitchen and brings his chai. She clutches the head of the chair and taps her toe on the floor. He will finish his breakfast by the time she reaches the hundred and eightieth tap. She will then take the dishes and put them in the sink. He will holler from the veranda, “Close the door. I am leaving.”

She rushes to the door as she hears him outside. “What should I make for dinner?” she asks, closing the gate.

“Make something. Why do you ask the same question all the time?”

She watches him get onto his Bajaj scooter and ride into the next lane. His reply means he will be coming home tonight. He hasn’t visited his other wife in the last two weeks. Even if he has fought with the other wife, he might go to see his children. He loves those kids. The other wife may have gone to visit her relatives with the children – perhaps to attend a wedding. Perhaps. The lady in the opposite house is negotiating with a vegetable vendor. She’s wearing a sleeveless cotton nightdress. When she spots Mustafa’s wife, she waves at her. Mustafa’s wife adjusts her sari, raises her hand slightly and goes back in. She locks the door and pulls the curtains shut on the windows. She picks up the newspaper and walks across the hall to her bedroom, her fingertips grazing the walls. She brings out a wooden box from her cupboard, spreads out the paper on the bed and sits beside it with the box on her lap. She carefully cuts out the article on laughter theft and keeps it aside. She first read an article on stealing laughter about a month back. She found it in a magazine she had bought from the kabadi wallah who comes to buy used papers and bottles from her. He now understands the kind of books and magazines she likes.

She sells the books and magazines back to him when she’s done reading them. In the seven years of living with Mustafa, his wife has learnt of spaces where he would never look – and that’s where she hides the books. Mustafa is her mother’s brother. He began taking care of the family after her father’s death. When her mother succumbed to an unknown illness, Mustafa married the eldest daughter of his sister. Then, he worked in the post office in the city as a clerk. He allowed her to complete her schooling in the village and brought her here as soon as she finished twelfth standard.

They don’t have a television or a computer at home. Mustafa believes these are mediums that spread filth in society and ruin one’s mind. She is certain he holds the same opinion about magazines and novels. It was an awkward alchemy – her meeting with the books. Two years ago, the old kabadi wallah was replaced by a younger man. When he came to collect the papers from her, he caught her staring at the pile of books he was carrying on his bike. He extended a hand towards her. In his hand was a book. “Do you want to buy this?” he asked. She threw furtive glances in all directions and asked him how much it was. She bought that book from him. It was a book on how to make cocktails. She didn’t know what a cocktail was. She would look at the pictures and read the ingredients. When the man came the next time, she asked him for a dictionary; he got her one the very next day. She was filled with awe when she learnt they had a book for mixing alcohol. One can never know the world perhaps. Since then, her days are filled with gardening tips, sex problems, stories of heartbreak and revenge, hydraulic pumps, how to make friends, novel food recipes, and stolen laughter.

She places the article clipping in the box and returns it to its haven. She lifts the mattress a little, pulls out a book and lies down on the bed. It’s an old book, a small book with a green cover that says, An Ode to the Ridiculous. She likes the title of the book. Its pages are yellow and, on the first page, there’s a handwritten note – ‘To Olive. With love, K.’ She places the book on her chest and stares at the ceiling fan. She learnt of olives from the cocktail book. Olive must be a slender girl with an oval face and large eyes. K must be her lover. K. Iqbal. ‘Iqbal’, she murmurs. She follows the moving blades of the fan with her heavy eyes, his name running in a loop in her head.

She runs across the fields as Iqbal chases her. She laughs as she glides in the air. Iqbal runs as fast as he can but he cannot catch her. He calls out, “Amina, stop! Amina!” She turns and looks at him but doesn’t stop. The ground beneath her feet suddenly disappears and she floats in the air. She sees Iqbal’s face fade into the wind. She’s falling, her arms and legs raised towards the sky, her body being sucked in by the raging waves below. With a huge splash, she falls into the dark, thick waters. Amina thrashes her hands and feet about. She doesn’t know how to swim. She closes her eyes. She has stopped falling. She is covered in something that’s dark, thick and smells like urine. She can’t move. She looks up and sees nothing. She opens her mouth to scream but a silence whooshes by. Her body shakes violently and bursts into laughter. She is fixed at the spot but her body is convulsing with laughter. A voice echoes through her laughter, “Amina! Stop, Amina!”

She wakes up and the book falls onto her lap. She gets up with a jolt. She’s covered in sweat. She sniffs the air and lets out a deep breath. “Amina,” she whispers. “Amina. Amina. Amina.” Her mother had told her when she was young that Amina in Arabic means honest. She doesn’t understand this vulgar human need to find or ascribe meaning to everything, to be important, to be remembered. When Mustafa married her, she didn’t know what to call him; he was no more her uncle.

She asked him, “What do I call you?”

“You wouldn’t need to,” he said.

At times, she can’t remember his name. The nameplate outside the house says ‘Mustafa Muhammad’. The house belongs to Mustafa Muhammad, yet he is the visitor who comes and goes. She has come to understand these walls and they know her well, too. She sometimes reads to them, especially things that move her. The walls listen. She doesn’t have names for the walls – they are walls. They don’t seek to be significant. Yet, if even a single one of them is removed, the house would fall to the ground and Mustafa Muhammad would crumble into dust.

If she had kids, she would not give them names. She would number them – one, two, three. They tried for years. Mustafa wouldn’t have taken a second wife if she could have given him children. Her days would have been filled with their mischief, demands, cooking, sewing, and knitting. She still knits sometimes – socks and scarves and ponchos for Mustafa’s kids with the other wife. Mustafa asked her once if she would want to meet the kids. She wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it but kept mum. He brought them home after a few days. She cooked pasta and seviyan for them. They called her ‘badi ammi.’ Every time they said badi ammi, they burst into laughter. Mustafa laughed with them. She had a smile stuck to her face that day. She practised it the day before. Every time Mustafa laughed, he glared at her. She avoided looking at him.

She lifts the book and runs her fingers through the title. An Ode to the Ridiculous. She is particularly fond of this book because it doesn’t have a name on it. She has never seen a book without the author’s name on it. This is where laughter belongs – on these pages, between the words. It’s not that she cannot laugh. She used to laugh out loud, especially when Iqbal would tickle her. Whenever she would get upset, Iqbal would tickle her and her body would tremble with laughter. Before she’d know it, she would be laughing hysterically. Iqbal would guffaw, as he’d hold and tickle her. Could it be that Iqbal stole her laughter? No, no. He took away with him what he gave her when he left. She has been intrigued by laughter since she first read about the laughter heist in the magazine. It was a scientific article that explained the anatomy of laughter and conjectures on how a human can rob another human of their ability to laugh. She wouldn’t deny it, the thought did cross her mind: What if she could steal Mustafa’s laughter. And it wasn’t a mere passing thought. She pondered over it for days. If there is anything she loathes more than his laugh, it’s his desire for her to laugh along with him.

The day he brought her to this house after their marriage, he pulled her close and put his mouth over hers. His kiss smelled like urine. She stepped back, her body quivering. Mustafa held her by the shoulders and cackled in her face. “Oh, darling! Look, you’re a woman now,” he said, leering at her seventeen-year-old body. He pushed her on to the bed with a bellow of laughter. The howling laugh escaped his betel-stained mouth and pounced on her. She winced and clutched the bedspread as the slimy laugh cut through her flesh. His laughter, the colour of blood, had entered her. She used to laugh a lot those days. She would feel heavy and burst into laughter for no reason. She would laugh until it would begin to seep from her eyes. After a few months, she was emptied of his laughter. She didn’t feel heavy anymore.

She leans by the bedrest and opens the book. She has read this book a couple of times, except for the last page. She cannot part with this one; she thinks she knows the writer of this book. He has written this only for her. They talk through the book – the man without a name and she – they understand each other. And, by not knowing the ending, the spark between them keeps growing. Every time she resists the temptation to read the last page, her desire to know the man without a name grows. ‘The human life comes into existence with a cry, not a laugh or a snort but a cry,’ the book says on the first page. She flips to the page she likes to read over and over. She furrows her brow.

‘Laughter cannot exist with other emotions. Laughter is inevitably a lack of feeling, fuelled by indifference. It reverberates through that void and spreads from one man to another. Laughter is rarely a solitary activity. It fosters bonds because it calls out to certain common necessities of life that have been enforced upon us by the society,’ O says.

Oi swirls her drinks in her mouth and shakes her head. ‘Oh, I don’t agree. Laughter is an emotion. There are so many things laughter can say.’

‘Give me an example’.

‘A nervous laugh, a shy giggle.’

‘That’s a masquerade. It’s not expressing, au contraire, it’s repressing the feeling.’

Oi looks at the sky and sips on her drink quietly. O touches her hand and says, ‘You look tired. Let’s go home.’

‘No.’

‘What do you want to do then?’

‘I want to sit here and laugh.’

Amina sighs. “I want to laugh,” she whispers. She clenches her teeth and pulls on her cheeks. She straightens up as she hears a giggle coming from a distance. A soft, playful, young chuckle. She gets up from the bed and stands by the window and peeps out slowly. A young boy and girl stand in the alley below. The boy’s hand is wrapped around the girl’s waist and her hand is on his chest. The boy whispers something into the girl’s ear and she giggles. Amina watches them through one eye peeking from behind the curtain. Oh, the boy kisses the girl and she stops to giggle. Iqbal had kissed her once in the farm behind their school. They were talking and laughing when he held her face and kissed her lips. Her cheeks flushed and heart pounded. The girl giggles again as they walk out of the alley. Amina’s gaze follows them until they disappear around the corner. She loosens her grip from the curtain and stands against the wall. She closes her eyes as the cold wall presses against her back. She wants to chuckle like the young girl. It’s been more than seven years since she has seen Iqbal. They met at their usual spot behind the school building on the last day of school and she told him about her moving to the city. He said, “Let’s run away.”

“We will drown.”

“I can swim. I will save you.”

“For how long?”

It was a long time ago. Or in a previous life. He, too, would have neatly arranged his life and tucked her away in some corner where he wouldn’t have to look. She, however, lives in the corners. The walls provide her comfort. The year she moved here, she had made friends with one of the neighbours – Priya. Priya was newly married like her and used to knit. They once went out to shop for wool and threads. In the evening, when Mustafa returned, he slapped her across the face and said, “The women in our households do not go out alone. If you need anything, I will get it or I will take you with me.”

They didn’t go out together after that but Priya would sometimes come in the afternoon to Amina’s house and they would talk over chai. “I love your tea, didi,” Priya used to say. Priya’s giggle was just like the young girl’s in the alley. She died during childbirth and her husband moved out with the new-born. She had given birth to a girl. Or a boy perhaps. It was a long time ago. Amina didn’t see the baby. She felt envious of Priya. With nothing to look forward to anymore, her afternoons were filled with thoughts of death, the ultimate freedom. She imagined ways to end her life. She had no intention of ending her life, of course, she just liked to think of ways that would lead to a less painful death. Would Oi kill herself at the end of the book? If she does, Amina would feel helpless and if she doesn’t, then Amina would be sad for her. She liked Oi’s relationship with O and when O dies in an accident, her heart cried for Oi. She picks up the book and flips to the end pages. She runs her finger along the sentence, ‘Names are a vulgar need of human flesh to find something to hold onto, something to own, to find meaning in everything. Imagine you not having a name,’ O says, handing Oi her coffee mug.

‘Such rubbish! Names are important. How would I know who I am if I don’t have a name?’ Oi frowns as she blows into the coffee mug.

‘You have a name. Do you know who you are?’

‘I am Oi.’

‘No, you are not. Oi is a name given to you by someone else and who you think you are is also a mirage that others have created for you.’

‘I am Oi’, Oi looks into O’s eyes and bangs the table with her fist. ‘You’re crazy.’

Amina doesn’t think O is crazy. She understands and agrees with O. She turns to the last page.

‘The billows clash and collide and a fringe of snow-white feathery foam follows their changing outlines. The receding waves leave behind a remnant of foam on the sand. Oi picks up a handful and it slips through her fingers, leaving a salty residue on her palm. She suddenly begins to laugh, her entire being revolting against the grief. Her laughter is like the froth, it is pushed to the shore by the waves and pulled in with them, leaving a frolicsome trail behind. A faint white glow that disappears in the blink of an eye. The sand is smooth again as if nothing happened here. It is a masquerade. The froth, her laughter, everything.’

Amina shuts the book and shoves it under the mattress. She mustn’t know how it ends. The early evening sun’s rays filter in through the curtains and fall on the wall in front of her. She watches the patterns created by the light and shadow, listening to the still laughter that awaits to fill the echo in her. Something rises and crashes against the walls in her. It continues to rise and crash in successive rumblings, coursing through her body below the surface of her skin. We laugh at the disguises, we laugh at the contrasts, she thinks. Isn’t the laughter she hates her only escape from loneliness? The days when Mustafa stays at his other wife’s house, she has nothing to divide her days and nights into. They all seem the same. She reads, cooks for herself, talks to the walls and wanders from room to room chasing shadows. Mustafa will be home soon. She should start preparing dinner. She gathers her tresses and ties them into a shabby bun.

She hears the screeching of the brakes of Mustafa’s scooter. She jumps to her feet and stands in the hallway, waiting. As soon as the bell rings, she leaps to the door and opens it. Mustafa enters and hands her a bag of groceries. She goes to the kitchen and opens the bag. He has brought chicken and mutton. He’s going to be here for a couple of days. She places the meat and vegetables in the refrigerator and fetches a glass of water for Mustafa. He gulps it down and says, “I will freshen up and come.”

She nods and returns to the kitchen. She arranges the dining table and waits for him. She taps her toes gently. Around the hundred and fiftieth tap, he comes and sits at the table. She serves him food. “Come, sit. Eat with me,” he says.

She pulls a chair and sits quietly, without making a noise. She takes food on her plate and eats slowly, aware of every morsel she takes in her mouth. “You cook just like your mother,” he says through the food in his mouth. “But you don’t laugh like her.”

She swallows the food and flushes it down with water. “You know, on the way home, I had the weirdest thought.” He continues after a pause. “What if someone has stolen your laughter? I have never seen you laugh.” He thinks for a while and shakes his head. “Uh-huh. Never. I may have seen you laugh as a child but I don’t remember.”

She feels the heat of his gaze. She clears her throat and says, her eyes fixed to the plate, “How can anyone possibly steal laughter?”

“It’s happening. You’re so naïve. Anything can happen in today’s world. Possibilities are immense. And it’s scary. This world is no bed of roses.”

He uses such clichés when he talks.

“Who would want to steal my laugh?”

“You tell me, woman. You are here alone all day and those days when I am not home. How do you spend your days?”

Has he found out about the books? No, that’s not possible. He would never. “What?” she says louder than she intends to.

“Have you ventured out anytime? Is there a lover?”

Her eyeballs bulge, her face turns red and her lips quiver. She is staring at him. Something is rising in her. She feels it in her throat. She tries to swallow it but it refuses to budge. She’s choking. Her body shakes violently and she bursts into laughter. Her body sways with laughter. Mustafa watches her agape. She goes on laughing, her laughter accompanied with hiccups. He hands her some water. She holds the glass and water spills out as she continues to laugh. “Have you gone crazy, woman?” Mustafa says. The more she tries to control her laughter, the more strength it returns with. Mustafa gets up and shakes her, holding her by the shoulders. “Stop it!”

He takes his plate and goes into the other room, leaving her alone at the table, wildly shaking in a fit of laughter. Laughter is a masquerade. She doesn’t feel like eating. Once the fit dies down, she gets up and begins to clean the dishes. Emotion is laughter’s enemy. “Indifference,” she begins to murmur but stops as Mustafa puts his plate in the sink. He stands beside her, his gaze fixed on her face. “So, you can laugh, eh?” He takes the strand of hair fallen across her face and tucks it behind her ear. She shudders. “I had assumed barren women didn’t have laughter in them.” He runs his fingers down her back. “Take a shower before you come to bed. You stink.” He says and walks away. She finishes cleaning the dishes and heads to the bathroom. When she enters the bedroom, Mustafa is already in bed, reading a paper. She sits at the other end of the bed. He pushes the paper aside, removes his glasses and pulls her towards him. He turns off the light and gets on top of her. He kisses her lips and unhooks her blouse. She squirms as he bites her nipples and presses her breasts. He undoes his pyjama, lifts her saree and enters her. She taps her toes in the air as he moves on top of her. With her eyes closed, she counts. Around the sixtieth tap, he falls beside her with a loud groan. She opens her eyes and watches the streetlight falling in through the window onto the wall. She turns in Mustafa’s direction. The contour of his body moves slowly with his breathing. She clears her throat and whispers, “Can you tickle me?”

“What?” The contour shifts with a rapid movement. “What did you say?”

“Can you tickle me?”

“Have you lost your mind?”

Amina stares into the abyss of his eyes, as his silhouette merges with the darkness, and sighs, “I want to laugh.”

Rajni Mishra has been writing verses and cooking up stories for as long as she can remember. Her affair with words took a serious turn when she became a member of the Bangalore Writers’ Workshop. Her story “The Prognosis” appeared in an anthology by Roli Books, and other stories and poems in Breadcrumbs Mag and The Bangalore Review. She works as a content marketer and copywriter to support her writing habit. She lives in Bangalore in a home built of books and is a sucker for everything that involves plenty of sugar, laughter and kissing.