“What? Stand up comedy? You?” came the incredulous reply.
I grinned and confirmed that indeed, I, was going to join an all female troupe and do stand up comedy. I wanted to nod to really confirm but I was afraid I’d crack my neck involuntarily.
The conversation ended. It was a reaction I expected.
Other reactions included:
“Mehr, stand up comedy? Will your children be with you?” Yes because that’s precisely what children are. Props or even accessories. Who needs a handbag when you can have a baby as a clutch?
“Stand up? You’re going to crack jokes? YOU?” Oh I’m sorry I forgot we live in a land where cracking skulls is acceptable but a joke isn’t.
“Oh. I See. How Nice. So you know, this year, given how six year olds these days are so mature and able to make Important Decisions on their own, my child will only be inviting a few children to her birthday and I’m not sure if our kids are friends…” Thank God for that. (But you’ll invite me to your kitty party right? Right?)
“That’s amazing! You’ll be amazing! Everyone will be amazing!” You clearly don’t know how amazing it is that you have no idea who I’ll be talking about.
“You’re funny… a funny person… Okaybye.” I still don’t know why that person ran off.
And of course, this from close quarters:
“Comedy? Show? What kind of a comedy show?”
“Oh come on, you’ve seen some with me. Like the ones you watch you know, Live At the Apollo and stuff…”
“Yes yes those are fine but what will happen in this comedy show?”
“I’ll tell jokes.”
“I’ll tell more jokes.”
“Yaar it’s just that. I’ll tell jo…”
“What will your children think?”
Thank me one day for telling it how it is in a society where I’m expected to Smile And Salaam my way through life, that’s what they’ll do. And support me for life because the arts don’t exactly rake in the big bucks.
In my mind I had it sorted. How difficult could it be? The thing is, it wasn’t difficult. It was a shock to my entire 30 something-years-old existence.
Anyway, rehearsal time. I walked in brimming with confidence that could made Tony Manero’s strut look like a limp, only to find myself barely noticed by the sexiest, the sultriest and the sassiest group of twenty-something year olds (the oldest being 24). Hey, I thought I was the cooler, older one?
This was Auratnaak, the Lahore chapter of Pakistan’s first female stand up comedy troupe. Although it had originally started in Karachi with Faiza Saleem, Yusra Amjad a Lahore based poet, founded the Lahore troupe. These girls meant business.
These girls and their trainer Hassaan Bin Shaheen were IT. They were bold and beautiful… and bored by what I had on offer.
Even in our singing warm up they all sang some of the hottest hits by artists such as Taylor Swift, Drake, Adele, Nicki Minaj. I sang U2. Cue looks of ‘who invited her again?’
I was so unnerved I barely managed to make it through the session, wildly thinking to myself that I was clearly going through a mid-life crisis to be doing this.
Took my sorry arse home and sat down. This was a teenage dream of mine and one that I’d put on the backburner while I Smiled and Salaamed through life.
In 2011, when I was expecting my first child that some unacknowledged elements of life began to surface. Whether it was hormones or that suppressed rage that defined South Asian women at large, all I could think at my loneliest hour was that no way would I let my unborn baby face a similar fate of Smiling and Salaaming through life. ‘My children will be free,’ I decided!
So like any self respecting revolutionary adamant on bringing change, I put up a Facebook status expressing a hidden wish – I wanted to be a stand up comedian. And as we know, anything said on social media obviously made it sacred.
Five years later it was happening. Or not. But now that I had shown my face to these girls which was huge because Lahore is incestuously small and I knew I’d see them again somewhere – izzat was an issue too.
Mean girls? Not at all. Girls who meant something? Yep.
I’d been on this planet longer than them. I’d lived a life of great privilege and surreal experiences defined my existance. Surely I could come up with something funny?
Maybe my harshest critic was right: People were going to laugh at me instead of with me. And somehow, again post birthing two humans, laughing at me didn’t matter because there were bigger battles to be fought. The point was to make people laugh. To create art. Good art.
So as I sat down next to my heater on a wintery night in December, I struck a match only to find there was no gas. Switched on the electric heater and the fuse blew.
Clearly the Universe was telling me something: I had to leave my comfort zone. I had to bare my soul to find my jokes.
Aching joints, a wailing baby, a toddler with a runny nose and a cold winter night I just let it out. By the time I finished I felt like an empty vessel. Did I really pour my life out there? And why did it leave me so cold?
Next rehearsal we were expected to perform our material. I volunteered last.
And I got them this time.
All I could see were open mouths gasping for air and hear the sweet sound of laughter. Mehr Husain had arrived.
I was going to live forever, I was part of this generation of cool cats, I was not just an ‘Aunty’, I was officially funny, I was un-effing-believable – in a nonsexual way – and that was fine too!
Night after night I practised my set on my lads.
If they clapped, I knew I had a good joke. If they stared at me blankly… well, it was a filthy one and they were too young to get it.
And I bombarded the girls with voice note after voice note of new jokes. They almost always never replied but I was determined to make this work. No facebook post was going to get thrown back in my face just as a memory.
I get told I’m the first one up. Eh? Me? But I’m the oldest one here, why parade me first?
Besides I’m the one cracking jokes about marriage, motherhood, children, politics… apparently, everything that appeals to the crowd here apparently so off I go.
Somewhere I hear the host say “resident MILF” and I look over to see whose stealing my thunder only to look back at the host looking at me and then the mic pointedly.
I think she didn’t know that the M in my name didn’t stand for that but at that point I was happy to own it.
The whole room was silent. The desperation for something to start, an audience starved for entertainment, the curiousity of this ‘Aunty’ thinking she’s funny hit me like the jabs society had thrown at me all my life.
So staring out at a full house people I dropped the most original opening line.
“Hi I’m Mehr and I’m here to talk to you about a few things.”
And so I started. From motherhood to marriage, from men to well… more men and from child bearing to child rearing, I felt elevated. I felt light. I owned my truth and I was telling it freely.
As the crowd laughed, laughed and laughed, I wished we could talk like this everyday. And one after the other the ladies who formed Auratnaak owned the crowd and braved Lahore’s unforgiving society.
On the last night of what had been a successful show overall, I hugged one of them tightly. This particular girl – roughly a decade younger than me – reminded me of myself when I was in my twenties. She was lippy, loud and mouthy and gave me countless grief when I missed rehearsals.
I saw that in ten years so much had changed. Females were realising that conversations had been futile, change had to come via another means. If you didn’t want to hear us speak then surely you could join us in laughing about the tragedies of our female existance.
Sure we shocked a few oldies with our revelations and sure some men out there laughed at a bunch of ‘laydeez’. But that happens anyway, right?
Not really. To stand there and literally open up yourself to a judgmental society is no mean feat. It’s frightening and yet it’s so painfully honest and raw – it’s human. It made my lived experience as a Pakistani woman so real. And the unspoken truth around topics like marriage and motherhood so acceptable.
If I could joke about it, why couldn’t I just say it? My heart broke when upon leaving, a member of the crowd, a fellow mother pulled me close and whispered in my ear, “Yeh meri kahani bhi hai.”
The laughter in me died but my resolve to speak out hardened.
I may have dreamed of this and put up a social media post but it is my fellow performers, these young girls who paved the way. And it was those girls who mattered most. The ones who braved into the unknown, the creative aspect of comedy knowing what they were risking.
Suddenly comedy didn’t seem like such a innocent dream anymore. This funny business was a serious matter.
And a powerful one too.