Mumbai:Stand-up comedian, B-school professor, corporate trainer, environmentalist, triathlete and somatic therapist—no, this story is not about six people, just one. Vasu Primlani, who’s won the President’s Nari Shakti award, packs in all this and more.
Did we mention she’s also training for the Ironman Triathlon, which will be held this July? How does Primlani manage so much? “My parents said, ‘You can do whatever you want; if it’s good, the rewards are yours. If it’s bad, don’t come crying to us. Whether or not we understand it, we will support whatever you take up’. My father, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Queen’s Command, taught us (my twin sister and me) not just to follow rules, but to break them. He told us, ‘No matter the rule or who orders you, think for yourself’.”
‘Try’ is the keyword for the 42-year-old, who shuttles between US and India (Delhi and Mumbai). “I am neither the brightest, strongest, nor the fastest, but I try with all my heart. My mother taught us to do our best. So I try my best, that’s all,” the short-haired Primlani, dressed in a blue checked shirt and cargo pants, says simply.
Having spent 17 years in the US, Primlani returned to India to be with her 95-year-old ailing father. “He had constipation for four days, he nearly died. I got two jokes out of that too—my father had constipation for four days and it scared the shit out of us. And my father is a royal pain in the ass, he’s such a pain in the ass that after four days of constipation he was a pain in his own ass. I was writing this in the ICU.”
At five, Primlani knew she wanted to be an environmentalist. “One of my favourite teachers loved trees and from that day on, I loved trees because I loved her. It’s also logical, how can you destroy what you live in?”
As an environmentalist, Primlani works with restaurants and is involved in energy and water conservation, solid-waste minimisation and pollution prevention. “People who take the local train take it because it’s convenient, not because they’re environmentalists. We need to create such systems. If people do not participate in environmentally-friendly behaviour, it’s our failure in not designing a system that promotes it.”
In this economy,” she asks passionately, “in terms of monetary value, what is the most valuable thing? Between diamonds and water, which one can you not live without? And what is more expensive? How are diamonds more valuable than water? You treat water like dirt and soon you won’t have any.”
“Only after the last fish has been caught, the last tree cut down and the last river poisoned, will man realise that money cannot be eaten. I live by those points. We all need to”.
A stand-up comedian for seven years, Primlani picks topics that people don’t talk about—the environment, women’s safety, the corporate environment, gender equality, cultural aspects, Delhi men versus Mumbai men, civic sense…
“The primary purpose of a comedian is to hold up a mirror to society. We use comedy, which is the most potent and disarming tool of communication.” She recalls a 70-year-old who came up to her during a show about the male gaze in Delhi and admitted that he was a grandfather but he, too, was one amongst them. “… Main manta hoon ki aaj tak main ladkiyon ko aisi hi dekhta hoon, aur khuda kasam kal se nahin karoonga’. (I admit I have been looking at girls in the way that you have described, but I promise I won’t do so from tomorrow),” he told her.
“I bring about change,” Primlani says proudly.
As a stand-up comedian for children, she also teaches concepts of consent, respect, gender equality and civic sense. Her show Myself Tinda Badal is about a ‘bad’ Sikh boy who misbehaves, comes last in class and is proud of it. “As a therapist, I don’t tell children what to do. I misbehave, so I have them tell me what I should do. When they do that, they’re most likely to embody that behaviour.”
Primlani has also performed on a flight. “I was travelling on Southwest Airlines. I generally talk to the crew. I said, ‘I’m a stand-up comedian. How about I do a little show for you?’ The crew arranged it, gave me the passenger announcement system, and I did a 5-7 minute show. One of my lines there was, ‘Talk about a captive audience. If you don’t like my jokes, you could always walk out’. But look at the trust they gave me. They didn’t know me and if I had said one word—nr, bomb, Osama bin Laden—they would have been sued.”
She’s done five half marathons, two Olympic-distance triathlons, one short course, a Half Ironman, one sprint triathlon, and in coming July, she’ll be doing the full Ironman.
Primlani follows a strict athlete’s diet and trains eight-16 hours a week, come rain or sun. Training in India is a lot more challenging than in the US. “It’s hot, we sweat salt and if it gets in your eyes, it burns. Running the Ironman in California will be easier than training; the temperatures are cooler and the roads are smoother.”
Balancing training with everything else is hard. “Training is me time, that’s when you’re alone with yourself, your thoughts, your despair. When I go to a movie, I fall asleep, yes, maybe that’s a plan,” she laughs.
Did we mention she’s a rock climber too? Oh, and she did ballet for seven years from the age of 7 at the Russian Culture Centre.
“I was raped when I was five till I was seven. I had so much rage and shame inside of me. And if you told me I had it, I’d say ‘I’m fine’. You can’t see psychological wounding. I had a friend—a little bird-like creature who would apologise for living—who had been sexually abused by her father. One day she had completely transformed. She had done somatic therapy, so I followed in her footsteps and here I am on the other side.”
Following a one-year course in somatics and trauma in San Francisco, Primlani has been working with child sexual abuse survivors, suicide cases, kleptomaniacs, rape victims, autism and other disorders.
When someone goes through trauma, it gets stuck in your body for decades, sometimes lifelong and it will shape who you are and how you think. Somatic therapy takes this trauma out of the body, she explains. She does a bone audit; once the trauma is found, the treatment begins. “When the bones are healthy, if I press it, it will register as pressure. If it hurts, it’s trauma. If they have trauma in their bones, they won’t be able to hide it, they will be screaming in pain,” she says. Primlani also teaches about maintaining boundaries—professional and personal—and the power of saying ‘no’.
Little wonder then that she was awarded the Nari Shakti. “It’s is for all the things I am… If you let a woman be whatever she wants to be she’ll turn out to be a woman like me. I use my brain, body, heart and spirit for the best purposes. I’ve always stood for the rights of anybody, but women particularly.”