In July 2014, internationally renowned stand-up comic Vasu Primlani found the walls closing in on her. Karnataka’s ‘tree woman’ Thimmakka had filed a complaint that her name was being misused by Primlani to raise funds and set up an environmental trust in the US called ‘Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education.’ She accused Primlani of cheating and forgery. Primlani was charged and taken into custody in new Delhi after being apprehended from the airport there. This month, The Karnataka High Court quashed the case after Primlani contended that her NGO was closed back in 2010 itself and donations given to the NGO were used for activities related to environmental protection. The High Court accepted her contention and quashed the case. She speaks to us about the fallout of the case and her plans now.
What impact has the case had on you?
I lost 10 kg in seven days while I was put in police custody and prison. I went through severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder subsequently. My life and liberty were taken from me. To date, I don’t know what liberty feels like. This carefully orchestrated plan with extortion demands, threats, official prosecution, derision and judgment from the press, proclaiming me guilty before the trial ever began, went a long way toward taking away my basic freedoms and damaging my personal and professional well-being. It was very difficult in jail, as it is for any innocent person who is prosecuted unjustly.
I wasn’t able to string a thought in my head for months afterward, my ability to earn a living was severely impacted with the smear campaign as well. I was not able to provide for my aged parents. My parents and family went through incredible trauma at the hands of a state that has proven that they will hold me guilty until proven innocent. After this torture of one year and five months, I have finally been exonerated by the Karnataka High Court.
How are you coping now?
I am trying to patch my life back again; I was also denied the liberty to do my first Ironman triathlon – a race I had been training for eight months, 16 hours a week. All that blood, toil, tears and sweat were also laid to waste. I am trying to get back on my feet.
What do you have to say about Thimmakka?
I don’t think that is the question for me. I think that is a question for the state of Karnataka.
What do YOU think of state machinery which harnessed its press, lawyers, judges, and police, to conduct a witchhunt on a single woman they all knew was innocent? What do YOU think of the extortion threats this lone woman received from these factions, that the beating would stop as soon as she bowed down and gave them money? You had decided Thimmakka is right because she is Dalit, and the NRI is wrong because she is American. This NRI who has been decorated in the US, UK and India for her honesty, integrity, and fearlessness. A judge in your own state completely exonerated me after reviewing all documents and falsified ‘evidence’ against me.
Even after one year and five months of grave torture and human rights violations at the hands of the state, they were still trying to desperately prove wrongdoing when there was none. Karnataka, never mind what I think of Thimmakka; what do YOU think of her, and equally importantly, of yourselves?
As a gay comic in India, how do you feel about India currently?
I have seen prosecution at the institutional level, and yes, it has affected me personally. I feel India is being torn in two different directions – one toward the 21st century, democratic values and recognition of human rights, and the other toward the dark ages and the Wild West where anything goes, and there is no accountability or citizen rights.
Does stand-up comedy offer an effective response to the current climate of masochism and patriarchy?
I get wonderful responses to my comedy, including men coming up and admitting they behave this way toward women, and they won’t anymore. The job of the comedian, as I see it, is to provide a mirror in front of society for it to improve. In that, I see myself as a change agent; as I always have been. Men realise very quickly there can be no peace and love in the house without equality with their partners. I have met true patriarchs – these are men who head households and nations by bowing before their wives and daughters and holding them in love and honour.