If you’re looking to read an article in which astounding life lessons are as easy to come by as hilarious one-liners and analogies, browse no more. In fact, if you are looking for a life story with the same kind of jagged graph – where dilemmas are almost instantly watered down with humour, and predicaments with passion – Vipul Singh has a tale that will thrill you to your heart’s content. The “vagrant thespian” or nomadic solo performer who was once disabled is now on a mission to overachieve in order to compensate for that baloney diagnosis. Walk with the previously ‘handicapped’ vagabond from Bhopal to J&K, revel with the villagers that cross his path in his performances on everything from education to menstruation, and in the process, learn how else this life can be lived.
Two steps behind
Born to a woman who was a feminist before it was cool and wanted a daughter but got two boys "with no exchange policy" instead, the 22-year-old Vipul Singh jokes that his mom didn’t know what to do with him anyway, when, to pile on to her worries further, her bundle of joy never stood up, unlike his brother, who was walking at five months old. The doctor declared that he was handicapped – physically and mentally. "Us being the small town people that we were, all the expensive oils were brought in and I was drowning in them in massages, but nothing really happened. I wasn’t even talking. So, science ruled that I was mute, handicapped, with a mental age that would always be two years behind, and, in all probability, would die before I turn nine."
But something mundane yet miraculous set that right. "All it took was for my nanny to fling me in the air this one time, when I was three, and the rest was history. I was walking. And as far as the talking goes, well, as you can see, I have been overcompensating for those missed three years ever since!" he jokes.
The happy family moved to their family home in Bhopal, where Vipul failed nursery and made his brother take it twice with him. "But, on the bright side, that built the base of my language really well, because I nailed the alphabet song!" he sniggers.
Fast forward to primary and secondary school, where the homophobic and transphobic obscenities hurled at him in one year were enough to last a gentleman a lifetime – all because he was skinny and somewhat fair, with deep, dark eyes. But as you would expect at this point in the story, the man had his own spin on this dark phase. "On better days, I was called the Hulk. But that was because I had quite the reputation in class for being an entertainer. Of course, one has to find something to pick on, like pointing out that Sachin Tendulkar once failed his tenth grade," he says.
‘Stand-up’ for a friend
Some of his nicer friends and colleagues pointed out the obvious and told him that he should give stand-up comedy a shot. "I was sold – and just for becoming a good stand-up comic, I thought I’d join theatre. Except, I discovered that theatre was WAY more interesting. I liked scripting, I liked acting, I liked storytelling. There was nothing not to like! So, I decide to stick with theatre. And I got pretty good at it, too. I committed to that – and would you look at it – someone who once couldn’t talk made it to the national level debating championship!" he proudly declares.
One fine day, when it was time to pick a course for his degree, he asked his father for the freedom to write and pursue mass communication. The answer he got was one of those dialogues that would become an instant catchphrase had it been a film.
"My father said, ‘Azaadi ke naarein lagana band kar de, azaadi mil chuki thi 1947 mein. Focus on your education’,” he recounts.
Vipul respected that opinion, and took up engineering, but kept seeing to his dulhan, theatre, on the side through some NGOs. "Except I got fleeced for my time and effort, and wasn’t paid my dues. Hopping mad, I decided to go on my own trip, produce, direct, write and act in my own plays," he recounts of what came to be the genesis of Soloplay.
To glee or not to glee
Around the same time, Vipul ran some quick numbers on his happiness quotient. "I figured that I would spend 10 months of my year absolutely ecstatic, but ruin two full months before every exam in tension. I didn't want to waste even that much time brooding," he says.
So, he told his folks that he couldn’t do it anymore. In his opinion, the people who say that their parents didn’t allow them to pursue their dreams are the biggest liars. What he feels happens is that they don't make a strong enough case for what they want and why they deserve it. "They are your parents, bhai, they wouldn’t abandon you like that!”
His didn’t, either. So, there he was, ready to do theatre full-time. Except, this newfound freedom came with the sinking realisation that he was a mere 12th pass now, and that pretty much meant a permanent stay order on his employment and earning potential. "I knew I was on my own, from then on. But I was ready. I knew I couldn’t go to big cities like Delhi or Mumbai because my parents wouldn’t be foolish enough to throw away Rs 10 lakh more on the feeding and burping habits of their dropout son. I didn’t even ask for the cash, I just decided to set out on my own!"
He learnt that every state was grappling with social issues, and thought that the raw and candid medium of ‘nukkad nataks’ would be the most impactful method to drive a point home. So, the plan was to be a travelling artist, acting in all his soloplays himself, as acting was his first love. He chalked out a plan with pretty much one hack - finding the cheapest modes of transport to get around, right from the general compartments of trains to hitching rides on bullock carts and trucks. "I don’t call myself a traveller; nowadays, one goes to their grandma’s place and calls themselves a ‘traveller’ to act all cool. I was first a theatre artist, and then everything else," he says. The result - he travelled to almost 14 states with his sketches.
Walking out on disability forever
However, one thing that always irked him was the way his mother would narrate his story to all the people she met, saying, ‘My son couldn’t walk till he was three’. "To me, that was kind of incomplete; and I thought I’d fix that narrative once and for all. So, one day, I went up to my mum and told her, ‘Now, you can tell your friends, ‘My son couldn’t walk till he was three, but now, he is walking from Bhopal to Jammu in three months’,’" he says, of a plan that may seem like a stretch, but that is playing out like clockwork, even as you read this.
Setting sail in August, the plan was to go from Bhopal to Ranchi, Vidisha, Jhansi, Gwalior, Mathura, Agra, Delhi, Jaipur, Ajmer, Pushkar, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaiselmer, Dehi Bagain, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Lansdowne, take a detour to Nepal (because why the heck not!), return to Himachal Pradesh, Dharmshala, Mcleodganj, Spiti Valley, Parvati Valley, Tosh, Shimla, Kullu, Jammu and back to Bhopal, in that order. When we contacted him yesterday, he was snacking on an omelette on the banks of river in Rishikesh. This omelette, we'll have you know, was the equivalent of a feast for the vagrant. He has seen entire fortnights where he survived only on tea and samosas.
Full disclosure, though. He says, "Of course, I don't walk the whole distance, I hitch rides interstate, and get off on better patches and walk the rest. It all depends on how beautiful the day is and how my mood is, but yes, I have walked for the most part, simply because I was performing on the way incessantly," he explains.
The heads that turned
As far as the topic of his plays go, you name a social issue, and he says he has performed a sketch on it, which isn't hard to believe, considering that he has done a staggering 685 performances till date. "But the topics closest to my heart are sex education and menstruation. To this day, every time I perform on the topic of menstruation, where I play a woman, tears well up in my eyes. Most of these are performed in backward areas like villages and small towns," he says.
He has been financing this trip primarily through the tips he receives when he tips his hat at the end of his performances, where he has received a variety of donations, ranging from egg shells and rotten tomatoes to tenners and fifty rupee notes; the response varies. But, it's kept him alive, and he's kept himself kicking with the amount gathered. His Facebook community also threw in their good wishes in the form of some green, and his Ketto campaign is also sporadically keeping the cash registers clinking. But he says he needs all the funds he can get, at this stage.
"I'm pretty sorted on the well-wishes front. I need y'all to step it up on the financial front now!" he endearingly shoots his mouth off. With the money, he'll pay off his debts and continue to enthrall crowds with his brutally honest words that pierce like daggers yet feel as enlightening as the classics. After the walk, the lad is speaking at a TEDx event hosted by St. Joseph’s in Bengaluru, following which he will return to Bhopal, spend a month or two at home, and eventually, hit the road again, take on the east and see what adventures destiny has in store for him.