Whistling in the Dark

“Hello, my name’s Shazia Mirza — at least that’s what it says on my pilot’s license!” The young Muslim woman who says these words is dressed in a hijab and in this post 9/11 world, where every Muslim is viewed a terrorist, she manages to elicit laughter from the audience, rather than horrified stares.

Shazia, you see, is a stand up comic and like a handful of South Asian comics, she has managed to turn her angst ridden experiences of growing up South Asian in the West into a rich lode of material for comedy. Yes, at times there’s almost a black humor to the hilarious one-liners, but they resonate with the large audiences, largely young, largely South Asian. After all, she’s talking about their lives.
Like them, she’s The Other.

Indeed, being a comic of South Asian descent is a lot like whistling in the dark — when you confront your fears and whistle in spite of your fears, the fears seem to evaporate. South Asian comics have found laughter is the best way to speak to the racism, gender or sexual discrimination and culture clashes they face.

And the funny people are a diverse bunch of desis: Shazia Mirza is a London based Pakistani; Vijai Nathan is of South Indian origin and brought up in the United States; Vidur Kapur is a recent immigrant from India; and Dan Nainan is of Japanese and Indian parentage. Says Ashu Rai of Sholay Events, which organized Lafforama where the four comics recently performed in New York: “The issues they brought up aren’t talked about in the mainstream media and comedy world — growing up in a bi-cultural environment, sexuality both South Asian and in the Diaspora, the anti-Muslim/anti-immigrant backlash. They put a humorous spin on it in a way that allows South Asians and others to connect and feel that it speaks to their own experiences.”

Vidur, known as the Notorious Indian Bad Boy, was born in Calcutta and grew up in Delhi. He found a flight out of India was the easiest way to deal with the question of his sexual orientation: “Let’s put aside homosexuality, addressing sexuality in India was impossible when I was growing up in the 70s!” he says. “Apart from not having a gay community in India, I had never even heard the word gay; I had, however, been chased around school by boys yelling ‘Homo oy Homo oy Homo.’”
Growing up, he had such a hard time in school that he even contemplated suicide as a teen. A scholarship took him to an international high school in Wales, and then, as he says, he “set out to fulfill my parents’ dreams” by getting a bachelor’s degree in economics from the London School of Economics and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. “I started coming out in graduate school and then worked as a highly paid executive in corporate America for many years, living a double life of a successful corporate executive during the day and a gay boy on evenings and weekends.”

On stage, he likes to tell about the time he was mistaken for a terrorist: “I was horrified! I said ME a Terrorist!! Helloooo! Well, firstly terrorists don’t say helloooo, but what am I going to do, beg the Al Qaeda to let one Hindu in so I become their fashion police? ‘Lose the white turban Osama!! Labor Day is over!’”

For Indians, generally the H-word is a very hush, hush word, but much to Vidur’s surprise, desi audiences have really responded to his edgy, brash humor: “I find that even desi audiences of older generations are really appreciative. I think the characters I portray and the honesty and vulnerability of my material give them something they can relate to and also challenges them to think about our culture and values.”

He adds, “A lot of my comedy is derived from really painful and emotional experiences, which I have had time to deal with, and find the humor in. These are my experiences and I have the liberty to poke fun and make light of them. I think many comedians develop their sense of humor as a survival mechanism to deal with pain and difficulty.”

Interestingly enough, all four comics are the offspring of typical Asian parents who emphasize education above all else, pressuring them toward prestigious careers. Shazia, growing up in the United Kingdom, faced the triple whammy of being Asian, Muslim and female. Her parents are from Pakistan and she grew up in multicultural Birmingham, with friends from different backgrounds. She says: “It was tough. I had three brothers who had more freedom than I did. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. I always knew I wanted to be on the stage, but I thought it would never be possible.”

She went to Manchester University to study biochemistry and then got her postgraduate degree at the University of London before becoming a teacher. The outspoken Shazia found the stage to be the perfect place to vent her emotions on everything from religion to terrorism to sex.

How difficult was it being a Muslim woman doing comedy in a post 9/11 world? She says, “There were many tough times. People were scared to laugh at a Muslim woman, people were scared to give me gigs, and I had to do the material that all the white guys were doing, which was not what I wanted to do. But I was determined that nothing was going to stop me. I had faced harsher barriers in my life.”
Shazia has won several awards at comedy festivals in the U.K., performed at the London Palladium and was listed by the Observer among the 50 funniest people in Britain last year. CBS is making a 60-minute documentary about her and she has performed standup in many European countries.

Fellow Muslims, however, have not always found the humor in her performances — to put it mildly. She wrote in an article, “I am maybe the first Muslim woman in comedy and maybe that’s why there is so much controversy, the first person to do anything is going to attract a fuss, had there been a hundred Muslim women in comedy before me there wouldn’t be all this fuss, but I don’t mind taking a bit of criticism if it means that I am going to make a change in society and be a voice for Muslim women.”

Growing up in America in the ’70s and ’80s was also hard for Vijai, whose parents migrated from Chennai in the 70′s. Although her father worked for the World Bank in Washington, she remembers her family was often verbally attacked for being Indian.

“My parents discouraged me from speaking out, for fear that a verbal attack would turn into a physical attack,” recalls Vijai. “So I never spoke up. I would think of thousands of things to say, but I just kept them inside. It wasn’t until I started ‘stand-up’ that I started ‘standing up’ for myself.”
With a father with the World Bank and a mother who teaches Tamil at the State Department, the pressure was on to get a sterling education. Vijai got an honors degree from McGill University in Toronto and a job at The Baltimore Sun, but her yearning to be on stage won out.

The main fodder for her comedy act were dating, sex —or the lack of it — and the culture clashes with parents who were still living in India of the 50′s. She says, “The whole ABCD concept does have basis in fact. It’s tough to be an Indian kid born in America. We aren’t considered Indian by people in India, and we’re not thought of as American by the rest of the U.S. mainstream.”
When she started in 1997, she was the only brown girl performing and took her show wherever she could get a gig, be it obscure rural communities or small bars. Now, of course, everything Indian is hot. Says Vijai: “A few years ago Latin culture was in vogue, and now it’s the South Asian Explosion, although you have to be careful how you say that; the FBI may get the wrong idea!”

With intermarriages occurring ever more frequently, it was only a matter of time before we got the first Indian-Japanese comic. “I’m half Indian and half Japanese! My family photo album looks like a Benetton ad!” So says Dan Nainan, quite possibly the only half Indian, half Japanese comedian around. He has performed at comedy clubs and concerts across the United States and in Australia. He has opened for several noted comedians, including Robert Schimmel and will be doing so for Margaret Cho in April.

Dan’s parents met in 1957 at the University of Indiana, where his father, who is from Kerala, was studying for his PhD in nuclear physics, and his mother, from Japan, was studying early child development.

An A student, Dan was always cracking jokes, when he wasn’t parked in front of a computer. Even while in college, he was already in the IT business, helping IBM launch the IBM PC. Since then he has worked with Intel, done computer consulting, become a touring musician, written songs and played five instruments.

Dan’s parents met in 1957 at the University of Indiana, where his father, who is from Kerala, was studying for his PhD in nuclear physics, and his mother, from Japan, was studying early child development.

An A student, Dan was always cracking jokes, when he wasn’t parked in front of a computer. Even while in college, he was already in the IT business, helping IBM launch the IBM PC. Since then he has worked with Intel, done computer consulting, become a touring musician, written songs and played five instruments.

In his career with Intel, he often had to speak on stage before thousands of people, so he decided to take a comedy class to get rid of stage fright. And a new comic was born. Dan can do just about any voice, including Bill Clinton and George Bush. At a show for Intel, he even did Andy Grove, the Chairman of Intel. He’s set to do a show for 4,000 people in San Francisco next. “Comedy is all about doing a lot of shows and the longer you do it, the better you get at it,” he says. “If you perform three times a night you get there three times faster than somebody who performs once a night. New York, of course, is almost like a laboratory for comedy. It’ s ideally designed. You don’t have to drive all over town like you have to in Los Angeles. In New York you can do two three shows a night with a Metro card!”

Like all the other comics, Dan went through the harrowing ritual of building up audiences, doing “open mike” and “bringer shows,” where you have to bring in at least five paying guests to the club in order to perform. Now he gets invited to perform and people love his Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations!

Things are certainly looking up for these comics, as their stories become something that Immigrant Nation America can identify with. Also, the huge South Asian population ensures large audiences hungry for a funny twist on the issues that affect them. Vidur is creating a one-person show “The Very Vidur Show,” which will debut next year, and also taking his act to festivals and colleges throughout the country.

He has performed at several comedy clubs, including Gotham, and has appeared on NBC’s Last Comic Standing.
Vijai has toured to Chicago, Florida and Arkansas with her one-woman show, “Good Girls Don’t, But Indian Girls Do,” which is now headed to California, Maryland and Oklahoma.

She has already performed in South Africa and her show was recently taped for a BBC special.

She’s working on a film version of “Good Girls” and is writing her next show, ‘Superstitious.’ “As I am gay and we gays have very expensive taste, I still have a day job! Comedy is paying substantially now, but not enough to make the big bucks like I made in corporate America and to buy Gucci and Versace.”

For years Vijai had various day jobs and spent nights doing comedy: “I worked at a café making lattes and answered phones at an office in NYC. (Yes- my parents were thrilled that my degree was put to such good use!) It took six years, but I’m finally at the point where I’m financially stable.”

Ask Shazia if her performances pay the rent and she says, “This is my living and yes, it pays the rent. Only an Asian would ask that question!””

With the South Asian community increasing in the West and with the West itself infatuated with the East, there seems to be no way to go, but up. Question Shazia about her future plans and she says, “I am going to conquer the world!” Uh-oh! Hope George Bush didn’t hear that!

Comic Stuff

What if 9/11 happened on 7/11? Indians everywhere would be screwed!
— Dan Nainan

My uncle says, “If my daughter marries someone who isn’t from Kerala I will commit suicide.” They live in a small town in Texas. Who’s he waiting for — Amarillo Slim Chakrapatty?
— Dan Nainan

“My grandmother said, ‘I’ll find you a nice Indian girl. What’s the harm? If you don’t like her I’ll set her on fire.’”
— Vidur Kapur

I’m really looking forward to my wedding day – I can’t wait to meet my husband!
— Shazia Mirza

My oldest sister is a Born Again Christian. My mother was very upset when she converted. She said, “Why does she have to be Born Again Christian? We are Hindu- we are born again, and again and again.”
— Vijai Nathan

By Lavina Melwani © Little India 2004

Posted: March 1st, 2004
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