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Clown Princess

A comedienne wasn't what her parents wanted her to be. Now, Vijai Nathan is having the last laugh.

Clown Princess
Suresh Manjanath
Clown Princess
Ok, so she didn't turn out to be a Sabeer Bhatia clone, or a Jhumpa Lahiri lookalike. Ouch, that hurt for a while but so what? Worshipping at the Silicon Valley temple wasn't her scene, nor did she want to be among the white-robed clan with a stethoscope hanging perpetually around their neck. It just wasn't her shtick. Yes, mama and papa did their voodoo talk to mesmerise her into pursuing the tried-and-tested avenues but she said nothing, waiting to pounce back on life another way.

Vijai Nathan, when still in her bubbly 20s, had decided to explore the wild, wild world of American performing arts and become a trailblazer of another kind. So she has become the first Indian-American woman stand-up comic, a desi gal doing gigs around comedy clubs and ribbing into her own ethnic background for material and jokes. She has made waves from Boston to Chicago and last month she left for South Africa to cheer the folks there.

It is not an easy world to break into—the crowds can be tough, the clubs choosy and the compensation meagre. Often a day job is essential to keep body and soul together as are regular handouts from parents. But Vijai has not only broken into the club circuit, she has shattered other barriers along the way. She has sprung out of a community best known for producing highly-skilled professionals and scientists by the dozen. Her ethnic flavour, although fast becoming a part of the pop culture, is still not mainstream. Then being a woman adds that extra note of danger, a certain edge to the whole enterprise. There aren't too many women stand-up comics, white, black or brown. To be a minority within a minority was not easy but she was set on her goal.

Vijai is breaking new ground in the US as Shazia Mirza did in Britain by becoming the first Muslim comedienne and treading the dangerous realm of finding comedy in Islam. The oxymoronic existence is fraught with peril, and attacks by impassioned believers are not unknown. While Mirza flirts with her identity as a devout Muslim, covered in a hijab, Vijai uses Hindu bridal props and dangles a cigarette from her painted and bejewelled face. It is all a question of that fine line between humour and simply falling flat on their faces. They must be doing something right since offers from comedy festivals keep pouring in.

Vijai's father, now having finally accepted his daughter's not-so-normal career path, didn't give up easily. After she quit her "real" job as a copy editor at a prestigious newspaper and took up the comedy routine, he asked Vijai a tad ruefully: "Can you get a master's degree in comedy?" He was just echoing that essential Indian thinking: go get the highest degree at least, even if it is in comedy. Vijai had tried being a journalist, worked at Newsday and The Baltimore Sun, but she felt so isolated on the late shift. She even cancelled her wedding in pursuit of happiness. Her parents were mortified but they coped and have now become her enthusiastic cheerleaders. From small clubs in 1997 to real comedy festivals, it was a tough road but her funny bone saw her cantering along it.

The jokes came easy. One had to simply look at the confused upbringing foisted upon thousands of second-generation children in the US to realise that life was one continuous comic ride. Daily battles turned out to be the stuff of fun. Dating, sex, cultural taboos, paranoia about America snatching your little one with its torrential all-glaring all-blaring messages. Sample one: "My parents were always so worried that I was becoming too American. My Dad would say, 'So you want to wear pants, eat cows and sit on Santa's lap? Who is this man and why do you have to sit on his lap??? That's it—you're going back to India'!"

It's no surprise that Vijai's show is titled Good Girls Don't, But Indian Girls Do.She takes off on racial profiling, MTV, religion—anything is inspiration. But her defiant coming out often arouses deep ambivalence in the older generation. Just how do you tell Mrs Kakkar at the next nri dinner party that your daughter is a stand-up comic? While Vijai's parents are now accepting her as she is and have even taken her to perform at the local temple, other pillars of the community are yet to come to terms with it.

Even after Vijai established herself in New York, that tough but open city of immigrant culture, she couldn't attract the South Asian crowd. Perhaps they felt a little embarrassed, a little intimidated and didn't want to acknowledge her choice of career. "While girls come up to me and say, 'We totally relate to you', the guys are generally distant. I don't know how they feel. Female stand-up comics are seen as aggressive," Vijai says. "Honestly, I am pretty shy and, in a lot of ways, very inexperienced."

Growing up in a predominantly Jewish suburb wasn't easy—not only was she different looking, she was different talking and behaving too. "I grew up in the '70s and '80s. There was a lot of racism," she says, letting in a note of sombreness. "I was raised very Indian but my values weren't accepted as American. I felt like an unwelcome guest. Although one kept hearing about the American dream, the Constitution, they were never mine. Kids would say: go back to your country. Technically, I was in my own country," says Vijai. "I felt very silenced."

She wanted so much to be like the Brady Bunch, the white kids on TV, somehow burrow deep into the suburban culture. "My parents dinned into me that I was Indian because they were so afraid I would turn 'western'. Others said I was a foreigner. There were always these opposites coming at me. My parents raised me in a very Gandhian manner but kids in school were always picking on me. I felt forever stuck in the middle. I could never speak my mind," she recalls.

She was always groaning inside, but silent on the outside. When she tried to get a part in school plays, she was offered the worst roles. Yes, you can stand in the corner for two hours and be the 'crowd'. As her frustration mounted, the determination grew but she still was not ready for the final confrontation with her parents. She enrolled in English literature in Montreal and her parents acquiesced. "They pretended it was pre-law, so it was OK." She soon got a newspaper job but in three years she was groaning again.

So she quit, cancelled her engagement and enrolled in a comedy class—a mere six hours of training on timing and writing, at the end of which she performed. That was six years ago. "I didn't invite my parents. For the first time I felt I was in control of my life. I wanted to talk about being Indian in America. People responded." She was sending a dual message. "You can tell them about culture but on the ride home, they might also think about exclusion, racism, all the politics."

Initially her audience was mainly white. That was when she began in way-out places. Like the steak house in West Virginia—the last place for a good Hindu girl to be. At the end of the show, someone from the audience shouted: "Woo! Keep it going for the Cherokee—yeah!" Without missing a beat, Nathan came back: "Sir, I'm not the kind of Indian with bows and arrows. I'm the kind with unlimited access to nuclear weaponry." You go girl, said her friends. And she's still going.
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