by Priya Chhaya
There is a point in Vijai Nathan‘s comedy show where she imitates her South Indian grandmother describing her favorite television show….in Tamil. All around me the audience is in stitches–my friend who understands the language is grinning, while I’m responding to the familiarity of the tone and body movement. Then as if Lucille Ball was really Lucille Ranganathan, Vijai says the only English word in sixty seconds: “Ricccckkkkkky!”
It’s this type of layered comedy that permeated Vijai Nathan’s show “Good Girls Don’t, But Indian Girls Do” at the Capital Fringe Festival earlier this year. Filled with humor that is at times racy, Nathan tells her personal story of being an Indian American with a confidence of someone unafraid to own the two countries of her heritage.
The youngest daughter of three, Nathan grew up in Potomac, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C. She majored in English literature at McGill University (which, she adds was “OK with my dad, because he considered it “Pre-Law”) and ended up working as a journalist first for Newsday in New York, followed by The Baltimore Sun. After three years of being in “the wrong job, the wrong place, with the wrong fiancé” she found herself needing to find an outlet for just herself and took a course the art of stand-up comedy in D.C.
During our interview, I asked Vijai how her coworkers reacted when she put on her two weeks’ notice (almost 14 years ago) to do stand up full time. Her reply: “speechless,” but she recognized that while she was taking a “slightly foolish” risk, it was a choice that allowed her to confront her identity issues as an “ABCD [American Born Confused Desi].”
When she first started, Vijai said her jokes were much of the standard fare—made up boyfriends, airplane food, anecdotes that any other comedian could do—because she simply wanted to prove she was an “American.” But, she realized she wasn’t being honest with herself—she wasn’t just “American” she was an “Indian American” and so Good Girls was born. With jokes that I would blush at if my mother was sitting next to me, Nathan gives an open portrayal of growing up Indian in the USA. For example, one of the segments in her show is about the time her father confronted the three sisters about losing their virginity. As she walks us through the conversation (complete with impressions of her father and older sisters), it becomes apparent that her dad is really asking her because of some “supposedly” discovered contraband in Vijai’s bedroom. It’s funny because of how realistic and honest it is, poignant because she has to decide if she is going to “tell the truth” and potentially lose her place in the family.
Making the switch to less conservative material was hard, since she knew that she might lose audience members before she gained new ones. But Vijai also knew that with any job—especially when it is something you are passionate about—takes hard work, especially since comedy is often about trying to convince others to engage with material that may be foreign to them.
This is evident when we talk about giving shows to audiences that may not be ready for her humor and honesty about herself, such as the more socially conservative South Asians. As we talked about a recent performance for an older South Asian audience, she made a discovery: even her choice of clothing can have an impact on how the audience will react.
“I usually wear salwars and kurtas when I perform at large Indian events, but this time I decided to wear an American cocktail dress and their reaction to some of my racier material was much more open. I think there was something about me in a salwar talking about dating or sex that made the audience think ‘I can’t laugh at this. She looks like my daughter, or my wife, or my mom…’” It was almost as if psychologically the way she dressed created a distance between her Indianess and some of the innuendo in her sketch.
Her advice for someone thinking about going into comedy:
- Say yes to everything (just be careful that you are not being taken advantage of.)
- When you start out you want everything to be perfect. You think you need the right clothes, the perfect venue, but you really don’t. Growth happens during imperfect situations.
- The first few shows are like magic. They build up your confidence, and give you the energy to do the hard work that comes next.
Want to see Vijai Nathan live? More information can be found on Facebook, but when not traveling the country, Vijai hosts a regular monthly show in DC bringing together comics from a variety of places for a themed night of hilarity. The one rule? Be Funny, But Be Real.
Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.