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December 21, 1999
Spicy Chunks in the Melting Pot
From Sycamore's Desh Deshpande to Hotmail's Sabeer Bhatia, these professionals have given Indians new pride in their origins.
I'm not here to quarrel with the much-deserved praise for these star entrepreneurs. I'm here to present two talented women who have gone much farther in melding into the American scene. If you want to meet the mark of real assimilation of Indians into American society, you should meet Priya Bala and Vijai Nathan.
No, Priya and Vijai are not the CEOs of the next dotcom IPOs. These two women are stand-up comediennes!
Priya and Vijai were the guests of the South Asian Journalists Association, which had its first fun party at a Manhattan Restaurant last week. The event was advertised as a chance to taste "heavy" appetizers and "light" entertainment.
The appetizers were fritters, fowl and chaat. The main course was the two young comediennes.
I must confess that I'm not qualified to judge either the cuisine or the comedy act, although I enjoyed them both. My reactions then have more to do with the performers than their performance.
Both Priya and Vijai are well-educated professionals: Priya, in law, and Vijai, in journalism. Priya is also trained in classical Bharata Natyam. They have given up their mainstream professions to a niche in the performing arts purely for the fun of it.
Priya and Vijai stood up and rolled out their acts -- about 10 minutes apiece -- for 100-plus guests. The audience was, of course, predominantly south Asian. If you happened to be white or black, there was a good chance the comics would pick on you, which they did.
Vijai has been performing for three years; she was at ease with her lines, naturally funny, yet cerebral. Priya, who's been doing it for just three months, was more versatile and more audience-friendly.
Both performers chose to dwell on Indian stereotypes (especially the suffocating love of protective parents who 'vaant' their daughters to marry Indian doctors). There were also a few subtle originals, like this one: A redneck heckler down south yells at Vijai, "Go back to your country!" Vijai retorts:
"Go ahead, kill me! I'm a Hindu, we always come back!"
Priya used props, like pictures and bios of eligible grooms her parents kept rushing to her -- in FedEx envelopes. She also drew the audience into her jokes. She picked me out as the stereotypical Indian father. I was flattered. Must be my charming, affectionate look!
The acts included a light sprinkling of mild profanities, obligatory for any stand-up act. If the duo expected the audience to be shocked, they forgot this is New York city.
Vijai and Priya say they have a much broader repertoire from which they draw material for performances for mainstream American audiences. I wish they had given us a few samples of those.
The performance was followed by a brief Q&A session, handled with grace, with Priya displaying due deference to the more experienced Vijai. Both Vijai and Priya say Indians lack a sense of humor. Or, as Priya put it, Indians lack the propensity to let loose and laugh. Aladdin, who is perhaps the best-known south Asian comic, has complained in the past about the same problem.
Also, like Aladdin, Priya and Vijai complain of racism within the comedy world -- getting gigs isn't easy for non-whites. But I don't think these adroit ad-libbers will have to worry. They are already making a mark. And they are aiming high. Priya would like to be in NBC's premiere comedy serial, 'Saturday Night Live.'
Vijai is working on a one-woman act due to be rolled out next year.
Priya and Vijai's success represents a nearly final milestone in the maturation of South Asian immigrants. Priya and Vijai are not only coming to terms with their origins through humor. Their act reminds us that it's okay to laugh at oneself. That it's an important sign of maturity.
Indeed, in a matter of a few decades, South Asians have seeped into nearly every walk of American life, from medicine to management, from newspaper-stand-wallahs to e-commerce, from cabdrivers to comediennes.
Priya and Vijai are a fresh crop from South Asian seeds. They make us proud and happy with their levity. Not because they are great comediennes -- that will take time and seasoning -- but because they are taking us where we must go, breaking free from the Old World, and making the New World our own.
Vijai and Priya are deliciously chunky pieces in our melting pot.
John Laxmi is a New York-based banker and freelance writer
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