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May 18, 1999

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Comedian Offers Truth About South Asian Lives In New York

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Joseph Paul in New York

It's nearly midnight at Ye Olde Triple Inn comedy club, around the corner from New York's Times Square. Thus far, a duo of all-American girls has sung tunes about high-school sex escapades, a guy with a Deep Southern accent has repeatedly addressed the audience by a term suggesting that they've had incestuous relations, and a team of jolly Brits called Cheeky Charlie and Dirty Dick has essayed witticisms mainly dealing with synonyms for felines.

In other words, the night has zipped along with the speed of the New York Police Department answering an emergency call in a non-White neighborhood.

Aladin Ullah A drum roll later, there's a swift change of scene. Aladin Ullah is describing his Bangladeshi childhood spent in New York's Spanish Harlem section. At first, it's the incongruous sight of the chubby South Asian man talking in ghetto-jive that draws tentative chuckles from the mainly White and African-American audience.

Aladin goes on to talk about how Hindi films ruined his love life: "Everyone else was losing their virginity through puberty, but every time I got close to a girl I burst out into a song."

The 30-year-old complains about the lack of verisimilitude in American television programs:

"What's the deal with these shows ER and Chicago Hope? Is there anyone in this room who believes that there's any emergency room in this country that runs without Indians? I don't see no name tags saying Rajan Kumar Malhotra Singh To Be Continued On The Other Side ..."

He expresses surprise at Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian taxi drivers in New York presenting a united front when they struck against Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's harsh penalties: "I think the only way for the governments of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to stop fighting and start co-operating with each other is for the rickshaw drivers in the subcontinent to go on strike."

By the time Aladdin is done with his act, having aired his views on arranged marriage, his conservative mother, the Nation of Islam and South Asian snobbery, the crowd is hollering for more.

The reaction doesn't surprise the man who describes himself as the funniest South Asian in the Nation. "I'm trying to express the conflict experienced by second-generation South Asians in the US, who are trying to balance the culture of our parent's countries and the values we learn in school and on the playground," he explains. "You don't have to be South Asian to understand the conflict. It's universal."

Aladin's ability to empathize with a large number of communities has much to do with his popularity, agrees Sunaina Maira, an anthropologist at Columbia University and New York University who studies youth cultures.

"Comedy is difficult to do because humor is very particular to specific groups and assumes insider understanding by the audience," she explains. "Aladin's sketches speak not only to second-generation South Asians, but also his parents' generation, to New York youth and to anyone who knows what it's like to feel like an outsider."

But she adds he is more than a sociological phenomenon. Says Maira, "Aladin is hilarious."

Standup comedy is a uniquely American form that, at its best, has allowed socially disadvantaged groups the opportunity to present their point of view -- and criticism -- about the stains on the Stars and the Stripes. African Americans such as Richard Pryor and Chris Rock have used comedy to great effect to express their disenchantment with the American Dream. Comedy is the mirror opposite of that other great Black art form, the Blues: the Blues is a celebration of pain rooted in optimism, while comedy's seeming expression of joy is rooted in a profound understanding of suffering.

It isn't surprising, then, that Aladin has admirers in the Black community. Says Mel Waltkings, author of On the Real Side of African-American Comedy about the Bangladeshi performer, "Witty and exceptionally funny: A refreshing alternative to some of the crude nonsensical blather that passes for comedy these days."

Aladin's comedy reflects the increasing class stratification in the South Asian community in North America: the largely professional community of doctors and lawyers that existed in the '60s now has an underclass of taxi drivers, newsstand operators and manual laborers. Says Aladin, "I want to tell the stories of the kids whose fathers are cab drivers."

The second-generation Bangladeshi learnt about diversity the hard way. As the only South Asian growing up in a mainly Hispanic neighborhood, he was often the target of bullies. He learnt how to feint by using his mouth, felling his tormentors with insults in an practice known in the African American community as "playing the dozens." A typical exchange as Aladin recalls it:

Tormentor: "You ugly Indian."

Aladin: "Get out of here, you don't scare me. You're not half the man your mother is."

He honed his talents at a comedy class at the School for Visual Arts. After he turned pro, he realized that New York's comedy clubs weren't giving him and other non-White comics as much stage time as their Caucasian colleagues.

Says Aladin, "Comedy is an interactive art and you can only learn by performing in front of an audience."

So he formed his own troupe. Colour Blind's Black, Hispanic and Guyanese performers offered New York biting social and political commentary. In addition, Aladin's Curry Power show has been drawing gales of laughter.

Since then, he's been invited to perform and lecture at several academic seminars at such prestigious venues as Harvard University. This seems to thrill and amuse him in equal parts. But the attention also serves to reminds him of his objective: to keep it Real. This is in sync with Aladin's view that standup should showcase unvarnished reality. "Comedy has to be about the truth," he says. "If we replaced the anchors on the evening news with standup performers, we'd probably have a better understanding of the world."

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