What does it mean to be a good Indian girl? Growing up, Nathan says, being good meant ignoring her imagination and her fondness for performance in favor of more practical pursuits. After graduating college, Nathan was working as a copy editor for the Baltimore Sun, and had “all the things [she] was supposed to have”—a fiancée, nice apartment, and good job. “I was miserable,” she says with a laugh, “I knew I needed to do something else.”
The answer came in the form of an ad for stand-up comedy classes. Though the class was, according to Nathan, “pretty lame,” she was drawn to the art of standup. “It was one of those feelings, it’s so nice when you get it … I felt completely at home.” Nathan threw herself into the class, and the results were encouraging. “People kept telling me I was the funniest person in the class, though that’s not really saying much because everybody else in the class worked on Capitol Hill. They would come up to me and say, ‘Oh my god, you’re going to be the next Margaret Chang!’ and I’d say, ‘Margret Cho … but thank you!’”
For six months after the class, Nathan honed her skills by performing at open-mike nights, and quit her day job in 1997. Despite the initial shock, her conservative Tamilian parents eventually supported her decision. “I didn’t tell them at first,” she admits. “But they were really supportive. You know, I thought that I’d found the one career my dad wasn’t an expert in. But, nope, turns out he’s an expert in stand-up comedy too. When I was in journalism, my dad wanted me to get my MBA, the highest degree possible. Now he asks me, ‘Vijai, is there a Masters in comedy?’”
To this day, her relatives insist on Nathan showcasing her talent at family functions, “you know, right between the bhajans. I go off in my Indian clothes and come back as Vijai the lounge act.” But, she insists, “I love it. I do some of my best work there.” Her family is both her source of support and inspiration—much of Nathan’s best material comes from impressions of her father and mother.
Finding an authentic comedic voice has been a struggle for Nathan that has ultimately informed her sense of identity as Indian American. Starting out in comedy clubs in West Virginia, Nathan “wanted people to see Indians as American.” This meant avoiding her family and cultural upbringing as fodder for jokes. Instead, her jokes were about dating and impressions of Tina Turner and Bill Clinton, “not at all about me.” It’s only when she moved to New York where “they can smell you’re faking it from a mile away” that she realized she had to start talking honestly where she came from if she was going to get any laughs. “I was talking about boyfriends, but I never had any, because I wasn’t allowed to date. So I started talking about how I wasn’t allowed to date.”
Hearing positive response from stories about her family and upbringing gave Nathan the feeling that she had finally earned the right to speak and have people listen. “I was born here, but I never felt American. I always felt like people didn’t want to listen to me because they saw me as a foreigner.”
Her early years in the business were similarly difficult—there were no South Asian women in comedy when Nathan was starting out. “I was the first, and it was really hard. There was nobody to ask for advice.”
Though she counts Sept. 11 as a particularly difficult time to get work, she says that the scene has improved dramatically in terms of acceptance and familiarity with Indian culture. “Now, I think being Indian is really cool—kids in college are embracing their Indian culture. People know about Bollywood, they know about bhangra.”
Amongst her role models, Nathan counts Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Russell Peters, who she has known since 2001. “He’s very helpful, a wonderful person. I don’t know if many people know that.” Her grandmother, who passed away in 1996, also continues to inspire her. “She loved entertainment, and she used to let me be silly. We used to pretend we were in The Brady Bunch.”
In March, Good Girls Don’t, But Indian Girls Do was showcased in the Los Angeles Women’s Theater Festival. Nathan is currently performing standup in New York City and is in the process of adapting Good Girls Don’t into a screenplay, tentatively titled Kissing India. “It’s hard work,” she says, “but I have never questioned my decision. I love what I do.”
For more information about Vijai Nathan and her upcoming shows go to www.vijaicomedy.com
Shruti Swamy is a senior at Vassar College, where she is studying English.