2. To understand what Aziz Ansari means to the Indian community in America, you’d have to know what he means to me.
Long before I knew who Ansari was, I was, in the year 2000, an immigrant: a nine-year-old from New Delhi marooned in Fort Worth, Texas, my new city a paean to big trucks, steak, and Republicans. My middle school class had five Indian students, including me. We were also the only Indians in our 780-person high school graduating class. My brother, a year younger than me, was the only Indian in his class. Of us Indians, I was the only girl, and the only one who very clearly wasn’t a STEM student. (I was also the only immigrant, but that’s a whole other essay.) Every Indian kid I met at dinner parties or at religious functions seemed primed to yelp “Harvard med school!” or something thematically similar before you even asked their name. And at temple, I met a girl my age who had been summarily issued two choices of profession by her mother: doctor or economist.
I was aware that my ethnicity was well-represented in the sciences, but I could name only a handful of Indians who had found success in the arts. The humanities, especially as a vocation, are ridiculed by Indian parents across not just this country, but the entire damn planet. The ridicule morphs into overt dismissal; I was in college when I attended a family friend’s wedding in Baltimore, and an acquaintance — the middle-aged father of a friend from temple — asked what I was studying.
“I’m an English major,” I said, politely, and in Bengali.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, eyebrows arched in disdain as though he’d just heard a deeply unconvincing story. “That sounds very relaxing.” Nodding absently about my “lax” course of study, he wandered off as I wiped a strained smile off my face. I’d like to see him and his overachieving children get through Derrida or Judith Butler and talk about relaxation.
Whenever I spend time around fellow Indians, I can break down the group into our intended professions: three-quarters of us in medicine, engineering, hard sciences, finance, economics, law. Higher representation in those fields is a message: The opportunity exists — now go out there and seize it. The remaining one-fourth, including people like me, is put in direct comparison with the few members of the arts who are of South Asian descent. In my case, it’s Jhumpa Lahiri, an author I fervently admire. But it’s because Lahiri is successful and skilled that the pressure is on for me to be the same. If I’m going to deviate from the norm and pick writing instead of, say, chemistry, I must succeed, or every moment since my parents first decided to emigrate has been a waste.
Indian kids, especially children like me who are also immigrants, are not offered the opportunity to fail. Our elders collectively issue a decree:
If you’re going to do something, you must be successful. We didn’t come to this country, leaving behind our friends and homes and everything we hold dear so you could make a B in biology or go downtown to open mic nights a few times a week to try out something new.
I wish I could go back in time and have 30 seconds to issue a single retort:
I left everything I held dear, too, and it wasn’t even my decision, so now that I’m here against my will, fuck biology — I’ll be studying tap, going to open mic nights, and acting in the school play.
Given their gale-force emphasis on perfection, Indian parents often neglect to mention to their children anything resembling sex ed — condoms, birth control, sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancy. More important than this vital education is academic performance, daily assessed by a Gatling gun–esque line of interrogation: “What grade did you get on the math quiz? Did anyone get a higher grade? Why did they get a higher grade? Where’s your progress report? Why a 96 in social studies? What happened to the other four points? Why did you get a B in science? I suppose you’re happy being mediocre.” The only version of The Talk my parents conducted with me and my brother wasn’t an exchange, but a terse admonition: “You will not do bad things.” I was a few days away from starting sixth grade. Their command confused me, but I knew further inquiry would be unwise.
Later that year, in health class (Fort Worth public school students are required to take only a single semester of health during grades six through eight), I was further bewildered by what two churchgoing women — complete with hats, skirt suits, brooches, and a poster-board-sized colored pencil sketch of the female reproductive system, which looked like the Texas longhorn drawn by a blindfolded seven-year-old — preached to us every day for 12 weeks. They’d sweep in every afternoon, broad, synthetic smiles soldered onto their faces, sweat and sudor beading through layers of foundation and blush, vainglory oozing from their pores. After exchanging pleasantries with our twentysomething track coach who taught us about vitamins and muscles — and who, during our unit on sex, looked as though he wanted nothing more than to sink into the floor of the portable, never be seen again — the women began their weekday sermon: “Sex is a beautiful, wonderful, majestic, exciting thing that you should wait to do till you’re married.” God, they told us, wanted us to wait so we could share this experience with whomever we marry, because true love and matrimony are prerequisites for sexual intercourse.
To a roomful of pubescent students, you could not offer a more dangerous message. We’d just been told that not only is sex awesome, but we weren’t allowed to do it. Is there any enticement more appealing to an adolescent? The threat lay in the fact that we still didn’t know what sex was. No one in class had even explained the physics of the act. Sure, we had a vague understanding that what we were being warned away from led female classmates to suddenly drop out of school, never to be seen again except in the neighborhood, pushing a stroller. But that wasn’t important.
No part of my life involved getting anywhere near finding out about sex. I was an obedient child: I studied, read, practiced the piano. I also failed miserably: first at soccer, then at swim practice, rinse, repeat. Sex was mysterious, a grayscale world inhabited by the shadows of the scenes in movies and TV shows where men and women kissed fervently as they shed their clothes. What happened next was shrouded in fog, and no amount of trying to bend the rules under which I lived could clear away the haze. Over the course of my adolescence, I never asked my parents if I could go on a date, because I already knew the answer. It helped that no one was interested. I also tested out of high school health, a non-honors class that would’ve adversely affected my GPA, and when I consulted classmates, I discovered that this class, like our middle school variety, was abstinence-only.
Because of its flawless ambiguity, my parents’ dictate succeeded long after I finished high school. If you even thought about it (sex, drugs, etc.), it was bad, so I never did anything. By the time I was 20 and well into college, I’d expressed enough frustration and curiosity during therapy sessions at New York University that my therapist recommended Woman: An Intimate Geography, by Natalie Angier. It was a book that made my eyes pop as I read about female sexual desire — a normal thing! I wanted to shout to my fellow subway passengers: the body’s need to shed the lining of the endometrium, the psychology of relationships. Since the physics of sex — what part went where — was, on the whole, a negligible part of my education, I began to unknowingly apply all of my exemplary student practices to the entire subject. My library checkout list changed from W. Somerset Maugham and Theodore Dreiser to Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. Every week, I gobbled Dan Savage’s column; I didn’t always agree with him, but his writing taught me what amounted to a new language’s worth of vocabulary. (My favorite Savage-ism: “Observe the Boy Scout rule when you date or sleep with someone. Leave them in better condition than when you found them.”)
Slowly but steadily, I grasped that the psychology of sex was of paramount importance, because it lay the foundation for how two people would feel before, during, and after. So I taught myself how to be a good partner, in and out of bed. I listened closely to sexually active friends describe negative experiences, mediocre experiences, and experiences that sent their socks careening off their feet. I sat alone in bars, watching men flirt with women and vice versa, tracking body language to gauge the success or failure of their seduction. I eavesdropped on the conversations of women — in the subway, in the bookshop where I worked, at school, in line at the movies or at a deli, in parks and grocery stores — describing all the errors a man had made in trying to pick them up, or the various ways in which a man’s seduction had appealed to them.
Of course, I told none of this to my parents or brother, for none of this was behavior that would be looked upon without judgment. I don’t know any fellow Indian immigrants who have applied methods of academic rigor to their sexuality, nor do I know of any fellow Indians who have unwittingly become so sex-positive. I count myself lucky. I had a therapist who encouraged my quest for information and experience, friends who taught me to always be safe and call bullshit on any man trying to manipulate or use me. I don’t think many of my Indian peers are as fortunate. By willfully avoiding The Talk — sex, safety, and especially consent and respect — Indian parents leave a void in their offspring’s minds where what it means to be a good partner should be. Much like parenting itself, being a good partner is too important a lesson to omit, because it has ramifications for the two-thirds of life that your child will spend as a fully grown adult. Add to this the bro-hyping fields of male Indians — tech, finance, law — and you’re left with extremely chauvinistic behavior that only strengthens as men age and attain power.
Once I was sexually active, understanding what I prized about sex allowed me to appreciate previously unintelligible chunks of stand-up comedy. It also made me more keenly aware of the cishet male attitude toward sex and its prevalence in stand-up, a field dominated by men, and how women were, at every turn, held to higher standards; some women were doubly demeaned for simply having different expectations. I finally had a frame of reference for these jokes; they were no less funny, but I now felt the emotional impact of the punchline.
During my sophomore year of college, I was diagnosed with severe recurrent depression. Strong meds, excellent mental health professionals, and regular therapy were all crucial to keeping me alive, but something happened before I ever made my way to NYU’s Student Health Center (726 Broadway, right across from Tisch; counseling is on the fourth floor) that provided a dram of comfort during future depressive episodes.
My freshman honors seminar was titled “The History of American Comedy.” Every Thursday, a dozen freshmen would pile into a classroom and, for four hours, study humor in America, starting with vaudeville and then spanning the 20th and 21st centuries, all the way to The Colbert Report. My fondness for stand-up — which began when my brother and I used to sneak-watch Robin Williams’ Live on Broadway on VHS when our parents weren’t home — blossomed into full-blown love. I spent hours watching, dissecting, and writing about the Chitlin Circuit, George Carlin, Jon Stewart, Andy Kaufman, Mort Sahl, Red Skelton, Milton Berle, Katt Williams, Bill Burr, Dave Chappelle. The class was the ideal proselytizer: Stand-up became my church, and my devotion was consummate.
Every week, I went to Comix, a now-deceased comedy club in the Meatpacking District, to watch Daily Show and Colbert Report writers perform sets that, refreshingly, didn’t always focus on politics. Rory Albanese, then a TDS executive producer, had keen observations about American behavior abroad, while Pete Holmes, then Jon Stewart’s warmup comedian, trafficked in witty observations about the absurdities of life crammed among 8 million other people. When the SoHo branch of the Housing Works Bookshop started free stand-up shows on Tuesday nights, I was first in line and, thrillingly, got to watch John Oliver at the inaugural show. He, too, didn’t dwell on politics, and instead joked about being an immigrant, material I could have sworn he performed because I was in his audience. Oliver cracked a joke right as the show began — “Don’t clap, it might be terrible” — and in the moment of silence before he introduced the first comic, I let out a whoop. The crowd laughed, and he cast his eyes in my general direction and said, “Thank you.”
That right there was home. That was where I belonged.
Immersing myself in the various forms of comedy was no less dazzling and instructive than my love for books or food, but it was even more liberating because, like my eventual sex positivity, I came to it on my own. Few things are as intoxicating to a sheltered 18-year-old than expressions of autonomy that empower the body and the soul.
Stand-up is the boldest form of art I’ve ever known. I’m no shrinking violet and quite enjoy talking to strangers, but to tell jokes? To push yourself to the edge of a stage and rely on an audience’s love for you and your observations, heartbreak, anger? That is courage. It takes guts you don’t need to write an essay and pitch to editors. It takes guts you don’t have when the pitch-black brume of a depressive episode swarms and subjugates senses essential to daily life. Only now do I weakly applaud my ability, when I’ve sensed an episode is lifting, to sit up, find a new stand-up special, and watch. A nanoparticle in my soul knows that when I laugh, the sorrow is displaced.