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Life After Aziz

As an Indian-American writer, I looked up to Aziz Ansari — until allegations of his own misconduct hit too close to home

Nandini Balial
Jun 28, 2018 · 23 min read
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty

1. Seven days after my 27th birthday, Ronan Farrow’s article about Harvey Weinstein appeared in my Twitter feed. I read the article in double time, nausea rising like a slow, noxious hiss from the base of my stomach. I finished the article, but it wasn’t done with me. Over the next eight months, I (and everyone I knew) read horror story after horror story of men abusing their power. The Shitty Media Men list — forwarded to me by a reporter friend not long after Farrow’s article was published — both confirmed what I’d been told by women who had dated, worked, or socialized with some of the men named and didn’t include several men who had abused, assaulted, or harassed women in my acquaintance. And other men, whose work I admired — Louis C.K., John Besh, Jeffrey Tambor, Al Franken, Garrison Keillor, Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, Dan Harmon, Sherman Alexie, Junot Díaz — became men I can never think of in the same way again.

My disgust reached a fever pitch as I watched the fall of heroes whom I wished to emulate: Leonard Lopate, Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Weiner. Every day since October 10, 2017, I have feared reading the news, not knowing if someone I revere, someone whose art has helped me through severe depression, will be unmasked as a man who didn’t stop to check his privilege, a man who bruised souls (and sometimes bodies), shattered peace of mind, and ended careers and ambitions along the way.

Because the early concentration of these offenses lay in show business, several months went by where I nursed a secret terror: that the one man who represented me in the field to which I aspire would be accused. And on January 14, 2018, that fear came true. Babe.net, an obscure outlet, published a young woman’s account, as told to a reporter, of her date with Aziz Ansari, the Indian-American actor best known for playing Tom Haverford on. He is also the first Indian-American to win a Primetime Emmy, and a stand-up comedian who, perhaps more than any other famous males in his generation, has spent considerable time dissecting the ways in which men do not respect women.

News of the Babe.net piece had gone viral on Twitter, and my hands shook as I put down my phone. I walked to my desk and pulled up the article on my computer. My eyes clenched shut as I read the title. The hair on the back of my neck felt singed. Horrific memories knocked, threatening to break my concentration. I was watching a hero fall in real time, and by the time I finished, I knew only one thing: I wasn’t confident I’d ever be able to enjoy Ansari’s work again.

The realization landed in my chest like an anvil that didn’t have ACME stamped on its side.

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 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:

I wish I could go back in time and have 30 seconds to issue a single retort:


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.

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Photos courtesy of author

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 . Is there any enticement more appealing to an adolescent? The threat lay in the fact that we still didn’t know what sex . 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 , by Natalie Angier. It was a book that made my eyes pop as I read about female sexual desire — 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 . My fondness for stand-up — which began when my brother and I used to sneak-watch Robin Williams’ 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 and writers perform sets that, refreshingly, didn’t always focus on politics. Rory Albanese, then a 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? 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.

3. October 2013: The Festival. I went every year; almost always held on or around my birthday, it’s the sort of nerdy event the magazine counts on people like me to attend. Netflix was scheduled to premiere , its first-ever stand-up special, and in attendance would be its star and one of my favorite comedians: Aziz Ansari. Afterward, Andy Borowitz would interview him. When I took the history of comedy course, Ansari hadn’t yet recorded a special, but as I watched him on — Tom Haverford’s many verbal flourishes always formed a daily soundtrack in my head — I was heartened. Perhaps he hadn’t been allowed to fail either, so despite majoring in biology and business at NYU, Ansari picked comedy and succeeded. Finally, someone who looked like me and came from a similar background could be funny and get paid to make people laugh. (I know what you’re thinking: What about Mindy Kaling? By the time my brother and I became fans of , Kaling’s role on the show was limited to the writer’s room, and I didn’t watch until after college.)

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Photo by Thos Robinson/WireImage via Getty

is, in my consciousness, a seminal work. Ansari tackles topic after topic, voicing exactly my fears and anxieties on celebrity culture, child rearing, sex, and, most important, relationships. Present is his trademark elegance — for the Netflix special, taped in Philadelphia at the end of his previous tour, he is dressed in a lovely gray three-piece suit and a boutonniere — and, with his usual confidence, he decries the behaviors of heterosexual men in the dating scene. I was certain some higher power had brought me to his comedy during the moment he touches on a bro subtype I know well from Fort Worth:

While he generally avoids talking about his ethnicity in his stand-up, Ansari also mentions a trip to India during the set:

Perhaps Indian parents, in addition to objecting to the unstable nature of employment in the arts, dislike the idea of exposing so much of ourselves and our opinions to the outside world. Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, , focused on this exact subject — the dual nature of the lives Indians in America live publicly and privately. Your nickname, for example, is for familial use; your “good name” is for school, work, diplomas. Stand-up comedy tends to blur this line because the private the public. The structure asks the audience to pass judgment on the comedian, and if we’re laughing, we’re not necessarily subjecting the material to scrutiny.

A prime example of this phenomenon: Louis C.K. Through his stand-up, he was telling us all along that he was a horrible person who unleashed his sexual urges in inappropriate and violatory ways. Yet no one stopped to consider the truths of the pieces about C.K. forcing female comics to watch him masturbate, which were first published six years ago. Is it because we didn’t stop to question his act that C.K., in his statement following the article about his misconduct, did not bother to apologize?

Bill Cosby profited for decades from his righteous brand of respectability comedy. He urged young black men to pull up their pants; he played a genial, charming family man and doctor on television whose worst crime was his taste in sweaters. Back in 2008, just after a black man had been elected president, the published an article titled “Before Barack Obama, There Was Cosby.” Cosby’s career of serial predation and rape would be no less egregious if his stand-up was rated R, but it is even more heinous precisely because he lived two lives.

Which brings me back to Aziz Ansari, whose stand-up material is rooted in the importance of being a gentleman. Up until Babe.net published Grace’s account, Ansari was held up as a paragon of cishet maledom. He preached what I hope every guy who dates women will practice when it comes to sex and dating: Sending photographs of your genitalia via text message without consent is bad form; asking questions, instead of monologuing, is a far better use of time when you’re getting to know someone; your orgasm may be guaranteed, but if you don’t put your partner’s satisfaction first, you won’t be seeing her again. Why, then, did the Ansari who was on a date with Grace leave such messages from his stand-up at the door? He neither drugged nor raped her, but it doesn’t have to be rape to completely unsettle you, to make you feel violated. And while it was Ansari’s conduct that spoiled the date, I read endless tweets blaming Grace. This is why “Cat Person,” the short story published in the , went viral: Women who sleep with men don’t want to be the haughty girl​, the “bitch”​ who went home with a guy but told him to stop touching her. Even when we express reluctance or we freeze, we blame ourselves, because we know the standard we’ll be held to will denigrate us for anything we say or do that is not fully obliging.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that I felt the blood drain from my face when I read Caitlin Flanagan’s essay in the , which she used to defend Ansari, put down Grace and women who freeze when assaulted, and praise her own generation for being tough enough to fight a guy off. She writes:

Like rape apologists and men’s rights activists, Flanagan chooses to blame the victim instead of the man who violated her. If you don’t have the nerve to kick and scream and scratch and run, it’s your fault, Flanagan implies, when you feel violated.

I wonder what Flanagan would say if she heard my story.

4. Sometime in the spring of 2014,​ I brought a guy back to my apartment in Harlem ​following our first date, because I wanted to get to know him better. He was white, worked in construction, and lived in Long Island City​. He was about 6'4" and muscular​.​ (It should be noted here that I’m 4'11" and have the body of someone who spends most of her time reading.)​ We sat chatting awkwardly in my apartment, and as I got up to get us a drink from the kitchen, he got up too, pushed me against a wall, and tore off my underwear.

I tried to speak, but I froze.​ Terror overrode my motor functions. At no point had I expressed enthusiasm or consent, nor would I.​ Our size difference meant I couldn’t fight him off. My roommate was out of town. My hands were pinned. Unlike the imaginary modern women in Flanagan’s mind, I am not weak — I froze because the fear coursing through my body had yet to catch up to reality. I wanted to tell him that I just wanted to hang out, could we stop, but my vocal chords were jammed. Glued shut. I ​tried to comfort myself: ,I thought​ It happened so quickly. By the time I managed to gasp “stop,” he was already done, zipping up his jeans, getting an Uber.

He left without looking at me. When the front door slammed behind him, I vomited the tacos we’d eaten for dinner.​ I tried to compose a text to him, to say how I felt, but couldn’t. I lay inert, coiled on my bed.

That evening could’ve gone in so many different directions: Had he waited for my consent, we may have hit it off. But he didn’t, and we didn’t.

5. In her essay, Caitlin Flanagan spends two long paragraphs casually recontextualizing Grace’s story via the lens of what a chauvinist 1970s women’s magazine would’ve said about her behavior:

By omitting the first person in the next passage, Flanagan cleverly cons the reader into disapproving of Grace, whereas Flanagan clearly is the instigator of such a reaction. To wit:

It’s tidy for Flanagan to suggest that victim blaming ended sometime around the Falklands War, when she has just spent almost 400 words doing exactly that in 2018.

Women like Flanagan inflict monumental damage not just to feminism, but also to human decency, with their rhetoric. Nothing emboldens misogyny like a woman equally contemptuous of victims, but we shouldn’t need to call it feminism to defend victims of sexual harassment and assault. While reading the essay, my mind recalled Phyllis Schlafly, and it turns out I’m not alone: In her 2006 profile of Flanagan, Laurie Abraham also mentions the famed 1970s anti-feminist, noting the cognitive dissonance between stances and methods Flanagan and Schlafly employ — that women should stay home and look after the kids, a message Flanagan is able to shill from home because her husband was the CEO of Mattel; Schlafly roamed the country, peddling her anti–working mothers message while her six children were at home.

Flanagan, I’d argue, is no better than Alex Jones, whose lawyer, during a court hearing over custody of his children in Austin, argued that his client is “playing a character.” Right-wing ideologues like to argue that their stances are part of a persona, that they themselves stand outside their opinions. (Comedians aren’t the only ones who live two lives.) But Jones’ paltry defense that he’s a “performance artist,” a blatant lie, is a hair more believable than Flanagan’s editor explaining the writer’s outlook in the profile: “She’s a smart enough writer that she knows she has to create a persona.” Abraham further notes that Flanagan’s positions betray a willingness to “say whatever’s most convenient, most clever, and damn the consequences.” Except that the consequences to her Ansari essay are that women like me might open an internationally renowned magazine (co-founded by former slaves, no less) to discover that society, as heralded by a white woman columnist, believes salvaging a man’s career is more important than misconduct. That men, no matter the shade of their skin, do not deserve to be held accountable for their actions. That women are the only parties deserving of blame.

If Flanagan and others like her want to blame women, they should start with themselves.

I still firmly believe in being sex-positive, and throughout my adult life, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had plenty of respectful partners. But Grace’s account of her date with Ansari reminded me of my rape, and for a while, the shadow that fell over me after reading Flanagan’s essay was the color and texture of coal: black, flinty, coarse.

My sex-positivity took a beating, but my feminism did not. Both, I’m happy to say, remain resolute.

6. At the Festival, I laughed until my ribs ached during Ansari’s bit on the low bar for men who date women:

After Borowitz finished his interview with Ansari, I nabbed a spot in the Q&A queue. I was shaking slightly — how often do you get to talk to one of your heroes? — and asked Ansari what dating was like at NYU when he was a student. “Because I’m a student there now,” I added, the stage lights blinding me briefly, “and it’s hell.” His answer was charming but vague; he hedged by saying that dating apps didn’t exist during his college years, so the comparison wasn’t an easy one.

I wonder what he’d say now, about dating in general, not just when he was 18. I wonder if his future work — stand-up, a third season of (which Ansari says would only happen if he “become[s] a different guy”) — will reflect what happened with Grace that evening and what he learned. If his date with Grace had happened to someone else, I am certain he would use it, humorously, as a part of his material. But can comedians take a seismic shift, with personal context, and make art from it and about it? Should you make art from this? And would that art count for anything: Would Grace consider it restitution? Would I?

Only she can answer that question. I don’t yet have an answer.

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