It was the first time she was watching a female stand-up comic riff about sex, ageing and men, and acclaimed Tamil writer P. Sivakami couldn’t stop laughing at the raunchy jokes. “It was shocking and hilarious,” says Sivakami about Radhika Vaz’s performance at the recently concluded Goa Arts and Literature Festival. Vaz performed a part of her popular show Older. Angrier. Hairier.
You have guts, Sivakami told Vaz. “I didn’t know how far you would go.”
“Indian men need this kind of humour,” Sivakami later told me over the phone. “Indian women do too.”
One slightly perplexed audience member asked artist Daisy Rockwell, who was in conversation with Vaz that evening, if Vaz was Indian. Yes, she was. But she grew up in the US, right? No, she didn’t, her dad was in the Indian Air Force. Surely she lives in the US now? Sorry, she’s mostly based here. “They could not believe it,” Rockwell says over the phone from Goa.
I love the small band of funny, foul-mouthed female stand-up comics who have revolutionized the things-to-do experience in our cities in recent years. They are our modern gender gurus (India has no dearth of raw material for a funny woman who knows how to make a living off the absurdities of our daily lives and that scary species, the Great Indian Man).
They discuss threadbare everything we filter in polite conversation, from periods to pussy farts. Vaz has an entire chapter (My Vagina Speaks, Does Yours?) on the latter in her new book, Unladylike, A Memoir (Aleph Books), which she launched at the festival. But, more importantly, she rages about idiotic traditions that demand only marriage and babies from women. Stand-up comics such as Vaz give young women a different template in which to grow up. They tutor us in the art of being a “bad girl” i.e. anyone who doesn’t do what society expects of her.
Vaz says she does comedy because she needs to vent. So many things make Vaz angry: our skin-colour obsession, PDAs by couples on Facebook, fat shaming, bad drivers in Gurgaon, people who track oestrogen surge dates and the pride of “high-fertility” couples.
At 42, she often talks about ageing and women. “Your face and ass both start to loosen up at the exact same time and people notice this and call you ma’am and Aunty. But you can actually escape this burning building if you find something, anything, which has nothing to do with how you look or how old you are. And for me this life raft is comedy,” she says in the book.
Vaz encountered improv only in her 30s. Before that she chugged along as a passive aggressive advertising account executive (“My stand against the client was to not own a mobile phone”) in New York whose main goal was to not get fired until she got her green card. Her work formula was the simple LBDFA, or looking busy while doing fuck all.
Advertising decimated all her award-winning, hipster-life fantasies. “One by one, my dreams were tortured slowly and painfully to death, fingernails and toenails were peeled off, knuckles were broken, and kneecaps powdered,” she writes. “Prostitution was my Plan B but when push came to shove I was too middle-class for it,” she jokes later in the book.
Vaz grew up as the only daughter (two against one, as she liked to think of it) of Surya and Bertie Vaz. Her dad is Goan, her mother half Telugu, half Kodava, and because he was in the air force they lived at no fixed address. Through her childhood she struggled with that dreaded question: Where are you from? She envied her first bestie Roopinder’s firmly Punjabi roots, which, “like a banyan tree, were out there for the world to see”.
When Vaz was 6, the family moved near Tikrit in northern Iraq where they stayed with four other families at the desolate K2 air base. Eighteen months after they arrived, the Iran-Iraq war broke out, and after an air raid they evacuated to Baghdad.
At 10, she joined Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Tamil Nadu, and was expelled by 15. As a short-haired, skinny teenager, she worried about being flat-chested, not wearing bras, the late onset of her period and the alarming growth of body hair once she eventually did join the ranks of ST-wearing women. It was a world where boys would inform a friend which girl they liked and the friend would convey the interest to the girl and elicit her answer. It was called “asking for a ya”. “What irritated me then, as it does now, is that we girls had no system,” Vaz writes.
The tale of watching her first pornographic movie with her posse of girlfriends is bound to resonate with anyone who grew up in pre-Internet India. And her account of partying in 1990s Bengaluru, equipped with Levi’s 501s and Classic Milds, dancing like nobody was watching, is pure nostalgia.
The book is a chronological account of her life, heavy on the early years, and if you aren’t a big fan, it can drag. Vaz’s brilliant body language adds so much to her live performances, it’s no surprise her voice in the book can sometimes sound muffled without those accompanying exaggerated actions. That said, unlike many “celebrity” authors, Vaz, a fortnightly columnist with The Times Of India, writes lucidly and always has a point to make. There are enough giggles waiting around the corner, like the tale about her wedding hair: “It was a disaster. Attached to the back of my skull was not a graceful little bun as I had envisioned but a gigantic French loaf wreathed in a garland of mildly wilting jasmines.” Or, “I avoided urinating in aircraft toilets because I was terrified of being sucked into the commode and flung into space.”
I felt I was reading my story when she described her graduate school years in the US. I wanted to know more about her early years as a comic, but I guess she’s saving those stories for her second book. A younger reader would probably get much more out of the book than I did. In fact, I highly recommend you buy your teenage daughter this book for all the early lessons in feminism and hope she isn’t inspired by Vaz’s accounts of her weekend binge drinking. Believe me, you’ll thank Radhika Vaz for telling it like it is.
Priya Ramani will share what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable every fortnight. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani
Also read | Priya Ramani’s previous Lounge columns .