The long road to my festival debut
‘IS this all going in the article?” Sindhu Vee and I have been talking for an hour now. About her peripatetic life, her formidable, possibly scary Indian mother, her love of actor Carol Burnett (she’s a woman of taste), her very short-lived career as an Yves Saint Laurent model, her academic progress in both England and the United States of America, her years as an investment banker (even though she admits she is terrible at maths), becoming a mother and her new life as a comedian.
In passing we have also discussed the Indian-ness of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India (“he wished he was an English aristocrat”), the maths teacher who was the “most handsome man” she had ever met (not her husband, it might be noted), how she applied for 18 consultancy firms and got 19 rejections (“Someone heard I was applying and just rejected me without me sending an application. I’ve never worked this mystery out”), arranged marriages, the reality of love and summers in Denmark.
And we’ve yet to get to her decision to get onstage in the first place (even though she had never seen stand-up live), her dog named after the credit crunch (Crunchie) or the time her mum slapped her across the face in front of everyone in the bank she was working in. But that’s all on the way.
The thing is Vee (it’s short for Venkatanarayanan) is a natural-born storyteller. And this month she debuts her first hour-long show at the Edinburgh Fringe. I doubt she will have any problems having enough material. “When it’s your debut hour your whole life is there,” she says about the prospect. Hmm. I fear an hour won’t be long enough.
These days Vee, who’s in her forties, lives in London with three children (two of them teenagers: “That’s important, so some people have some sympathy for me”), the dog and a Danish husband who works in finance.
The distance she has travelled is huge and it’s entertaining listening to her chart the course of that journey. Put your seat belt on. “I was born in New Delhi. That matters to no one outside the people in Delhi.”
The second of two children, Vee’s father worked in the civil service and her mother was a teacher for a time. But Vee was raised by her “ayah”. The word means nanny, “but nannies are more posh”, Vee explains.
“She was from Nepal. She’d never seen electric light. She used to tie me to her back and do everything. I used to think she and I worked for these three people. I called her ‘amah’, which means mother. My first language was Nepalese.”
But that relationship came to an end when Vee was four-and-a-half and her father was posted to the Philippines.
“I’m very close to my mother, but my mother is very no-nonsense, bordering on brutality. She recognised that it would be very complicated explaining what was going to happen, so they drove me to the airport and then removed me from my amah and said: ‘We’ll see you in a few years.’ That did not go well with amah.
“Amah passed out. My mother was like: This is so inconvenient’.”
On the plane Vee developed a stammer. “It’s clear to me now that I had an experience of absolutely unconditional love for those four-and-a-half years and I think that’s been the making of me. There’s a tiny part of me that has always been stable.”
In the Philippines she lived in an “American bubble”, until the family eventually returned to India. To Lucknow, which is where Vee was raised, before attending a “hardcore American boarding school” in the Himalayas. When she got just a B in maths her mum took her out of the school and brought her to Delhi.
“Bad timing. I was 16. Even though I was an Indian teenager I was still a teenager.”
She fell in with the two bad girls in her class. They would skip school and her new friends would smoke, take Valium and mix gin and sugar shots. Vee?
“I did their homework for them. Can we just stop for a moment and recognise what a nerd I was? Oh my God. I look back and I’m shocked I ever got laid. I was such an ubergeek.”
When she was threatened with being expelled her mother stepped in. “My mother looked at me and said: ‘Let me tell you one thing. If you don’t stop being friends with these girls I will kill you. I will be happy because I don’t want this kind of nonsense offspring in the world wasting everyone’s time’.
“So then we cut back on the bulls*** and I got very good grades.”
Still, by now, a pattern was developing. Vee was a bit rebellious (though only a bit), but also hardworking. She is still friends with one of the bad girls.
At the time the plan was to go to university in Delhi, join the civil service and have an arranged marriage. That’s what her mother had told her would happen. But part of her wanted a space,
a time, to herself and studying abroad offered that. To get that she had to boost her CV. She started working for the World Wildlife Fund, worked on a WWF film festival and was spotted by the organiser of an Yves Saint Laurent fashion show. She was asked to model.
It sounded ridiculous to her. She had always been told she wasn’t good looking. “It’s part of the culture. You’ve got to be fair and petite. I was dark and 5ft 10in.”
And yet she was asked to open the show. And then she was asked to go to Bombay for the next show. But she didn’t have the self-confidence and her father said no. She didn’t mind. She was just happy it was over. “I don’t know that I wanted to model, frankly. I wanted to do something that had heft.”
Mark that word.
In 1991, she won a scholarship to study at Oxford. “It’s a phenomenal place to study. Everything I read about it says everyone who goes to Oxford is a tw*t. Fine. But no one talks about the quality of education. Oxford hasn’t got this far by being s***. I had a great time.”
Mostly in the library, it should be said. “I never went in a pub for two years,” she says. “I was still super fun. I wasn’t emodepressed, lying in a corner.”
She went rowing. She played basketball. The footlights weren’t part of her story, though. “Comedy was something people who weren’t serious did.”
After Oxford she went to America to continue her political studies. First at McGill and then in Chicago. The plan was to become a professor.
Her mother kept finding men anywhere she went for her to meet. “You need to get married because otherwise how can I die in peace?” she would tell her daughter.
Vee finally told her she wasn’t going to have an arranged marriage when she was 25. “She was like: ‘Are you lesbian? I don’t mind. You can be Mrs and Mrs. Just marry.’”
Vee didn’t want to marry. But she did have boyfriends. And a desire to be an academic. Her plan was to do a PhD about the ideational basis of the Indian state. But her poor maths kept getting in the way. That’s when she met the handsome maths teacher. Reader, she dated him. But only after she passed remedial maths. It took more than one attempt.
Not that that was enough. She found herself stuck in the States wthout tenure, and she realised she was going to have to find a job. Otherwise she was going to have to go back to India and that wasn’t an option.
So, despite her lousy way with numbers, she ended up in investment banking. Obviously.
“What banks are very good at is taking raw talent and natural intelligence and they Apprentice the s*** out of you.
“I loved my banking job. Oh my God, it was so much fun. And there’s that whole big swinging dick vibe that goes with banking. ‘I’m a banker, I’m making a ton of cash and we go on great holidays’.”
Then she met her husband, fell in love, got pregnant, became a mother and that changed everything. “I had a baby and stopped giving a s*** about banking. It dropped off me so hard.
“I was going to get a nanny, like everyone in banking. What I didn’t know was you can really love your child in a way that means you cannot spend 16 hours a day away from them.”
Two other children followed. But she had gone from a high-powered, hard-drive career to burping babies. And that was problematic.
“Women who gave up really hardcore driven ambitious careers to stay at home with babies, part of them starts to die. There is such a premium in the modern western world for people to work. ‘What do you do?’ This is what we ask people.
“But when you ask a mother who used to be able to answer that question: ‘I do million-dollar deals and I just bought a house for my mother and father.’ And then she goes from that to: ‘I mash bananas.’ There is some cognitive dissonance for that woman that cannot be easily swallowed.”
When she had her third child, she says: “I realised you have a quota of puree you are willing to make for kids.”
She was looking for something to
It’s very easy to get on stage and blabber if someone gives you a microphone. But to really connect with people ... I cannot think of anything more rewarding than that
do. People had always told her she was funny. When she met her friends they would ask her to tell them about the time her mum slapped her on the face in the bank. “I said, laughing, ‘Mum, you can’t do that here.’ She said: ‘Why? You call police?’.”
Eventually, for want of something to do, she went to a workshop called Funny Women.
She spells out her thinking. “It is the weekend. I am bored out of my mind. If I go, there will be people who are funny and because it is England someone will say: ‘Do you want to go to the pub later?’. I went along and it was women sitting in a circle. ‘F***, this is like therapy’.
“And the first question asked was: ‘When I call on you, tell us what your mother would say about the fact that you are here today.’ Talk about winning the lottery.
“Out of my voice came the way I talk about my mother. I said the three things she always says. ‘Of course Sindhu would be here today. She’s over tall, she’s over dark and she’s not very bright.’ The effect on the other people was huge.”
Still, she wasn’t taking it seriously, had to be persuaded to attend the Funny Women gig, walked backstage to be told she was doing a five-minute set which she wasn’t expecting.
But she went onstage, talked Danish to a girl from Greenland and told the story about her mum asking if she was a lesbian to a bunch of lesbians in the audience and went straight to the semifinal in the 2014 Funny Women Awards.
“I didn’t get to the final but, I tell you what, I remember standing on that stage thinking: ‘This is it. I can never not do this’.”
At this point she didn’t know who Eddie Izzard was and had never heard of Billy Connolly. The only stand-up she’d seen before going onstage was an Eddie Murphy DVD. So, she did what she always does. She did her homework. “I was very focused.”
And then at some point she started having dreams of her childhood in the Philippines. About telling jokes to adults in her nightgown. She eventually mentioned the dreams to her mother.
“That’s not a dream,” her mum told her. “That happened to you. We would have parties and you would not go to sleep. You would go and hide in the guest bathroom and when people go to bathroom you would say: ‘You cannot come in. First, I have to tell you a joke.’
“And some people were going to go urine in their pants because you had a stammer and the joke was taking 20 minutes.”
Circles and patterns. We have travelled all the way around. Time for one final question, Sindhu. About comedy. Does it have heft?
“So much heft. It’s very easy to get on stage and blabber if someone gives you a microphone. But to really connect with people, to tell them a joke that you know is coming and for that moment when you are both on the same page and the laugh is there, I cannot think of anything more rewarding than that.”
Sindhu Vee: Sandhog is performing at the Pleasance Courtyard – The Attic at 4.30pm until August 26.
Sindhu Vee debuts her first hour-long show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. Given her ability to spin a good yarn, there is little doubt that she’ll have enough material