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Interview: Comedian Akaash Singh

21 Apr

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

I discovered Akaash Singh the way I find most things these days: through Twitter. Writer Anand Giridharadas tweeted about seeing his show and I immediately emailed him to request an interview. I discovered he only lived one subway stop away from me in Brooklyn and I met the almost 28 year old Singh at my favorite coffee shop to discuss his burgeoning comedic career.

How did you get started in comedy?

I was pre-med all through college. [Singh was born and raised in Dallas.] I took the MCATs and took a year off after graduation to apply to medical school. During that year off, my two best friends [from high school and college, respectively] decided to move to LA. It was only because we went together that I [felt comfortable] pursuing comedy after only performing in school talent shows. My day job was as a salesman at Verizon Wireless, I was the worst.

I didn’t know anyone in comedy when I moved to LA. If you’re going to do this, you have to make sacrifices. When my friends were out partying, I was working.

I would watch my favorite comedy specials over and over again and memorize them. Comedy is a science, you have to study to figure out why things are funny.

How did your family feel about you becoming a comedian?

My mom said, ‘I would rather you know you can’t do it than wonder the rest of your life if you could.’ Her approval was all I needed. My dad basically said, ‘I think you are an idiot but I can’t stop you because you’re an adult.’

Eventually I worked my way up to bigger clubs. I moved to New York in 2008 because everyone told me “You get funny in New York, you get famous in LA.”

You talk a lot about racism in your act. 

I can’t not talk about racism. I feel in our culture, you’re either white or black. At times in my life I’ve been really white, other times I’ve been really black. I was made fun of for that. I’m just now trying to figure out where I’m from.

How does your family feel about your career now?

First I told my parents not to look me up, but my mom ended up seeing a clip of me online. She liked it and said she was glad because she had no idea what I was doing! Even my dad said I’ve gotten farther than he thought.

How do they feel about the language and topics in your act? I was a little shocked when I saw your show (see video below).

With a desi audience, I’m going to be more cautious. But I’m always going to cuss onstage.

What advice do you have for other South Asians who want to pursue nontraditional careers?

Listen to your parents. I admire people who are doing the traditional thing as much as they admire me. If I had the 4.0 and perfect score, I would be a doctor right now. If I knew how hard it was going to be, I don’t know if I would have done it. You have to be delusional to go into comedy.


The next day, Akaash emailed me to say he had been thinking about advice to give South Asian women in particular. His advice, edited for brevity:

“First, be comfortable in your own skin. Personally, I think that starts with being proud of your roots. You’re Indian (or Pakistani, or Sri Lankan…), and that means you’re from a beautiful place with a beautiful culture.
Second, don’t get happiness confused with pleasure. Things like smoking, drinking, and partying may give you short term pleasure, but they won’t provide lasting happiness. Understand the difference between the two, and always chase happiness.”
Visit, subscribe on Facebook, follow @akaashsingh on Twitter. 

Menstruation: Shame and Joy

9 Dec

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

Amongst many South Indians, the first menstrual cycle in a girl often calls for much joy and celebration as it indicates that the girl is now a ‘grown up woman’, with her womb ready to ‘receive’. At the same time and in a seemingly contradictory manner, it is customary for the women to be barred from entering the kitchen to cook during menstruation. Although some view this as the period when a woman is allowed to rest and be relieved of her domestic duties, she is not allowed to touch anyone or enter the temple or perform any religious rituals.

-Sarita Manu, “Pure or (im)pure?”, HRISouthAsian Blog

I got my first period when I was twelve. Small and underdeveloped, I could pass for nine. Though I was emotionally mature, and had already defined myself a feminist, I was confused by the conflicting messages I received from my family.

My mom insisted on calling India to inform relatives immediately, much to my embarrassment. My dad, traveling on business, was also immediately notified and called me the next day, asking me if I was eating well and vaguely telling me it was “important now.” I received gifts and jewelry from extended family and noticed my mom’s aunty friends giving me knowing smiles.

I knew the event was important in some way and though I thought I understood the mechanics (having read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret in elementary school), I still wasn’t quite sure why exactly I was being treated so differently. The next year would bring more puzzling changes as a result of my new status as a woman – albeit one who still looked like a young girl, who still wasn’t able to swallow ibuprofen to treat cramps.

I remember my mom chastising me for pointing out a scar on her bare arms while we happened to sharing an elevator with a man in the local community center. The resulting explanation of why one shouldn’t call attention to exposed skin in front of a strange man left me confused and hurt. As did my ban on attending temple with the rest of the family, just because it was a certain day of the month.

As I got older, I understood the bans on makeup and the fear my mom displayed when I talked about boys from school after I “officially” became a woman. But as the confusion disappeared, anger arrived in its place. I repeatedly questioned my mom and other female relatives – why did they refuse to make prasadam while on their period? Why did they – god-fearing, devout – women refuse to participate in poojas during “that time of the month”? Who was stopping them, and why? Why would God, who supposedly granted women the power and honor of bearing children let the process that allowed them to create shame?

I still haven’t received a satisfactory answer. Possible explanations offered don’t soothe me: that historically, the only break from housework a woman would receive was during her period, that offering women a rest is out of respect to her sensitive state. Maybe in ancient times, but now?

This article, posted on HRI Institute for South Asian Research and Exchange’s blog, showcases a presentation entitled ‘Feminine Representations and Themes of Resistance in Nepali Art.’  Installations included a woman sitting in a makeshift hut, alone, as many women are still required to (1). Another depicts a mannequin with red strings (red is notably the color of celebration in most South Asian countries) that turn into cloth lotuses – paradoxically, as lotuses are often used in Hindu ceremonies (2).

My mom knows my feelings on the topic and knows I don’t agree with her sticking with tradition. But it still happens – a few months ago, attending temple for a Carnatic music concert, I got my period. My mom refused to let me ask any of the other women for supplies, even though we were on our way out, and hushed me when I mentioned the problem.

I know there are many more sides to this issue. I know women are celebrated and respected in India and Hinduism for their fertility and not all women feel ashamed of their menstrual cycle or even adhere to the ancient traditions described above. But as Sarita Manu mentions in the conclusion of her blog, it will take more than education or awareness to stop thinking of menstruation as an impure process.

I hope this starts a discussion.

Images above via

Movie Review: Abu, Son of Adam

27 Nov

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the opening night film of the 8th annual South Asian International Film Festival,  Abu, Son of Adam.

The theatre was packed as Abu made its American premiere. Though my friend complained the dubbing of the film in Hindi (from the original Malayalam) was inaccurate, it didn’t bother me.

Abu, Son of Adam, is the story of a humble salesman and his wife whose lifelong wish is to make the Hajj pilgrimage. He slowly sells his prized possessions to pay for the trip. Through this planning process, his life in Kerala’s verdant Malabar region is – his hardworking nature, the respect he has earned from wealthier community members, his livelihood a relic of earlier times.

Seeing Abu’s childlike wonder upon receiving his first passport, even going so far as to gently scold his wife for touching the pictures invited laughter from the audience. By the end of the film, I was sure disaster was inevitable and the calm ending was a surprise.

Variety said “The film has a tendency to shy away from overt dramatic conflict, as Abu’s gentle decency sees him escape or mollify one practical or personal opponent after another. As such, he’s a more admirable protagonist than he is a compelling one…” I agree, though I sympathized with Abu’s desire to earn the money for the trip himself, I wanted to see anger or sadness as he faced his inability to do so.

I wish the couple’s family life had been explored more. Allusions are made throughout the story to the couple’s only child, a son who has abandoned his parents to start a new life in Dubai. The son no longer speaks to his parents, ashamed of his humble background, though his mother hears tidbits of his life from friends and neighbors: a new baby, a new job, each new accomplishment hurting his mother left behind.

Reading of Abu‘s low national box office numbers was unsurprising, as the film moves at a steady pace, no thwarted love stories or fight scenes to be found.

The film is India’s official entry in the foreign language film category of the 84th annual Academy Awards. Though the film has its flaws, I hope Abu, Son of Adam is given a chance as Abu’s graciousness and piousness is a representation of India I am proud of.

Photo from film courtesy of Deccan Chronicle 

Brown Girls Behaving Badly

30 Jun

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

I guess it was inevitable.  Now that brown girls are reaching adulthood, free from our strict upbringing, some negative attention was bound to strike our model minority image. But the last few weeks have brought some unfortunate scandals.

If you’re even a casual Internet user, you have probably come across the cell phone video of a young Indian woman berating a Metro North train conductor, using winning phrases like, “Do you know how well educated I am? Do you know what schools I went to?” Apparently the woman was speaking loudly and allegedly profanely on a cell phone conversation so the conductor asked her to keep her voice down. This simple request was met by yelling in an over-enunciated accent about her superior education and a demand for her money back before exiting the train in a huff.

Unfortunately in this public age, the young woman’s name and Internet history was quickly revealed. As an NYU graduate, her “well-educated” claims were swiftly mocked by Internet commenters. Even more unfortunately, many commenters felt free to insult the young woman’s ethnic background (the words “curry eater” were used as well as putting down her parents owning gas stations). Though the woman’s actions were deplorable, it was remarkable to see how quickly the conversation moved to insults based on the woman’s race. A sad reminder that as much as we try to assimilate, South Asians are still very much the “other” in American society.

The next story broke a few days ago. A young Indian woman working in Los Angeles met director Quentin Tarantino at a Hollywood party, went back to his place, and indulged his well-known foot fetish before returning home and emailing fifteen of her closest friends about the experience.

The email was leaked to major websites (whether the leak was intentional or not is being debated) and the woman’s picture, work history, Tumblr, even an old Wheel of Fortune appearance were quickly found.

Like the Metro North train experience, Quentin Tarantino’s date was put down for her writing style and confidence.  Shades of racism colored both events: the train conductor who was spoken to harshly was black and Miss Hollywood mentioned “hordes” of Asian girls in Las Vegas and bragged about her former black boyfriend in her email.

These stories are different, of course. Perhaps the train passenger was simply having a bad day (though her reaction was unspeakably rude) while the Hollywood email writer was almost certainly seeking attention.

Sepia Mutiny breaks down the race issue better than I can do here, but I think the main take-away from both incidents is that although brown girls on the cusp of adulthood may be assimilated and successful, we are still seen as South Asian first and as representatives for our culture. This may be unfair, but until we actually live in a post-racial society, we should remember our actions do not occur in a bubble but affect the perception of our entire race.

*I’ve chosen not to use the real names of either girl, because I truly feel sorry for their loss of privacy.

Image above via

Picasso Blue Nude on right via

Feminist Coming Out Day 2011

19 Mar

Image from Feminist Coming Out Day site

Originally published at

Feminist Coming Out Day was started in 2010 at Harvard University, when a queer student group and feminist club teamed up to spread awareness about gender equality. Co-founded by Lena Chen (of Sex and the Ivy and the ch!cktionary fame) the groups were “inspired by National Coming Out Day, a holiday which encourages awareness of issues affecting the queer community. Our event
was an opportunity for alliance, collaboration, bridge-building, and inclusion.”

This year, Feminist Coming Out Day is partnered with Bitch Magazine and taking the campaign online. Events will be taking place March 8 at universities and cities across the country. Click here to find events in your area.

I’ve been a fan of Lena Chen since her “Sex and the Ivy” days. I admire her for surviving the backlash and slut-shaming of her early college years and becoming a freelance writer and feminist activist. Her openness toward sexuality is so unusual for a brainy Asian girl (as a fellow Asian, sometimes brainy girl, I salute her).

I donated $20, for which I will receive a “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, button, and sticker. You can even donate as little as $2 and receive a sticker. Of course, it’s not really about the merchandise. For me, a working professional for whom earning a paycheck is novel enough that I still get excited every pay day, I often want to donate to causes but get confused when surveying all the organizations in existence. All proceeds go to Bitch Media, the nonprofit
organization that publishes “Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture.”

After donating, you can upload images/videos of yourself talking about what feminism means to you for the Feminism Portrait Project and spread the word on Twitter and Facebook about this event. The team can also help groups start a Feminist Portrait Project in their area by providing publicity and logistics, discounted merchandise, and creating a page specifically for your group on the website. Visit This is What a Feminist Looks Like – Feminist Coming Out Day 2011 for more information.

I walked out an Indian

25 Feb

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

Growing up, I spent more time learning about the Pilgrims and Revolutionary War than I ever did about the Indian quest for independence from Great Britain.  Yes, I did the requisite research paper on Gandhi and dutifully attended Republic Day celebrations with the Indian community on January 26, shivering as we raised an Indian flag at the local university, but I had no idea how India went from being ruled for hundreds of years to the world’s largest democracy.

I had the vague idea that everything started with Gandhi’s clothing strike and nonviolent protesting, but wasn’t aware of how arduous the journey to independence was until I saw the Abishek Bachchan period drama Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey

Based on the book, Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-1934 by Manini Chatterjee, the film dramatizes the true story of 16 teenagers in Chittagong in 1930, who successfully planned a takeover of government facilities in Chittagong to rock the British Empire. Led by revolutionary leader Surya Sen (Asbishek Buchan), the group was partially successful but the army ended up killing and jailing the teenagers involved. Surya Sen was brutally tortured by his captors before being executed.

Despite the violent end, the Chittagong uprising marked one of the first successful attempts to overthrow the British government.  And though the movie employs some of the usual Bollywood theatrics (unrequited love, drawn-out fight scenes) the story is still powerful.

Amitabh Bachchan’s popular blog includes an excerpt from his daughter Shweta’s movie review where she states, “I do hope people go to watch this movie. Not because my brother acts in it. I hope they go and watch this movie because it deserves to be seen, this story deserves to be heard and those brave young boys deserve to be saluted.”

Like Shweta, I was embarrassed I did not know this story before I saw the film, that I had neglected to show an interest in how my mother country defeated a powerful empire to become the world’s largest democracy.

The boys portrayed in the film were as young as thirteen, but were proud to serve their country, even as they became aware of the dangers involved.

After I watched the movie, I began researching the quest for India’s independence.  I was surprised to learn freedom fighters had even reached the United States through the Gadar Party. The Gadar Party was a mostly Sikh organization which started operating abroad in 1913. The group’s leader, Lala Hardyal, helped convince Indians in California to donate money to the cause and even return to India to join the freedom movement. The US government eventually arrested him and his associates for spreading anarchist literature; the incident became a reason to limit Indian immigration until the Naturalization and Immigration Act of 1965.

Indians in America have faced far less discrimination than other ethnic groups and it is easy to forget the struggles of our past.

Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey just portrays a small slice of the Indian freedom movement. As an Indian, I feel obligated to learn about my history and spread my newfound knowledge among other first generation Indians. I thank the movie for inspiring me to learn about my culture.

As Shweta said in her review, “I walked into KHJJS an anxious sister, I walked out an Indian. Allow this movie to convert you the way it did me.”

Irrfan Khan “In Treatment”

5 Jan

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

I’ve recently become a fan of the HBO show, In Treatment.  My cable company offered me a trial of HBO and the show hooked me from the first episode.  The show features therapy sessions with four of Dr. Paul Weston’s (Gabriel Byrne) patients. Thirty minutes of sitting and talking is my kind of entertainment (and also explains my lack of enthusiasm for most popular movies). 

Critics agree the breakout star of the show is Irrfan Khan, playing Sunil, a retired math professor from Calcutta who comes to live with his son in Brooklyn after his wife’s unexpected death.  Jhumpa Lahiri is a consultant to the show and the detail of how Sunil’s wife died – a reaction to the anesthesia during a routine surgery – mirrors how Ruma’s mother died in the title story in her latest story collection, Unaccustomed Earth. Viewers might recognize Khan as the policeman from Slumdog Millionaire or Gogol’s father from The Namesake

Khan plays older for the role and the details for his character are perfect – the process of preparing his hand rolled cigarettes, the way he fiercely defends his family’s honor, and dislike for his American daughter-in-law’s lack of modesty.  Khan’s Sunil struggles to adjust to life in his son’s home – he is uncomfortable with the way his son has Americanized himself – changing his name from Arun to Aaron, marrying an American woman and allowing her to run the house.  Sunil is convinced his daughter-in-law is having an affair and reveals troubling details of a romance in his youth, the one time in his life he defied his parents.

The first two seasons of In Treatment were based on Be’Tipul, the Hebrew name of the series that originated in Israel and played there for just two years.  (I highly recommend the first two seasons as well – many episodes are available on youtube.) Gabriel Bryne’s portrayal of protagonist therapist Paul is superb; Sunil overcomes his disdain towards therapy after observing Paul’s respect for him – by not pushing questions and letting him smoke during sessions.  The last episode reveals a twist that cast each of Sunil’s actions in a new light. 

In Treatment is a fascinating, precise show, made infinitely better by Khan’s excellent acting and compelling storyline. I recommend the show to anyone interested in quiet drama and the inner workings of talk therapy. 

Photo of Sunil from