“I came out this way, covered in hair and attitude!” Kalyani Pandya proudly proclaims, startling some nearby Bridgehead patrons — although most have become used to our loud voices, cawing laughter and vigorous hand gestures by now.
Truth be told, the brashness is just her way. Pandya has been rocking bars, bookstores and dance halls in the nation’s capital with laughter ranging from the raucous to the nervous for four years now. Even while chatting in a coffee shop or schmoozing at a pre-show shindig, Pandya’s comedy hat is always on, testing her dinner companions’ abilities to prevent beer or tea from shooting out of their nostrils.
But what happens when you get behind the laughter? Some performers use comedy as a mask or a line of defence, to keep from growing bitter or resentful. But for Pandya, her comedy is just another extension of her being, an outcome of her no-nonsense exterior.
To understand both her and her comedy, we have to reach back into the past, to her birth four decades ago in Kampala, Uganda, on the shores of Lake Victoria. There, she was surrounded with a large extended family — grandparents and great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all in one home. It was the “petri dish” that birthed her love of comedy.
As a child, she instinctively knew she was different from the people around her and that there was “going to be trouble” because she wasn’t a “cookie-cutter of the Air India ad — a good girl with a degree in medicine.” When I told her I wasn’t familiar with the commercial, she mimicked a doe-eyed, submissive girl with her palms pressed together in front of her, bowing and smiling.
“Pretend I have a sari on,” she adds.
But it was after her family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in primary school that her difference became more apparent.
“There, I was told that Indians like me are ‘dirty’ and the only cure for this dirt is piles of snow smashed into the face at close proximity. I also earned my first stitches there.”
By high school, she was dating the Jamaican captain of the girl’s track team. The backlash was immediate; her Gujarati friends ostracized her and her parents kicked her out of the house.
“I was accused of everything from being a curse from a past life sin, to deliberately trying to kill my father.”
Despite the hardship of that time, many of those details, like her mother’s “drag queen-like” appearance and off-colour remarks, have become a source of material for many of Pandya’s stand-up routines.
“Comedy is cheaper than therapy, and is a terrific avenue for a writer who likes to perform their own work. I love the immediacy of the response, and the sense of intimacy as the story unfolds to its orgasmic comic release. I’m addicted to the laugh, yes, but also to the sense of community in sharing that laugh.”
Yet to this day, issues of sexual orientation and racial identity continue to be the central themes in Pandya’s life and her comedy. Right now, the battle is gender presentation, she says. Pandya describes her appearance as “typically masculine,” but she firmly identifies as a woman.
“Just because the way I identify as a woman isn’t by society’s standards, it doesn’t mean I’m not a woman,” she says. “I can’t wear a sari. I don’t like how they feel on me. I’d rather wear a man’s salwar. But that keeps me from participating in garba, raas, in Diwali festivities. And I’m missing them only because the way I am as a woman isn’t acceptable to everyone else. It’s painful.”
Yet it wasn’t swimming (another passion of hers), comedy, or a Master’s in English that got her through the perilous journey of identity.
“You’re not going to believe me,” Pandya warns sheepishly. “My greatest fear has always been spiritual loneliness. When your soul is not understood and cared for, when it’s abandoned.”
In fact, her biggest dream wasn’t to make it big, it was to make sure her spirit would never go hungry again — and, for the last 17 years, that dream has been fulfilled by her partner, Ruth.
“She kissed my warty toad self and turned me into the Prince,” says Pandya.
“I’m not a hero, though,” Pandya insists vehemently, “I’m so fucked up … [Instead] I’m going to go down in history as the one who dog-sat for Helen Humphreys.”