When I was 15, I moved to Chennai to get into IIT. Within a week, I realised I did not belong and resolved to jump the wall to call my dad and ask him to get me out of there.
The hostel wall, like all other contraptions of imagined confinement, had pieces of glass stuck on it. I had been watching too much of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood’s escapades in Where Eagles Dare prior to my departure from Bangalore, and made a plan involving cloth bandages and a cultural programme at the school to distract the missing guards from my great escape.
The programme had started. Everyone was attending. As I made my way towards the wall, I saw actor-director S.Ve. Shekher on the stage delivering jokes like gunfire. He had every teenager and adult in the crowd open-mouthed with his wit. With only a mic to amplify whatever his mind was telling him.
I abandoned my escape and sat down, enchanted. Later that night, I simply walked out of the main gate, made my call and walked back in. The warden was fast asleep, it turned out.
Two decades plus later, returning from my second outing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe — and reflecting on why I was there — that moment comes back to mind. I am here to make light of the confines of commerce and focus on my art form. No props. No tricks of light. No trademarked merchandise.
This year’s dominant themes are grief and loss, and the number of physical theatre events seem to be on an uptick. The Fringe has the great benefit of discerning audiences who turn up for the art form rather than the artist. One’s individual popularity is less important than the finish line, and there is strong word-of-mouth if the show is good. I consider 2023 my sophomore year as a comedian and I learned a lot, including the value of resilience, of remaining alive to the audiences show after show, and losing all fear.
One secret wish would be a better financial deal for performers like me, who sweat the whole year to showcase new work.
Once upon a hot Scottish summer
The Edinburgh Fringe is my hermetic and creative month in many ways. I wake up early, run a lot, stretch a lot, eat, paste flyers, work on my paying job, flyer some more, warm up, perform and sleep. Having made my mark as a comedian thanks to my show last year, but this year I am wrought with anxiety.
At 11 one morning, I tear up while trying to comfort my fellow act, who is a mum to a 10-month-old. Being a working mother makes you feel like you don’t belong, and I catch myself saying out loud to her, ‘Don’t deny your anxiety. It took me five years to acknowledge how the same separation affected me.’
Edinburgh is doubly unaffordable in August. My stay is in a five floor walkup. Sixty-three steps one way. The washing machine is broken. There is no fan.
This year, I average 18-hour days and am left with time to only watch two shows. Total. Besides, I buy tickets at full price. Because that is what I would want people to do for me. ‘I treated myself to a full meal today,’ comedian Tom G.K. says to me. ‘I wish I hadn’t bought those extra flyers, I could’ve joined you,’ another responds. ‘There was a drunk, rowdy audience member in my show tonight,’ Kelly Coughlin says, ‘and the room was a hundred degrees hot.’
The downside of the weather being dry and warm means most performance spaces seem ill-ventilated. In the first week, after the thrill of selling out wears off, I start to wish for smaller crowds. Just so that I can breathe!
‘I belong everywhere’
Somewhere in the second week, I plan and produce a short documentary alongside two acts I’ve greatly admired since my Fringe debut in 2022. Jay Lafferty, who is a Scottish comedian and a mother of a young child, and Benjamin Elliot, who is a performer with cerebral palsy.
It is titled Comedians in Bars to speak about the metaphorical shackles and the apocryphal freedoms we are handed as performers. Me as an immigrant in a post George Floyd world emerging from a pandemic, Jay as a mum and Benny persevering in the face of all odds. If I dwell on the number of encounters with covert or overt racism in the last year alone, I would go into therapy.
‘Above all, I would want respect,’ Benny tells me during filming. I come back with a small fire burning in my belly.
My new show, Blimp, sells out 75% of the run, simply on word-of-mouth. (A small India tour is being planned later this year. Meanwhile, my independent production company, Avani Films, is adapting it to a feature length film.) It doesn’t take more than 24 hours after my stint is over, when, during my way back home, a passenger cuts ahead and, when confronted, lets out a racist chant, ‘Why don’t you go back to your own country.’
I can’t help but think, ‘Because I belong everywhere. Deal with it!’
The writer is a filmmaker, comedian and engineer.