Shazia goes where few have gone before

She was all over the Mumbai papers in the last few days speaking about what she does best — comedy. So naturally, Mumbai was waiting for her. Had she been a he, a chubby-looking white British actor with a Yorkshire accent, it would not be news. But Shazia Mirza is brown, young, Muslim, and a woman and the British Council has taken adequate care to inform us that she makes fun of all those stereotypes. She dresses like any other youngster, no hijab issues here. A perfect example of British multiculturalism.

Would she work in Mumbai? We are a global city — at least want to be — but stand-up comedy has not yet made its place in the cultural biography of the city. Yet, here she was in a place where some of her jokes could well rebound. Not that Mumbai has not seen or heard or nurtured oddballs, but in these politically correct times would it warm up to Shazia’s somewhat unsettling sensibilities? There was a bit of frisson in the air, in the anticipation of crowd displeasure if not aggression, when I went to the café where she was to perform. Or so I thought. What the city turned out to be was just the opposite. In a breezy autumn evening in a packed to overfull Juhu café, Shazia Mirza performed for two hours to an audience which was so grown up that it wasn’t fair.

It could have been any restaurant in any part of the world. The dilettantes and their dates jostled for space, smoked incessantly, quaffed their wine and laughed at the right moments. No one appeared in the least bit offended; it would have been infra dig.

The comedienne-provocateur spoke about growing up and surviving in multicultural Britain, cracking a joke almost in every line about the idiocy and hypocrisy of Islamic decrees on women that she received as inheritance from her parents, about the many letters that her would be-husbands wrote to her father explaining why they rejected her, and of sub-continental foibles like travelling on Air India or Pakistan International Airlines. There were jokes about the death threats she received from people calling themselves Allah’s messengers and the names they called her — scum being the most printable.

The jokes kept coming, many of them a bit too risqué but hitting their targets accurately. Like the one about the Turkish girl who in order to remain a virgin till marriage had only anal sex before the anointed day or where she compared the ‘Muslim vagina’ with the tunnel below the English channel where Talibans keep embarking. Some were politico- satirical — about her not wanting to die a virgin in case she has to end up losing it with a suicide bomber to whom she will be awarded for being one, or the one about her parents, who were born in India but migrated to Pakistan in 1947 because they thought that they should be on the ‘winning side’.

Life in Britain for Muslims, she said, was different. There, she has to cover her face, her ankle and not leave her house after 4 in the afternoon because after that she might get raped. When somebody groped her back in the crowd in Kabala, she called the incident ‘the hand of God’ and said ‘everybody likes to be touched by God and I was the chosen one’. ‘British Muslims are far worse than those in India and Pakistan — the latter have just entered the medieval period’. Sharp and satirical, and a few members of the audience (a multifaith one, evidently) squirmed, but this was oh-so-polite Mumbai, the sophisticated, well-travelled segment. Something told me that this thing would not go down too well in other parts of the city. Here they picked up the nuances, the politics and the ‘in’ references and read between the lines effortlessly. Even when her jokes were a bit stretched, her humour a bit rusty, her references repetitive, the audience took it in with due respect to her art.

I don’t know whether to toast to an audience like this or loath them. Perhaps Shazia’ words best some up the night. ‘You Indians’, she cracked, ‘why don’t you react in anger or frustration? In Pakistan, if we are angry, we just blow ourselves up.’ The audience laughed, politely.

(The uncensored version of the one published)