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‘I try to write things on a very personal place so they resonate into a larger cultural context’

In the hilarious and the poignant stories in Aasif Mandvi's memoir No Land's Man, Arthur J Pais finds a reflection on identity, race, and dislocation. Photographs by Paresh Gandhi
Over two decades ago, Aasif Mandvi, who was waiting tables in New York, broke the rules and whispered ‘Dr Zhivago. It changed my life.’ The object of his adoration, actor Omar Sharif, did not seem to hear Mandvi, who would go on to win the treasured Obie award for his one-man play Sakina’s Restaurant, shine in a number of films and become a correspondent on the award winning The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and get the chance to whisper again, ‘Dr Zhivago. It changed my life.’ ‘As I stood there, not knowing what to say, enveloped by the din of the Manhattan’s rooftop cocktail lounge,’ Mandvi writes in his memoir, No Land’s Man, which released November 3, ‘Omar Sharif smiled back at me. Nodding in recognition, almost familiarly he said leaning into me, “Really? Mine too” ‘

How did Omar Sharif change your life?

Omar Sharif represents something to me, as a young kid, who dreamed of being an actor. Growing up in England, I did not grow up on Bollywood movies, but Western, Hollywood movies. All my actor-icons were Caucasian; they were ‘White.’ All the heroes that I looked (up) to were always white.

Omar Sharif, though he was not South Asian but Egyptian, was the first time that I saw a brown man in a role that was dignified and was the lead. I saw him in Dr Zhivago. He was a handsome brown leading man. It was a revelation for me to see that as a child in a Hollywood film.

It gave me the aspiration that may be there is a possibility that if Omar Sharif can exist, Aasif Mandvi can exist as well. Maybe there’s a space in that culture for that character. For me he was a real iconic symbol, the first one. He had sown the seeds for myself and other brown actors hoping to work in Hollywood...

I was obsessed, while growing up, with this icon of American masculinity. It was this motorcycle riding, 60s iconic, James Dean-esque sort of American symbol of masculinity that was nothing like me. I thought, oh may be I can be that.

As a young kid who is an immigrant, brown, not part of the majority culture, doesn’t look like the white kids that I went to school with, on one side of me the image of masculinity was this Western idea of masculinity, which I would realize later also has racist and oppressive elements to it.

On the other side, there was this immigrant’s idea of masculinity that my father (Hakim Mandivala) represented.He was a shopkeeper in Bradford (England) after having migrated from Bombay with my mother and my sister Shabanam.

I didn’t want to be either of those things. I wasn’t allowed to be one and I didn’t want to be the other. So, Omar Sharif represented a third way, another way to be a brown man and be masculine in a predominantly white culture.

You did television commercials for some time and went around patanking. What does that word mean?

Patanki-ing is a word that actress Sakina Jaffrey first introduced to me and soon the desi actors were using it in the early ‘90s, in New York.

Patanki-ing was basically the sound of mimicking an Indian accent to a non-Indian ear. It was like… you bobble your head and you go patank… patank… patank… patank… patank. We would always come back from au ditions and ask one other, ‘Did they ask you to patank?’

What it meant was a disembodied accent of an Indian caricature that was devoid of any humanity or any context. The ad makers would just ask you to come in, put a turban on, and ‘do’ an accent. They would ask me if I knew to charm snakes.

These were what a lot of my experiences as a young actor in New York were when I first got here. There was a lot of going into auditions and being asked to patank for them. Then, of course, there are nuances to that. You try to patank in a not-so-stereotypical way, but at the end of the day, that’s what it was.

I write in the book how I was dissociated from my own Indian heritage and my own Indian culture, that when I first came to New York and I first started doing auditions, I didn’t even know how to do an Indian acce nt.

Not that I was not familiar with the Indian accent. I was very familiar with it. I had grown up with it; my father had an Indian accent; my mother had an Indian accent, but somehow in myself I had repressed it and pushed it down so far that I didn’t know how to access it any more.

When I started going to these auditions and I was being asked to do the Indian accent, I was doing it really badly. I had to re-connect with my own Indian-ness and accept the Indian accent again. I had to sound like my father!

From there you make your own destiny to writing and acting in Sakina’s Restaurant…

In reaction to the fact that there really weren’t many roles for South Asians in theater and films!

I was doing stand-ups, auditioning for these kind of really stereotypical parts in commercials or TV shows or whatever. There weren’t any real roles with any substance or nuance or culture or context or complexity.

In school, I had played all these character roles. Mostly, they were ‘white’ characters, but I had at least gotten to play those that had some kind of complexity and humanity. When I got into the professional business, I realized that I was being just asked to do very stereotypical, onedimensional things and in a reductive kind of way.

I started to write Sakina’s Restaurant almost as reaction to that as a way to create characters that came from a place of truth for me, that came from a place of writing, that came from a place of reality, that came from a place of my own family. I wanted to create a kind of South Asian character that no one was writing because they did not have a point of view about those people in the way that I did.

So I started writing characters based on myself, my parents, my family and people I grew up with and stuff like that. I started writing these characters that actually represented South Asians in a real way, at least attempting to.

What happened from that was that a lot of South Asians came to see Sakina’s Restaurant. It was a revelation, I think, for a lot of South Asian audiences because they had never seen that play that was done by a South Asian about a South Asian family, that was done on the mainstream American stage!

Those of us who were not artists, those of us who were not actors, felt empowered by what you had done. It showed us we could aspire to be what we wanted to and did not have to kill our identity.

Yes! We got bus loads of South Asians coming from New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island. They would come to see the play because they heard about it and you had also mentioned it in India Abroad.

They would read about it and they would come and they would see this play and it probably gave them the same feeling that I got when I saw Omar Sharif for the first time — oh, there is a point; there is a representation.

It was only a small thing that I was doing: It was in a small theater with only 100 seats and we ran for six months... But, for me, personally, it was a departure point. Because, up until that point, I really didn’t have an association with my own culture or really have a lot of Indian friends.

It was only after Sakina’s Restaurant that I had a re-immersion with my own culture.

And then there is The Daily Show. Tell us about that.

Here I was with a very clear agenda of what I wanted to be as an actor. I was doing Ibsen, and Chekhov in off-Broadway shows and doing roles in movies. I had also got to act and sing in a big Broadway production, Oklah oma! I was still considering myself a serious actor, even though I had done a lot of comedy.

The Daily Show always felt to me that it’s for stand-up comedy people. It’s a little bit left of center; it’s creative not political in terms of my own life itself, something that was not on the path. But these things happen in life and you need to be open to things. The things that are meant to come into your life, come into your life. The Daily Show was one of those examples.

I was just sitting in my apartment and the phone rang... I didn’t know what it was, initially. Initially, I thought well all this is going to be some stupid kind of thing where I put a turban on and pretend to fly on the carpet and wear a beard and yell ‘Death to America’ or some shit like that. Initially, I said no, I don’t want to go. Then they called back and said no, no, no it’s for a correspondent.

I went to The Daily Show that afternoon and I auditioned for Jon Stewart. It was initially for a Middle East correspondent. It was just a one off thing... They had me come in; they auditioned me at 3 o’clock; Jon Stewart hired me immediately and said you are going to be on this show tonight. I didn’t even have time to tell people what was happening.

Jon has been real “mensch” to me. He has been great. He kept having me back on the show, back on the show, back on the show and then eventually offering me a contract.

Then what was happening to me was there was a period of time when I thought: Oh what am I doing here? I’m not of this pedigree. I’m not a fake journalist. The fact that I was the brown correspondent, it just all felt a little bit sort of like it wasn’t me.

Then I thought I’m going to get fired; they’re going to realize I’m all rubbish. And then eventually I realized that what we were doing on the show, the stuff we were writing, the stuff we were speaking out on the air was actually having an impact. It transformed me.

In the book I write about my relationship to Jon and the complex relationship that that is with one’s own faith and the faith that one was brought up in.

That is one of those things where I just thought that I was the worst example of a Muslim; I should not be representing Islam in any way. That’s something that made me uncomfortable about it.

On the other hand, I also realized that what we were saying on The Daily Show, even though I did not always write it, was having an impact on American Muslims.

It was in the years after September 11, in 2006. We were right in the middle of the Iraq War. G W Bush was in the second term and in America the fear was racketed up of Muslims (not that it isn’t there today). At least at that time, I felt that I was having the ability to speak on behalf of an incredibly under-represented group of people.

The misinformation, the bigotry, the stuff that was out there... Sikhs would get attacked because they wore turbans. The Americans couldn’t tell the difference. We were addressing these things. We were talking about these things. It felt really empowering for me.

I met Muslims, on the street who would come up to me and say “Salaam Alekum” and hug me and whatever. It was somewhat uncomfortable because I didn’t really think I was like them.

I also recognized what it was doing for them. People began to see me in a larger cultural sort of zeitgeist context, much more than I had done previously. It definitely changed my life.

Tell us something more about the House of Patels. It is funny, but also serious. You write about how your father made these T-shirts lettered International House of Patel and how he thought it would signal loyalty for International House of Pancake and insisted that all of you, including your grandparents, wore it. Did he actually ask for discount at IHOP?

I wrote it as a kind of immigrant story. I wanted to make it funny and accessible. But it is a larger immigrant story.

My father did come to America, and when he first came here, he was fascinated and obsessed with this idea of brunch.

I remember him telling us that there is this thing in America called brunch. He thought there was a third meal between breakfast and lunch called brunch. He thought it was great…

I have taken some artistic license and amalgamated a lot of Indian fathers into my father to tell a larger story of the immigrant journey.

There is this idea of my father coming from nothing and coming to the land of plenty — a sort of (I say in the book) a little kid with a golden ticket; America was really a Willy Wonka chocolate factory.

That is the immigrant mentality. That is the immigrant thing.

But I think what is nice about that story is the choice. In the sense that my father also understands what he is buying into.

For me, my American journey has been one of coming to America, always being obsessed with America, wanting to come here, finally coming here and then a level of disillusionment about America and what that means.

I feel Sakina’s Restaurant was really about the disillusionment of America, that American dream and how to re-capture that. Then getting on The Daily Show and finding a voice in relationship to that disillusionment, in reaction to that disillusionment, and being able to comment on the culture that I have now adopted.

I think my father has had a similar journey where at the end of that story he is able to comment on the culture as somebody from the inside even though he is an outsider.

He has his own surprise ending in that story where you think he is just a man who is obsessed with food and America and its consumer culture and then you realize that under the surface here is somebody so has much more profound thoughts about America than you might assume from just meeting him.

That takes me to the story about his job with Verizon and how he was fired for using profanity at a customer.

After my parents came to this country, for a long time they struggled in terms of finances. My parents would work in Florida in flea markets and they would go around to these markets across the state. They would get goods from India and they would sell it here.

We were not rich. My father was a businessman. He was not a doctor or engineer. He was self-employed. It was not like he just came here and fell into the American dream. He was very much a struggler.

Later in life, my father got a job. I tell the story of how my father got a job as a Verizon phone customer service representative, and, the English language that had always been the bane of his existence became his tool in this job.

The story is really about an incident that got him fired because he swore at a belligerent customer who was being racist towards him. That really did happen.

I wrote this story to imagine what my father would have gone through in that experience and try to imagine what my father’s thought process might have been in that moment.

Also, what I wanted to address in that story was this idea that these were two men not looking at each other in the face. They were talking on the phone.

Some of the things I talk about in the book is this divide between East and West. There is a kind of aggressiveness and belligerence that happens to those men in that moment because there is an anonymity in being on the ph one and they can say these things that they feel but have never said to someone’s face.

That is the kind of the miscommunication that happens in global politics when you deal with the Middle East, in America or whatever, when you have this misunderstanding, this miscommunication, the projection of stereotypes or racism or prejudice that is put on the other person. And that exists in that story. I wanted that story to be about that.

I wanted it to be about this divide that existed and this place where these two men were expressing these words.

For my father it was cathartic. He had spent years being called a Paki, a sand nigger, and all these things when he had his corner shop in Bradford in England. Then, in the story, comes this cathartic moment when he finally gets to say the things that he wants to say to this guy who was calling him a terrorist and all that stuff.

I think that was a very important chapter in the book.

Well, a lot of the book is about identity, a lot of the book is about race, a lot of the book is about dislocation and I think that happens for me in a very specific way.

My parents took me out of India to England when I was only a year old and I came (to America) as a teenager.

So I’ve dealt with that my whole life and so have my parents, in their own way, dealt with that dislocation and identity issues in their adult life as well in a different way.

Has your father read the book? He should feel proud.

I think he feels proud. For my dad, I think it makes him feel conspicuous in this book. He suddenly feels exposed. His reaction when he first read the book was why would people care about these stories - who cares about when I got fired from Verizon, or about when I was obsessed with brunch.

I think he felt, in some way, revealed and exposed in a way that made him feel a little bit vulnerable.

But I said to him, “Hopefully if it works, these stories will resonate on a larger level for people.”

I always try to write things on a very personal place so they resonate into a larger cultural context. I go from the personal to the general.

I think he liked the story. But, I think, it was something scary for him, having his son write about him in that way.

I think knowing my father, what will happen is that - I went to the book signing at Tampa, Florida; people were asking him as well to sign the book, so he was thinking maybe people are actually enjoying the book.

So, if people are reading the book and like the book, at the end of the day I’m a story teller and my job above everything else is to entertain people and keep them interested in the book. If the stories are boring, it really doesn’t matter.

What matters is what I’m trying to say. But if people are reading the stories, entertained by the stories, and enjoying the stories, then he feels that may be it’s okay!
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