This week I flew to India. The British Council does not have much money, and flew me in economy on Air India – the equivalent of the luggage hold on easyJet. The only consolation is that the Air India stewards can string a sentence together and do not have orange faces.
These days my mum worries about me flying. She encourages me to fly by Pakistan International Airlines or Emirates because, as she puts it: “They’re not going to blow up their own.” At the airport the security was as tight as at Tesco. I followed Indians who had been on holiday in England. They were carrying large tins of Quality Street. I find it endearing when other cultures aspire to everything that is British, and assume that because something is British it must be good. Even Spam and Milton Keynes.
In the reception of my hotel, there were TV screens showing Bollywood movies – scantily clad Indian women in shorts and bras, dancing around trees, with hairy men groping them in the wind. How liberal and open-minded India seemed. But it dawned on me that India had never come across stand-up comedy before. They had slapstick but stand-up, as we know it, was unknown to them. I wasn’t worried because I’ve performed in Germany where people’s sense of humour is still in development.
I did a photo shoot for Elle by the hotel’s magnificently sized pool. I said it would be nice to go for a swim later, but was told that was “only for white women from abroad”. Asian women did not expose themselves in public. But hadn’t I just seen a half-naked woman on MTV being groped by Shahrukh Khan? This was an omen of double standards to come.
My first show was in Café Mocha, Mumbai. My backstage area was a 500-degrees open kitchen with chapattis flying across the room. There were 1,000 people in a 200-seater venue. People were hanging from windows, sitting on top of each other on the floor. They laughed at everything except sex. When I mentioned the word vagina (I was discussing The Vagina Monologues), the men looked disgusted and the women gasped, and then laughed like drains. Any reference to sex – and believe me there weren’t many – was met with embarrassment. I was annoyed, so I said: “I don’t know why there seems to be this reaction every time I mention sex. Your overpopulation is not due to the Immaculate Conception and you are doing it more than anyone else in the world.”
That night the British Council called me to say that the café in Pune where I was performing the next night was threatening to cancel. “They are scared people will get upset and they will lose their licence.” The council’s director said he wouldn’t be surprised if the moral police came to arrest me. This was equivalent to Lenny Bruce in the early 1960s. I have never had this problem before, not even in Bradford.
I was asked to “tone down” my show by removing the words “vagina” and “sex”. I have never been asked to do this before. I was also asked to remove my section on “death threats”. I refused, but agreed to “tone it down”. Lastly, I was told to go on stage before my show in Pune and make a “disclaimer”, which would go as follows: “I have been told by the management of Mocha Café to tell you – the audience – that anything I say tonight is my own view, about my own subject matter, and any offence caused has nothing to do with Mocha Café.”
The audience laughed hysterically when I said: “I have never been asked to apologise for something that I have not yet said or done, or any offence not yet caused before a show.” India is a democracy, but not a liberal democracy. Any kind of repression evokes extremes of behaviour and that’s why words such as vagina and sex are forbidden. India is not ready for this yet. I can’t wait till Puppetry of the Penis tours India.