Tom Hodgkinson takes a walk in the park with the meditating comedian
Sindhu Vee came to stand-up late. She did PPE – that’s Politics, Philosophy and Economics, it’s the degree the politicians take – at Oxford and then went into banking, working for Barclays for seven years in the 1990s. She then became a full-time mum and only started treading the boards in 2012. By 2015 she was gigging weekly, and in 2018 she was nominated for the Best Newcomer Edinburgh Comedy Award at the age of 48. Her routines touch on universal truths. With the great skill and generosity of the best philosopher-comedians, she makes you feel less alone in your pain and misery. So it doesn’t come as a huge surprise to learn that her Hindu faith and meditation practice actually underlie her art and work. We met in Regent’s Park near Sindhu’s home and sat outside a café, which was closed as it was lockdown. She first had me in stitches relating anecdotes about her new French bulldog Bowler, who turned out to be blind. We then started by talking about the Brahma Kumaris, the Indian women-run meditation movement.
Tom Hodgkinson You speak in your comedy about having a spiritual father. I recognise that because I grew up with the Indian meditation group, the Brahma Kumaris, and my father still follows them.
Sindhu Vee I know the Brahma Kumaris! My mother, who I miss dearly, followed them. I’m a big fan of their entire worldview. It’s very powerful if you can distill the message. It’s all about intention changing how you can see the world. Polishing the glasses. That kind of thinking, which I would call broadly Hindu – I live by that. The modern day Brahma Kumaris really tackle issues right here, right now. There’s a lot of veneration in India for anyone who takes a devotional path. You grow up knowing about it. My mother would say: “I met these ladies, they are Brahma Kumaris, they are very good.”
TH The female-led nature of it is amazing.
SV Yes, that’s what my mother thought. She was very, very feminist. She said, “Be wary of being dependent on men.” You learn a lot by watching your parents, more than you think you learn. She pushed us children very hard. But she also had an incredible empathetic passion for people. I was brought up in an environment where you focused on what mattered, the rest was noise. My father always said: “Don’t operate under labels.”
TH And your original idea was to become an academic?
SV Oh, big time. Ideas were everything to me, they still are. Comedy is analytical and involves talking to a lot of people who may not want to hear you, like in university classes. You want to impress your audience. You want to be intelligent. But then I became an investment banker, which wasn’t ever something that had even crossed my mind. I owned it, because I knew why I was there – I wasn’t there for the glamour; I was there to get a visa and to make myself financially independent without being married, so my parents wouldn’t worry.
TH How did you find that world?
SV I loved it. It was so social. I didn’t know anything about banking, so it was a challenge. The level of psychic stress I was under, in retrospect, was insane. I could see that I was really lucky. I’d chucked away my PhD at a phenomenal university and landed on my feet, so I wasn’t going to spit in their eye. Western people have so many choices. I was very aspirational. I joined a proper big bank and they flew you business class everywhere. You felt like it was a big deal. You could put money in the bank and say to your parents: “You don’t have a son but it doesn’t matter because I can take care of you.” My mother would say: “Oh I’m so relieved – at least now you will die single but not poor.” I said, “I’m only 27.” And she’d say, “Yes, but in 13 years you’ll be 40.” Whether you like it or not, we need financial stability to feel sane. In India the expectation is that if you’re born a girl you’ll get married and depend on your husband and then you’ll depend on your children.
TH Is that changing?
SV It is still patriarchal, but it’s changing. In India things happen simultaneously at different levels. You’re in a car, but the car has 70 gears and every passenger is on a different gear. Imagine that. It’s complicated. But I’ve never had those ideas like, “Am I the kind of person who’ll like banking?” I’m the kind of person who’d like not to be seen as a failure. Banking was very taxing, but I worked hard. That’s one thing children should be taught, hard work. If you work hard you can pretty much achieve most things. Yes there are differences in circumstances, it’s not a blanket statement. But if there are two children from the same background and one works hard, they will get further. It’s not about laziness, because I’m lazy and my procrastination is epic. But when I have to work, I go into gear.
TH Laziness is part of the creative process.
SV I’ve now started to own that. In banking there’s none of that. I would get to the office at 6:30am and get home at seven or eight.
TH Friends who went into banking were made redundant in their 50s.
SV Lots of bankers don’t have a very robust non-banking life. So when the work stops they think, “Who the fuck am I?” Anything you get into early, it’s hard to build a robust rest of your life. I don’t think journalism is like that, or teaching, or medicine. I think banking and comedy are particularly good at sucking you in. You don’t have any time in banking; on the weekends you just sleep. I would save my money and take the bus when everyone else was taking black cabs. The first thing I spent money on was a cleaner. She was called Sylvia and didn’t speak a word of English. I was living in a tiny flat in Notting Hill. If you did downward-facing dog you could be in every room at the same time. My mother said it was like a pine-nut, it was so small. Sylvia would cry and I would ask her why and it was because she missed her mum. She was so young. We ended up getting her tickets to go home and she warned me she might not come back at all. My mum said: “If you have someone working in your home and they’re sad, you have to ask yourself what you can do for them. Sad people emanate sadness – is that what you’re paying for?”
TH Did you do meditation?
SV Yes, I used to do it very early morning, like four o’clock. Then I was too exhausted so I spoke to my father and he said, “Do your work with one pointed focus and then your work is your meditation practice.” So then I stopped meditating for a while and then you’re married and life’s all about love and sex and so you think, “Fuck meditation, this is euphoric!” You don’t need to do any inner work. Once you have kids your life has to be adjusted. I didn’t eat a hot meal for 15 years, basically. Now I’m back meditating again, not as much as I did, but I’m in a more meditative state. I’m a big idler, I could just wander around happily. But when idling is forced upon you, it’s not enjoyable. It’s only fun when you choose it.
Sindhu Vee is touring the UK with her show Alphabet from September – tickets available from sindhuvee.com
The full version of this interview appears in Idler #78, May/June 2021. Available in selected newsagents and bookshops. Subscribe here. Order single issue online here.