Sindhu Vee and her father go back in time: ‘As a child, I was always copying him’

Born in New Delhi in 1969, Sindhu Vee spent her childhood in India and the Philippines, before throwing herself into academia, getting degrees from Oxford, Montreal and Chicago universities. In her early 40s, she traded the world of investment banking for standup comedy. Her career quickly ascended, with appearances on QI, Have I Got News for You, Radio 4 and Netflix’s forthcoming adaptation of Matilda. She lives in London with her husband and three children; she is currently touring her new show Alphabet.

My memory begins at age six – so I don’t remember a thing about this photo, taken in 1973, in Kaka Nagar, Delhi. My mother was a therapist and I often used to ask her why I couldn’t recall anything. She thinks it was trauma – I had an aya (Indian nanny) when I was growing up and we were incredibly close. She and I were separated when my family moved to the Philippines when I was five. I flipped out, apparently. Crying, fainting. It was all very catastrophic. Everyone else was like: “Ughh, can you stop with the drama?”

From a very young age, I didn’t feel as if I was like other people. Our family was different from my friends’ – I had an old-fashioned name, my mother was north Indian, my father from the south. I lived in the shadow of my older sister, who was very rebellious and tough. We moved around a lot for my dad’s work. I’ve always been an outsider, but it’s not a bad thing. All my peers who are comedians are the same: it gives you a better perspective.

I was always copying Dad. I’m trying to be like him in this picture. He was a switched-on, very attentive father who had a lot of time for my jabbering. He read books to me, taught me how to ride a bike and play badminton. He was more patient than my mum, but as a mother I now know dads can be more patient when they’re not there all day.

When I had children, my mother was very vigilant: six days after I’d given birth to my first baby, a health visitor came to check his weight. My mother turned to her and said: “You have spent so much time talking about the baby. If this baby dies, my daughter will have another one. But if my daughter breaks, the baby is over. This family is over. Why don’t you spend more time talking to her?”

As a mother you feel as if you’re in freefall. When I went back to work in banking after having my firstborn, I thought I was having an extended panic attack, but it was a breakdown. Everyone around me was pathologising me and saying, “Take antidepressants – you’re ill.” My father came to visit. He looked at me and said: “You’re tired. That’s it. You’re not not well. You’re perfect. And everything you’re going through is normal.”

He ended up taking care of my child – feeding him, changing his nappies. My agoraphobia was so bad, I couldn’t cross the threshold of my house. The first time I stepped outside, I became hysterical, because it was so frightening. I went back inside and my father’s response was: “Great! Amazing!”

My father has been living with us for a couple of months now – he doesn’t require a lot of attention. He’s like a little yoda. You feed him and give him his stuff, he goes for his walk, he has his computer. He’s very disciplined and regulated. I’m much lazier than him, but he’s given me a natural curiosity. I find museums boring (he took me to all of them and I wanted to shoot myself), but he has always urged me to explore and understand other cultures. Spending time with him is like living with an encyclopedia.

He is a man who knows who he is: he could be at the World Bank or meeting the Queen of England, but he’d always have the white ash on his forehead. It’s not about being Hindu. It’s about the self. He gave me that. I know who I am. I’ve felt insecure, I’ve felt shame, I’ve felt like an impostor, but I’ve never felt as if I wasn’t myself.

My father probably thinks comedy is a hobby that’s got out of hand. He’s a serious-minded man. In 2019, when I became successful, my mother was sick all year. I don’t think he had the bandwidth to focus on us both. She was always very involved in my career; she knew every gig I was doing. Dad, not so much.

He has been through a lot recently, with the death of my mother. He is stoic. I feel as if I’ve lost some of the ability to have fun with him. But I can still always call him and say I’m feeling bad. Like a lot of men, he tries to solve it. That’s totally fine. At least he gives a shit. I’ll always remember when I was at my worst, Dad would repeat the phrase, “Why are you afraid? I am here” in Sanskrit. And you know, here I am. I go outside. I take flights. I am going on a tour. He saved my life.

When Sindhu was about two years old, I was working for the government in Delhi. Whenever I was free from the office, I’d try to see my daughters. Sindhu was too young for any serious talk then, but she always liked to play around, like in this photo. I’d try to make her laugh and she’d mimic my silly faces back. Her aya would have been there in the background, too – she was constantly keeping track of Sindhu.

As she got older, I tried to give Sindhu the same upbringing as I had. Imparting morals, values. Once when I was a young boy, a bully said a curse word at me when I walked past him – for no reason! I told my father, and he went to find him, got hold of him by the ear, twisted it and said: “Don’t do that. It’s not good for you – next time you do it, I’m going to thrash you.” The result was that I’ve never used a curse word in my entire life. Sindhu does every other day, however – because that’s western culture. I don’t mind.

Sindhu often makes fun of our family on stage. My wife always enjoyed it. And so do I. When I was in my government service role in India, we had annual parties. There would be a dinner and performances. Along with some colleagues, I’d imitate our senior bosses and their wives and the way they spoke to one another. They didn’t get angry: afterwards, they’d always come and congratulate us.

When women get into their 20s in India, there is a lot of concern about whether they will marry. But all that mattered to me was that Sindhu didn’t marry badly. You are not the same person at 50 as you were at 25. People change, because of our experiences, knowledge, responsibilities, successes and failures. Marriage is something to look after, to nurture. Many years ago, Sindhu took me to a nice restaurant and said: “Dad, I want to tell you something. I want to get married.” I replied: “Good show. Who is the chap?” She told me that he was not Indian, he was Danish. I said: “So what? Do you like him?” She said: “Oh yeah, I like him a lot.” I told her to go ahead and marry him. He was hiding at the back of the restaurant, so I met him straight away.

There was a period when Sindhu was having a tough time. She was getting nervous about everything, even getting on the tube. So I’d go with her, sit with her, talk to her. She wanted to tell her boss that she didn’t want to work for the bank any more, so I went along and waited in the lobby. You can earn a good amount in banking, but I told Sindhu what my father told me and my brothers and sisters: you can make money, you can lose it. But health is the priority.

I was very surprised when Sindhu chose comedy, but it is tremendous for her. I’ve been to some of her shows in India, but I’ve mostly seen her on YouTube. This humour, it was in her from a very young age. She always had a lighthearted take on the world. And she is doing it not for wealth. She does it because she loves it.

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