A visually impaired activist and stand-up comedian, Nidhi Goyal took up the mic to talk about the way people perceive her.
From the age of four, Nidhi Goyal loved to paint, and by the time she was a teenager, she knew she wanted to be a portrait artist. When Nidhi was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disorder, at age 15, the loss of this dream was the biggest blow.
“I’m not sure, looking back now, that I would have had the temperament—the patience—for it,” Nidhi tells us over a lime soda at a beachfront coffee shop in Malad. Articulate, chatty, and quick to laugh, this through-and-through Bombay girl eventually found a different creative outlet to suit her personality. A few years ago, she turned to stand-up comedy, both as a form of self-expression and as a way to extend the advocacy work she was already doing for disability and gender rights.
“After the first couple of years, when I acquired my disability, I think everything else became laughable,” Nidhi says. With two visually impaired children and one sighted one, the Nidhi family developed its own brand of humour, which treated prejudice—not disability—as something to be pitied or mocked. “To do comedy,” Nidhi tells us, “you need to be strong enough to point to that elephant in the room, which everyone is pretending is not there. And that’s something I’ve done since childhood.”
Nidhi dabbled in the performing arts in college, exploring every creative endeavour as her eyesight worsened. But she eventually chose a career in mass media and then transitioned to rights-based work for people with disabilities. (She currently heads a program on sexuality and disability at the non-governmental organisation Point of View; is researching disability and gender violence for Human Rights Watch; and is participating in a Civil Society Advisory Group to the UN Women initiative.) She had never considered comedy, beyond the usual mainstream artists.
In May 2015, she was having coffee with the queer activist and filmmaker Pramada Menon, and the two of them were in splits over some of Nidhi’s insights about the way disabled people are treated. Menon was performing a comedy set in Calcutta that December, and insisted that Nidhi perform too. So for the next six months, Nidhi recorded instances of ignorance or prejudice that she encountered, ranging from misconceptions about disability and sexuality, to observations about navigating public spaces—from city streets to airplane bathrooms. Then, it was just a matter of stringing them together for the show. “It’s part of the way I’ve looked at things in life—the lens I adopted to my own challenges,” she says.
After her performance in Calcutta, Nidhi, who is now 31, has done stand-up in mainstream clubs, at conferences and for corporations, while continuing with her advocacy work. On top of all this, it’s almost easy to overlook her achievement in navigating India’s notoriously disability-unfriendly spaces—all the while taking notes for future jokes of course. “It’s a shame that I get so much material,” Nidhi says, laughing. “I mean, it’s good for me…”
She may not have become a portrait painter, but Nidhi has succeeded in holding a mirror up to society, challenging its stereotypes one quip at a time.
This article is part of a series of stories written by freelance journalist and editor Sonal Shah and photographed by Abhinandita Mathur on the occasion of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8.