There are remarkable things about people that we sometimes only identify as remarkable when they are gone.
It was only three days since my friend and colleague Sandra Ahrana, aka Sandy Gandhi, died suddenly at her Mullumbimby home, when the penny dropped for me about just how unique she was.
Okay, so I know she proudly declared herself Australia’s Most Easterly Indian.
It was her favourite tag line. The irony that so many people live here with Indian names they bought in Puna, whereas she was a bona fide Indian christened ‘Sandra,’ never ceased to amuse her.
In 2009, she was selected to go through to the semi-finals of Seven Network’s Australia’s Got Talent. She was born in New Delhi in 1959, raised in Bangalore, then moved to Camberwell in Melbourne at the age of 11.
The second youngest of five, she knew what it was to be the outsider in suburban Melbourne in the early 70s, and it was her natural resourcefulness that enabled her to use her wit and charm to thrive.
As a performer, Sandra drew down hard on her multiculturalism and the experience of living as a black woman in a predominantly white culture, declaring, ‘when I was a child I was afraid of the dark then I grew up and realised I was.’
Beneath that irony, that quick wit and self-deprecatory banter was a quiet intelligence that was not going to go unnoticed.
Sari-tire. She was full of it. Barely a sentence escaped her lips that didn’t contain a clever pun.
She used to do the door for me at gigs but it became pretty evident that she was meant to be in the spotlight. It was where she came alive. Although she’d be shaking like a leaf, often sick with terror, she had this stoic courage that saw her push through and claim the stage as her own. I just thought she was funny. Really funny. But I’ve only just realised it was something more.
Let me preface this by saying both Sandy and I shared a mutual cynicism about New Age esoteric spirituality.
In fact, it was our ruthless disregard for all things cosmic that often had us rolling on the floor in tears of disbelief. In fact even Sandy’s book was sarcastically titled Enlighten Up.
So Friday night I am leaving a gig. I turn the radio on and then I am frozen in my seat. This is a BBC broadcast about Indian women standup comics.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything on the topic before.
The timing does not escape me. This is Sandy’s story. The journalist is interviewing an Indian woman comic who reveals that she is just one of six women standup comics in all of India. Six.
That is all. There are well over 1,000 men. What kind of courage does it take to be one of those women?
Gutsy and radical
She talks of the social stigma of being an Indian woman and a comedian.
The sense of her unmarriage-ability and the ‘shame’ for her family. She is a gutsy radical woman with complex ideas and a disregard for convention.
She’s funny. And smart.
And serious all at the same time. Like Sandy. Weirdly the cultural significance of her choice to be a comic hadn’t ever occurred to me until then.
I just saw her like me: just another difficult woman who liked stirring up a bit of trouble! I had rather disregarded the importance of her identity.
I realised in the car, on that night that as a woman and as an Indian woman that Sandy wasn’t just funny; she was brave and courageous.
She was a chain breaker. She was living a life and doing things her way.
Just as she had done living 20 years in the UK, travelling and living throughout Egypt and Zanzibar, she had survived an horrific IRA bomb blast when working in Knightsbridge, had spent the last two decades as a personal carer for the elderly and the disabled, and who more recently spent her time delivering Meals on Wheels.
Sandy Gandhi aka Sandra Ahrana was an intense, kind, loyal, outrageous, funny, and generous woman.
She had a talent for friendship, with a web of connections that spanned the globe.
India may have six Indian women comics. But in Australia, we only had one.
Vale, Sandy Gandhi.
And if you’ve made it to the afterlife, give them shit – come celebrate Sandy’s life at the Mullumbimby Civic Hall on Sunday from 3pm.
It’s Bollywood style so dress bright and colourful and BYO food and drinks.