“I’m nervous all the time,” says Garg, who is pursuing a career in screenwriting and stand-up comedy after over a decade as a stay-at-home mom. “But I said to myself, I have to try. As scary as it is, not doing it didn’t feel like the right option.”
While Garg, 44, only began performing on stage recently — her first show was April 30, 2019 — she has been bringing humor to a room for as long as she can remember.
“After my mom died, a lot of people took me into their homes because I made them laugh,” says Garg, who was only a teenager when she lost her mom. “I’m new to the comedy business, but I’m not new to comedy.”
Garg first decided to put her voice out there in 2017, with a screenplay that told her own story of finding love and a new life in America. Now Garg performs five to seven times a week at comedy clubs across the city, sometimes doing multiple shows a night. She’s learned it all from scratch, not knowing a single person in the industry, and she hopes to inspire women like herself to pursue their passions too.
“I didn’t know anything, I hadn’t worked in years. The technology scared me, everything scared me. Just talking to someone as a professional didn’t come naturally at all.” Garg began with lots of Youtube videos and Google searches, eventually signing up for a screenwriting class as well. “One step after the other it started falling into place.”
“[Rearranged] is the story of a teen girl about to get arranged at a young age, and she decides she doesn’t want to go down that path. She wants to find her way to America because she has family here,” Garg says. She was driven to show a positive portrayal of the immigrant experience. “I wanted to show that brown women fall in love too.”
As Garg started to dive into the work, she realized that the screenwriting industry was dominated by men. This only motivated her further.
“The reason they’re finding it so fresh is because no one has written it, especially a funny take on arranged marriage,” says Garg. Her screenplay has made waves at screenwriting competitions across the country, earning the title of a Nicholl Fellowship Semi-Finalist and Austin Film Festival Semi-Finalist in three categories.
Garg came to the United States as a teenager to be with her sister after her mom passed away. She was escaping the prospects of an arranged marriage, and her sister generously offered to take her in. For Garg, this became the way to make something of herself.
She remembers being so afraid her chance might slip away that she completed university and law school in about six years. “I didn’t think I could be a working, independent woman in India. That’s what brought me here,” she says. “My number one priority was to establish myself.”
When Garg was in her final year of law school at Case Western Reserve University, she started to feel like she was missing something. She wanted to build a family of her own. At a loss for how to meet someone Indian in Cleveland, she combined what she knew from growing up with how she had seen people date in the United States. She decided to “arrange herself” via an ad on a matrimonial website.
“I said something like I’m looking for a husband. You must be smart, come with your report card, bring your tax returns, make sure you’re healthy,” Garg jokes.
She got an influx of responses to this ad, one in particular all the way from Switzerland. It was someone writing to tell her she was being obnoxious.
He said, “You have nothing to justify asking for all of this, and this is never going to work.”
That was Shalabh Garg, now Zarna’s husband. The two started emailing back and forth, and slowly their banter turned into friendship. After six months of writing to one another, they met in person when Zarna moved to New York City — in fact, they met the day she landed at JFK — and the rest is history.
“I could tell she was very confident, a person who knew what she wanted,” says Shalabh, 44, who works in financial services. “A huge part of our dating was over email, and I knew then that she’s a fantastic writer. To me none of this is a surprise.”
The story of how her parents met is one of Zoya Garg’s favorites. She has read multiple drafts of her mom’s screenplay and has gone to more of her mom’s performances than she can remember.
“She’s up all night, 24 hours working on selling her screenplay, tweaking certain lines of her jokes. And she never complains,” says Zoya, 16, a junior at Bronx Science. “That really is proof to me that if you do what you love then it won’t feel like a burden to you.”
When Zarna became pregnant with her daughter, she decided to take a step back and raise her family. She has two more sons, and she regularly turns to them for inspiration when it comes to her jokes and writing. One of them is a centerpiece in a joke she tells referencing New York’s specialized high schools. And now that she is back at work, Shalabh is repaying the favor when it comes to parenting.
“I’m more established in what I want to do, we have more financial freedom and I have free time at home that allows me to split the work so she can pursue this full time,” Shalabh says. His favorite jokes are the ones his wife makes about her mother-in-law, or his mom. “I would tell her, you’ve given many years of your life for everyone else, it’s your time to succeed and find happiness as an individual.”
But there are roadblocks. Zarna is open about being a “basket case of anxiety” before every performance.
“Brown women don’t go on stage and make fun of their husbands and their mother-in-laws,” says Garg. She says her female friends keep her going, regularly attending her shows and providing encouragement that carries her through the lows. “You can’t do anything high-stakes without putting yourself out there.”
She says that there are times when she is riddled with guilt — over not being home for dinner or missing a birthday.
“So many balls have dropped,” she says, joking that her kids eat a lot more Subway sandwiches and bananas now. “Every day I have to remind myself that this is the best outcome for my family. In order for me to be the role model that I want to be for my kids, we will all have to sacrifice together.”
Zoya notices how busy her mom is in between performing at shows, practicing her jokes, attending meetings and interviews, and continuing to pitch her screenplay, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It takes a lot of her time, and I do miss seeing her,” says Zoya. “But, to know that she’s this happy doing what she loves, I would rather her spend all her time doing that.”
And for the moment, this is what Garg is spending the majority of her time on.
“I work all the time. I’m obsessed with it,” says Garg. “I have a sense of urgency around what I want to do. I waited 15 years to do it.
Her message to other Indian women looking to pursue a passion of their own is to “understand clearly this is going to be your journey. Embrace it, and enjoy it.”
She’s proud of what she’s built for herself, and knows that regardless of if she stumbles, she’s living out her dream.
“I have decided I’m doing this. I’m going to tell the Indian auntie story,” Garg says, before she walks onstage at the Westside Comedy Club to deliver another round of laughs for the night.