It feels more like a rock concert than an awards show out there. The sound of all the screaming fans in the auditorium makes the entire backstage area vibrate. There must be ten thousand kids in those seats. I peek through the curtains to try to get a glimpse, but the glare of the spotlights rotating back and forth makes it impossible to see.
A hand squeezes my shoulder, and I spin around. “Feeling good, Nikhil?” Josh has to shout over all the noise to be heard. His tight-fitting gray blazer, dirty blond hair, and the tanned white skin of his cheeks glow purple under the dim backstage lights.
“Pretty good?” I smile. Josh is the head producer on Raj Reddy in Outer Space. And at the moment, I have a feeling he’s just as nervous as I am. Even though we already know I’m winning tonight, this is still work. RROS is the number-one animated kids’ series on TV right now, and it’s Josh’s job to make sure it stays that way.
“Five minutes until you’re on stage!” a wiry guy wearing a headset and dressed in black from head to toe barks at us as he scurries by. Adrenaline courses through my body, making my fingers tingle. The headset guy is just about to turn the corner when he looks back at me. He covers the microphone dangling in front of his mouth. “Sorry to geek out, but I’m a huge fan! You’re awesome!”
He lingers for a second, waiting for me to respond. I’m not quite sure what to say, so I give him a thumbs-up, hoping he doesn’t notice that my thumb is shaking. Josh hands me a smartphone enclosed in a plasticunderwater protective case. “Remember we’re grabbing this whole thing to play on social media, so be sure to record some stuff backstage and take some video of the audience. And at the end of your speech, wave at the camera and give us your signature line right before it all pours down on you, okay? Have fun out there. Just be yourself!”
Mom bends down in front of me. She gently tugs the bottom of my T-shirt, smoothing it out. “You’ve got this! Even if you’re dressed like someone kidnapped my actual son and replaced him with a member of a boy band.”
I look down at my T-shirt. It’s extra long with a rounded hem, and the logo of Raj Reddy in Outer Space is emblazoned across the front of it. My black jeans are super tight, and my feet are shoved into a pair of white high-tops.
These are not my regular clothes.
I grab an imaginary air mic and deadpan at Mom.
“Should I join a boy band?”
She laughs so hard I can see her back molars.
“Maybe stick to the voice acting for now, okay?” She reaches out to ruffle my hair, but before she can, Josh swoops in and ushers us closer to the entrance. A rush of anxiety floods my body. My mouth goes dry, and my lips feel chapped. From where we’re standing, I can see the entire stage and almost all of the audience. The auditorium is massive. I turn on the phone and hit the Record button. “Hey, everyone! We’re backstage at the Kids’ Cartoon Awards!” I do my best to sound more confident than I feel. “Check this out!” I smile at the camera and then flip the phone around to capture the spotlights sweeping back and forth across the heads of the audience. Onstage, two Jumbotrons flash bright white and then fade to black. A clip of Raj Reddy in Outer Space starts rolling. “There I am!” I spin the phone toward the Jumbotrons.
A cartoon version of me is strapping on a jetpack and staring up at a dark night sky filled with hundreds of stars. You can just make out the glowing edge of the moon and hints of colorful planets in the distance. The offscreen voice of Intergalactic Commander Regina Marks – played by my favorite costar, Faraja Mwangi – slices through the silence. “Raj, you’ll be given the details of your assignment as soon you land on the planet Pacura. But before you go, I have just one question for you.” There’s a pause, and then the whole audience screams Commander Marks’s famous catchphrase in unison: Are you ready, Reddy?
The screen cuts to a close-up of my cartoon face. The rockets on the jetpack ignite. I raise my watch to my lips and whisper into it, “Oh, I’m ready, Commander. I’m Raj Reddy.” The audience goes wild. The deep bass of an announcer’s voice booms through the sound system. “You love him as the voice of undercover, intergalactic kid detective Raj Reddy! Please welcome this year’s winner for Best Voice Actor on an Animated Television Series . . . Nikhil Shah!”
Josh practically pushes me onto the stage. I turn back to glance at Mom. She’s pumping her fist at me. Then, I look directly at the audience. My eyes go wide. I can see all the way up to the very last row now. There are even more people out here than I thought. My right leg starts to tremble, so I do a little dance move to try to hide it. I spin around on the heels of my high-tops. The audience roars. I throw both my arms up in the air, and they leap to their feet. I walk up to the podium. A glass trophy is sitting on top, waiting for me. It gleams under all the stage lights. I lower the mic. Thousands of hands wave “hello” at the camera on my phone.
“Um . . .” I feel sweat beads forming along my brow. “Thank you. Uh . . . I wanna thank . . .” I practiced my speech at home, but now it feels like all the words have flown out of my brain. “Well, I want to thank all the fans . . . of course!” A huge cheer goes up in the audience. “And . . . oh yeah, my mom! And . . . our producer Josh . . .”
My voice bounces back at me through the stacks of speakers flanking the stage. It echoes around the auditorium. It’s strange to hear my own voice, so loud, right after watching that video clip. When I play Raj Reddy, I pitch it up a little to add a hint of character. I glance at the frozen frame of Raj on the Jumbotron, whispering into his watch.
The resemblance is uncanny. I mean, he’s obviously a cartoon character. And our faces aren’t actually that much alike. But he’s Indian American, and I’m Indian American. We’re both skinny. And we’re both pretty tall for our age.
“Speech! Speech! Speech! Speech!” the audience is chanting. I feel my cheeks turn red. What else did I want to say? Out of the corner of my eye, I see Josh reminding me to keep taking video. I turn the phone toward my face. I grin, pitch my voice up, and say, “I’m Raj Reddy!” Right on cue, what feels like three tons of green goo comes showering down on me.
Excerpted with permission from Nikhil Out Loud, Maulik Pancholy, HarperCollins India.