009: Kushri (she/they)
Kushri, an aspiring Hindu priestess, shares her story of growing up with a pandit as a father and a mother who was dependent on him. She describes her feminist resistance against the discrimination women face within both the Indo-Caribbean community and Hinduism, hoping to bring change and support to women in need within the community.
Participants: Kushri [K] & Interviewer [I]
Location: Bhuvaneshwar Mandir, Queens, NY
Date: March 10, 2019
(00:00) I: I am here at Bhuvaneshwar. It is March 10th, 2019 and we're gonna get started. So [Kushri], can you tell me a little bit about yourself? How do you identify in terms of pronouns, background, how old are you and where'd you grow up?
(00:16) K: We'll I'm 28 years old—well, gonna be 28 this year. I was born and raised to Indo-Guyanese immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. How do I identify? Like you, her/she and maybe a little bit of they, just because I believe in this higher, I guess, idea that we're all the comprise of both and that our soul is genderless, blah blah blah. I'm queer and I'm a firm believer in just humanist and yeah that's a little about me.
(00:49) I: So, to start, what are some of the funny or joyful things that you remember from childhood?
(00:56) K: I've always been a clown. My aaja, my dad's dad, him and I weren't the greatest fans of each other for some reason. My dad's dad had this thing against dark skin people because he identifies as a Brahmin or whatever. Although he wasn't a big fan of my mom or my dad's kids, 'cause we're all dark, for some reason he favored me 'cause of my spunky personality. He was living with us at some point and we would watch this stupid movie, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, right? There was the scene where they're singing Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, but in a very hip-hop fashion like, (singing) "Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram."
(01:39) I: (singing) "Raja Ram!" (both laugh)
(01:41) K: And I was just so weird. I was also musical, as I am now. I'd walk around and I'd make all these sounds with my mouth. I'd be like, "Ping!" or something like that, and he just thought it was so funny that he just started calling me Ping Ping, (both laugh) and that was my name. I bring up the Raghupati Raghava reference because we would just sit together and just watch that one scene over and over and over again. And when my dad would be around—and my dad was a total daddy's boy—I would just start singing it. My grandfather would jump in with me and start singing it. Mind you, this is a man who is a part of political and religious uprisings in Guyana back in the day and he's sitting there with his granddaughter that he doesn't wanna like but he likes anyway and he's singing this rocksteady bhajan with me. So, that's one of my favorite memories.
(02:34) I: That's so sweet. I love that song. Describe some messages that you learned or were taught as a young person that no longer serve you. How did you come to resist these messages?
(02:45) K: So I'm going to answer the last part first. This whole idea of impurity or, we're women and you can be whoever you want until you hit your puberty. You can be a tomboy, you can go lash yuh dad up as much as you want and pretend to be a wrestler, 'cause that's what I did. Then the moment I hit puberty, everything changed. My dad started acting all different. All of a sudden he was like, "You need to be a big girl now. You need to behave properly, speak properly. You're not daddy's little girl anymore." I'm like, "Yeah I am." I'll always be that even if you don't like me. Then, I started to kind of conform and start to think that I really had to start watching the way I speak, how I carry myself. Even from a little girl, I knew I was queer. But it's like going out into society, I was this very bottled person. I would just go and I'd live in my dad's image. I'd basically be his shadow.
So this idea of being a very quiet girl, knowing how to conduct yourself, don't go to certain places if you have your period, don't serve your dad while he's reading a yajna because he's fasting and he shouldn't take food from you. That was when. Literally a scenario like that, he had a yajna to read and I had my menstrual cycle and I cooked dhal and rice and seim curry, which I don't even like seim, but I cooked it. I know he liked it, and I'm taking out the food and he's not saying anything. I see him squeaming, 'cause at this point I'm this hardcore feminist if you say something stupid. He calls my mom and he says, "Can you tell her I can't eat from her? So she calls me and she's stuttering. She's like, "Your dad's fasting and...don't worry about taking out his food." I said, "You're damn right!" One, he should take out his own food but secondly, why? It's like, he's eating from other people and then she says, "’Cause you're on your period." She's like, "I'm at work, I don't have time for this." So, I said, "Really?" The Brooklyn came out of me. I was like, word? Something just went off.
I remember, I would be a kid and I'd want to open his books and I didn't even know how to read Hindi and I would just read it and I was about nine when I got my menstrual cycle. I went to go grab his book and he was like, "No, no no. Don't touch it. When you're done with your period you can look at it." That hurt, you know? I remembered that instant and I went on his computer and I did this whole thing where I looked up anatomy and biology of the woman's body. I also looked up things about this goddess, her name is Kamakhya Devi and she actually represents the yoni and it said in India, they close down her temple three days every month so can have her menstrual cycle. Then the devotees come and they take the sindoor, which represents her period, and they smear it on their skin. I wrote up this whole summary about what women should mean, what we are, how we're made and the fact that because of our menstrual cycle, we're all able to exist. I printed out 50 of those and I pasted it all over his murtis.
(06:11) I: How old were you?
(06:13) K: This was probably in my teens. I don't remember exactly what age. I printed it out, maybe 50 of them and I pasted on the face of each one of his murtis. I pasted it on his car windshield, I pasted on the mirror in his bedroom. If he was sleeping, I woulda probably pasted it on him, but he wasn't. He was roaming about. Then I got dressed and I went out and then he calls my phone and he said, "Boo, I get it. I messed up. I'm sorry." That was really one of the truest resilient stages of my life where I felt like, you're not gonna listen? You're gonna scorn your daughter, you're gonna scorn your wife, you're gonna scorn your mother but you claim to be this brother and this son and this honorable pandit, but you pray to the goddess? You call Shakti everyday, but you're gonna scorn your kid and not eat from her because she's bleeding, because she was born this way? You're attacking me because of my gender, because of my anatomy, which means you hate me. So, that's when I really taught him that lesson. Though that was one little lesson, I mean he still has his ways like every other person in this community. That was one of the moments where I really resisted it and I was like, I'm not taking that. I'm not dealing with it.
(07:38) I: I guess from that, are there stories from the past that you feel are or should be hidden from future generations and why?
(07:45) K: I don't think any story should be hidden. I think that, in fact, how we know that history, the most tragic parts of history, our future should know about it. What they should also learn is how we were resilient through it, how our ancestors were also resilient through it. I think that the major problem is suppressing stories and not airing them out. What I think should be hidden from society is certain religious scriptures or things should be erased from it and that should be the male perspective or the point of view that it was written from. Somebody needs to go and rewrite these scriptures and absolutely take out those ideas of non-inclusion, of patriarchy, just suppressing the masses. For example, something called the Manusmriti in Hinduism. Manu is supposed to be our Hindu version of Adam. He wrote this whole set of laws basically on how humans should live and a massive part of his scripture was basically on the suppression of women. Verbatim one of the quotes from that is, "A man may be void of all good qualities. He may be a pervert, he may do all of these things, but a woman should still honor him and respect him." But then he contradicted himself by saying, "If a woman whose considered the lakshmi is unhappy in that home, not even God can protect the man." So, I think that's dangerous and that needs to be removed.
(09:20) I: So from that, what are some hopes that you have for the future generations, or even this generation?
(09:25) K: Ask as much questions as you want. If you're inspired to defy something that you're uncomfortable with, do it. Your consciousness is your best friend—listen to it. If you know deep down in your core that you're being mistreated, definitely take the steps against it, even if it's coming from a political leader, a religious leader. You were born as equals. Question, fight for what you rightfully believe in.
(09:53) I: Are there ways that you've seen or experienced discrimination against women and girls in your family or in your community?
(09:59) K: Oh gosh, yes. Everyday, you know. As you know, I'm aspiring to be a priestess, a new priestess and I come from this long lineage of male pandits. I don't know if that's really true or not, but that's what they say. You know in many religions or parts of the world, a woman asserting her ideas of religion or spirituality is just a no-no. As a woman wanting to become a priestess, yes, I do face discrimination myself but the worst kind of discrimination, the one that really boils my blood is women discrimination against themselves, women putting these limits on themselves; this idea of, "We must gossip about each other", "We must try to show each other up," or to just live according to these norms. For example, my mom...her and my dad were going to a puja today and she wore this beautiful navy blue kurti like what I'm wearing now. She puts it on and she looks at herself and I'm like, "You look nice." She's like, "Yeah but your dad's gonna catch a fit 'cause you know how he feels about these dark colors." I said, "Can't you just for once do something you want to do for yourself?” Stop discriminating against yourself by thinking for him, by thinking about what he wants for you.
Then there's this idea of, if you're sexually liberated or if you're just a liberated woman, if you're independent or even interdependent, and you just wanna live how the hell you wanna live, there's this idea that you're a less-than kind of individual or you're just, what's the word, loose? That for me is a massive discrimination. Even as a female vocalist, I am often challenged by men who say, "Oh you can handle a harmonium like a man! I've never heard a woman hold a note the way you do." I'm just so taken back by that. (sighs) Those are just the a, b, c kinda discriminations. They're like the worst things where, of course, you're a woman, you bleed. You bring beautiful life into this world but you're still discriminated for being that very woman that bleeds every month. You're just looked down upon. You're given these roles. I just feel like the way that society has depicted women alone is a discrimination. Of course for men that worship goddesses, then they go home and discriminate against their own wives and their daughters and et cetera. So, they're discriminating against the goddess that they pray to. That's just how I see it.
(12:42) I: Do you feel like change is possible when it comes to discrimination against women?
(12:46) K: I think that change is happening and I think that that's through open conversations, and that's through accountability, and that's through healing, and that's through people actually wanting to change and being okay with it. It's gonna be hella hard. Have you ever heard the story of Raktabij? Mother Kali was summoned to basically fight against this demon named Raktabij. She was summoned to fight him because he had this spoon, that every time he'd be cut or inflicted, with every drop of his blood, 100 more like him would be born. So, he was basically immortal. Maa Kali came upon the scene with her tongue hanging and with this bull and she basically catches the blood whenever it falls on the ground to be like, "No, no no! No, you can't be reborn. This has to end." A few droplets did fall and she ended up slaughtering them and whatever the case was. Eventually, he met his end. I don't exactly remember how that he did.
So, it's like life is like Raktabij. It's like 100 more will be born and we shouldn't be expected to run around like Kali is, trying to catch this and having to provoke these different ways of thinking. We shouldn't but we have to. I think that for men to really and truly take that accountability to start challenging themselves and challenging their other men, and even challenging the women with this psychological-invented idea that we are confined to our roles. I think that's when the change is gonna come.
(14:20) I: Was there a moment where you realized either change is possible or change needs to happen?
(14:27) K: That's when I realized change needs to happen and it's possible, but I do think it's really hard. But I think that the more collective power, the more resilience, of this idea of believing that we can fight against this subjection of what we should be, I think that that's what's gonna bring about change. We have to start questioning things.
(14:49) I: Is there a story from your life that you wish you could tell other Indo-Caribbean women?
(14:57) K: I guess I would just have one thing to say to each of them. For the past...I don't know. I feel like I would just wanna walk around and hug every woman that I see and just tell them that, you know, I feel you. I might not have experienced what the hell you've been through, but if you can really just sit for a moment a look within you and find that power within you, that power that has kept you surviving this long and really acknowledge it and hold onto it and believe in yourself, believe that you're capable of more, then it's like you don't have to live the life that you live. You don't have to be someone's doormat. You're not just someone's mom. You're not just someone's wife. You're not just a sex object. You are a woman. You're given the opportunity to exist on this world and you shouldn't just subject yourself to this role or responsibility. I know that a lot of you are forced into and I'm sorry. If you can come together as women and try to fight your way out.
For the present: we are definitely the fruits of our ancestors sacrifices, so don't take the opportunities that you have for granted. Definitely reach out to the resources that are offered to you and look at it as you are in a time where your visibility is important. Your presence makes a different. Your voice will be heard. Definitely scream so that somebody in the future who might feel so trapped can hear you.
To you in the future: I'm gonna keep screaming so you can hear me even if I'm dead and gone. Maybe I don't have kids...at least my voice will be the one to carry me through. And to tell you to just, whether you're queer, whether you're in a relationship that doesn't seem normal, whether you're just a person that thinks a little outside of the box, just embrace the shit out of that. Be okay with who you are and just listen to something within you that goes off, that says if something is wrong, listen to it. Just be a good person too.
(17:07) I: I love everything that just comes out of your mouth. I think we touched on this a little bit but, what do you think stands in the way of women across generations building relationships with one another.
(17:17) K: I guess I can only use an example. My grandmother, who's not my biological grandmother, it's this woman that raised me as her own—my mom and then me. My grandmother constantly says, "You know [Kushri], yuh daddy a one good man, he one pandit. You muss always honor he wherever you go, wherever you do, you jus live fuh he." And I'd always look at her and in my head I'm screaming, "Shut up!" but then I'm like, "Okay, Grandma. Okay." Then over the years, it just became, "Grandma, I can't live for him anymore, I have to live for me or else me guh dead. Me guh jus be one walkin’ dead." I will just be nonexistent. I will just always be pandit's daughter. I'll never be [Kushri]. Then there's my mom, who's kind of like that, who's kind of like, "You have to save some face and at the end of the day, he's your father. At the end of the day, you're a young woman. At the end of the day, you must carry yourself a certain way." Then there's this...me, this diabolical me, who's just like, "Do whatever the hell you want! Just don't be a bad person, just do good things." You can be promiscuous if you want, you can be a sex worker if you want, you can be a stripper if you want and you can walk into a mandir and you can be shamelessly in love with God too. Be a good person.
I feel like if my grandmother and if my mom and I were able to coexist on this idea of women's liberation and the fact that we were born as equal human beings, then I think that we can definitely build that community, build that togetherness and build that solidarity between each other. I think that that in itself, it's a great healing. I think it's just building understanding and at least just coming to a common ground on the one idea that we're just damn humans. We're all born equal. We're all born with the same breath in our lungs and just because our genitals are different, that doesn't mean that we should be mistreated. The thing is just that agreement on that one common ground.
For me personally, I know how to reach the crowds that I'm with and that's through spirituality. I don't know if this is going off topic but my most favorite thing to start off on any panel or any discussion is, "Namaste" right? It's more than a white people hashtag. It's more than expensive yoga mats and Lululemon. Namaste literally translates to, "I bow to the God that resides within me," because we're all divine sparks of God having a human experience. If you really believe in that everytime that you say it, then there should be inclusion for every frickin' person. That is the core, simplest human value, you know, ekatva—unity and inclusion for everyone. If we actually embodied this, there'd be no subjectification of role, there'd be no isolation, there'd be no gender crisis, there'd be none of that. There would just be people being people. I think, like I said, building that understanding on just humanism and just making that a normative, a normal thing. I think that that's just what's gonna do it, 'cause my grandmother hella loves to see me pick up a mic and go off and do my spiritual thing. She thinks it's weird that I want to be a pandit, but she's like, "Go [Kushri], go do yuh thing! Just nah shame yuh daddy." Whether he's ashamed or not, I'm still gonna do me.
(21:02) I: So that was actually gonna be my next question. What was the moment in time or what was the thing that happened that made you completely embrace that you wanted to, "Go [Kushri], do yuh ting" and be a pandit?
(21:12) K: I was in this six year relationship with a woman. It was my first relationship with a woman and I was 18. Up until I was 18 years old, I tried to live that stereotypical pandit's kid lifestyle. You do everything. You wear your hair long, you wear nice non-revealing clothes, you don't talk to boys—which worked out in my favor. You don't go clubbing, you don't go outside, you don't talk to anybody that you don't know, et cetera. Look over your shoulder, always make sure you're honoring your dad. Now when I was 18 and I met this woman and I got into a relationship with her, she basically questioned every aspect of why I was who I was. A lot of it really and truly was just because I was raised that way. There were things about myself that I loved so much. One of them was my spirituality, one of them was my music and one of them was definitely social justice advocacy. While being in this relationship and coming out ot my family, things just got really hard around that time. My family wasn't really with it. It was just a really hard time. But through that relationship,—it was really abusive...physically, emotionally, sexually, in every kind of way—I just lost myself. I stopped going to temple, I stopped praying, I didn't sing for six years. I didn't touch a harmonium and my spirit was totally broken. Then, that person who I was with basically—I mean it ended really badly. It was a really traumatic break up because, by the end of that relationship, I felt like I only had one piece of hair on my head, how reduced to nothing I was.
As I got my things and I moved back home. My mom actually said, "Come to temple with us." I was basically going through this "I hate everyone" phase. I don't want to go to the temple because all people do there is just talk shit about it. All they do is just compete with each other. I'm not about it. She says, "If you feel so strongly about it, come back and make a difference. Come back." and I did. I started realizing and I started reading more and I started really running back to my goddesses feet. I started looking at the murti as if it was a mirror instead of just a murti. I started really thinking, what is this murti with 8 or 10 arms really mean to me? It should be a reflection of how I want to see myself. You walk into a temple and you see this great marble murti, you pay thousands of dollars for that you that, you aarti, you puja, you don't know why but you're just doing it, but it's looking right back at you and it should be how you wanna see yourself. You should see yourself as a goddess. You should see yourself as wielding all of these weapons which are yours skills, your tools to navigate through your own darkness, to navigate, to help people.
I guess through fasting and through just repairing myself through music, I started to really gain my voice again. I'm getting really teared up about it. To some degree, my community welcomed me back. They were so excited. They were like, "Where the hell have you been?" Then just coming back and seeing that this is where I belong, I'm looking around and I'm also seeing that my dad can't handle it anymore on his own. I also see that he's trying but he's giving out shitty advice. I see that battered women are coming to him for help and he can't really help them. I just see so much in my own home as a priest's daughter and I hear the things that he's talking to them about. I said, you know what? There's something that's making me feel like I should be doing this. There's something that's making me feel like I can. There's something that's making me feel like I could maybe inspire another woman to not have to go to her pandit and hear, "Well what did you do wrong for him to slap you?"
There would be these moments where I would get sick of hearing him say that and I'd rush up to them and sometimes these women would have their kids sit with them. I'd say, "Is this what you want for her?" I was like. “Don't listen to a man who probably doesn't have his own life figured out.” I was like, "You wanna save your situation?" and I'd pull out a murti from the wall. I was like, "Look at this." I was like, "What do you call her?" She says, "Mother." I said, "Be a damn mother to your kid and be your own mother and take care of yourself." I was like, "A pandit can't help you, you have to help yourself. You want help? Go out there and seek professional. Go out there and actually get help and make sure your daughter isn't trying to mirror you the way that you seem right now." He would just sit there, he was taken back by this. I thought he would flip shit, but he actually sat back and he was like, "Boo, you're passionate about this. Things that I can't do, you can."
There was a lot of heat from other pandits in the community towards my dad 'cause he was starting to think he can do this with me, he can train me. Then he stopped after a while. He's like, "No. No scripture say that it's okay." Then my mom started getting at him and then she's like, "Yeah, but what scripture says to beat your wife." Mind you it does say you can beat your wife in the scriptures, in the Ramayana, verbatim. Tulsidas says, "Beat your wife as you would your drum, your animals if they act out of line." Can you imagine that? Then when she said that, I was like, "Yes, there is a quote that says that." I was like, “So go ahead and take your scriptures really seriously and continue beating your wife, but don't go and recognize that there is someone dying to learn, dying to go out there and dying to actually do good in this community, but you're afraid of what people are gonna say.” In 2016, it was recent, that was the turning point. That was when I realized, you're not meant to just shut up. You're not meant to just ignore everything that you love about yourself. These are the tools, these are your arms and your weapons. Your intellect is that crown, and your ferociousness if your tiger that you sit on. So get your shit together and go out there and do it even if he says no. That's when I realized that.
(28:06) I: I'm so happy that you found that voice back because I don't know what we would do without it.
(28:12) K: I'm happy. Of course there's still struggles. Now I'm dealing with community and not just my dad anymore, but I also have a community that holds me and I think that once you find other collectives, that's gonna support you and your dream and you can help support a thing that's important 'cause you're moving together.
aaja / aja - Father's father
aarti - ritual offering of a light to deities
bhajan - song with religious theme or spiritual ideas
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai - a classic early 2000s Bollywood movie
kurti / kurta - an Indian article of clothing similar to a tunic, which can vary in length.
murtis - an image, statue or idol of a deity
pandit - hindu religious leader
puja - prayer
yajna - ritual offerings to the gods
yoni - female genitalia that in Hinduism is a sign of generative power and that symbolizes the goddess Shakti