I remember watching a Russell Peters interview when I was a kid. He talked about his upbringing in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, my birthplace. Peters, as an Anglo-Indian, spoke of his firmly ‘outsider’ perspective. This elucidation put into words the feelings I’ve had for years.
Throughout most of my own upbringing, I consistently felt that while I held membership to a larger community and demographics, the nuances of my identity forced me to acknowledge my unique differences. I find myself, in every concentric layer of my identity, positioned at the margins.
I am a second generation Canadian of Guyanese descent. My parents arrived in Toronto in the early 80s along with most of the Trudeau-era immigrants (there is a particular brand of reverence for Pierre Elliott Trudeau among West Indian communities). Guyanese diaspora is split between two areas: the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Jamaica, Queens, New York City.
Peters mentioned that in many ways, Canada is amalgamated with the USA to form a culturally monolithic North America. Being from Brampton, the city’s identity is inextricably tied to the metropolitan hub of Toronto, left to culturally develop in the shadows of an international city. There’s also the lack of inclusiveness for Brampton in the GTA, similar to the way an older sibling attempts to dissociate themselves from their younger brothers and sisters.
Don’t get me wrong, I have always felt included and respected growing up as a Guyanese in Brampton. All of the cultural sensibilities I hold dear to me — the music, food, movies, pop culture, even language — reinforced the sense of community I now associate with Brampton. I would be disingenuous, however, to say that I didn’t feel distinctly different from my larger community. This is the larger issue with our insistence of homogeneous groups communities — we expect them to be homogeneous.
The last concentric layer of Peters’ identity was the most interesting to me. As an Anglo-Indian, he felt uniquely distinct from the ‘Indian’ community under which he is generally classified. As a Brampton-born Canadian of Guyanese descent, having been immersed in desi-Canadian culture, my peculiarities have been perpetually reinforced.
My parents, again like most immigrants, had a very difficult time in their early days in Canada. Multiculturalism as an ideology was in its infancy, cultural diversity was a foreign idea, and my parents were certainly no strangers to racism (and in particular my mother’s case, sexism). To make matters worse, their first home as newlyweds was in a pauperized area of Toronto called Driftwood.
I was not born during this time, but my parents recollect, with embarrassment I might add, the cockroaches of which they would catch a short glimpse every time they turned on the lights. When my father got up for work, he would walk by drug dealers and prostitutes as they conducted their respective businesses in the parking lot of his building. As my mother was pregnant with my sister at the time, both my parents understood this was no place to raise a family.
My parents moved to Brampton in the early 90s. This was a bustling suburb with potential. Land formerly used for agriculture was quickly built over with homes — very affordable homes. This is where I was born. Brampton quickly developed a sizable South Asian community. I went to high school with a multiplicity of cultures but became particularly familiar with Punjabi culture.
Most Guyanese engage with India through the prism of Bollywood. Amitabh Bachan and Shahrukh Khan are worshiped to the same degree of obsession in Guyana as they are in India. I engaged with the Indian component of my identity through a more unconventional means: music. I began learning tabla at the age of 12 and developed an early liking for Indian classical music.
When my roommate from university invited me to his wedding, I was caught off guard, considering it was in India. But nevertheless, I felt compelled to go. I didn’t plan for the trip, but I was overcome with how fortuitously the opportunity came together.
My family had embarked on a journey to India and Guyana in the late 90s to obtain archives of my ancestors in an attempt to trace my distant Indian relatives. My Nana (maternal grandfather) was successful in locating the exact village in India from where his father originated.
Kodwat is a small village in the state of Uttar Pradesh on the border of India and Nepal, near Gorakhpur (a metropolitan city). When my Nana first visited, he introduced himself as Gopi Chaudhury’s son (my great-grandfather’s son). The village was overwhelmed, to say the least. The only known family to have left to America (Amrika – term used to describe the entire western hemisphere), and for nearly 100 years, there was no word from him or his progeny. They assumed that Gopi Chaudhury’s branch on the family tree was defunct. This was an incredibly emotional time for everyone.
[Photo Courtesty of Vijai Kumar]
In 2015, when I made the trip to Mumbai, aside from feelings of apprehension embarking on my first trip outside of North America (even more intimidating was the fact that this was also the first trip I had made without my parents), I was generally made to feel at home by my roommate and his family. One morning, as I was sleeping off my jetlag, a relative of my roommate’s woke me up telling me that I had a guest. I was shocked at the idea that I had a guest in a country to which I have never been.
I got out of bed without freshening up, walked slowly into the hall, and saw Krishna Kumar Yadav (KKY), a very distant relative of mine. His great grandfather, Gudun Yadav, was brothers with my great grandfather, Gopi Yadav. As you can see in the illustration I included above, the record of my great grandfather ended when he left for “America” in 1903 (believed also to be 1907).
Our first encounter wasn’t as awkward or superfluously formal as I expected. We were both cordial and polite. He told me that he improved his English considerably since the last relative of mine came to visit. He’s been in remote contact with most of my family for a few years. He knew English quite well, so it was natural that he served as the conduit between families. I was the first person of his equivalent generation to meet him.
While drinking chai, KKY explained my family history to me, a coveted oral tradition among his family in Kodwat. We spoke about his life in India, working between Mumbai and Delhi, traveling a surplus of 50 hours on trains constricted by hazardous overpopulation. He spoke of the politics in the land, the countless times he was denied visas to travel west, caste discrimination, India’s relationship with Pakistan. He also spoke about the simple elegance of Kodwat, the opportunities he received to be educated and to move to Delhi for work, and the folk traditions that my great grandfather enjoyed.
He spoke excitedly about India, a land from which my family has been disconnected for about a century. Strangely, I listened with a distant feeling of nostalgia – a longing for a land I had never previously known. It was after that conversation that India captivated me. The connection had been formed.
[Photo Courtsey of Vijai Kumar]
KKY taught me the paradox of our desires. I can see the paradox in his own pecuniary ambitions. Moving him away to densely populated cities ironically resulted in a self-imposed sequestering from authentic human relationships, especially that of my family.
Indian culture is different than North American, however. Hospitality is presupposed but never demanded. The unforgiving streets offer a sophisticated philosophy of compassion. Love is presumed, whereas, in North America, a version of the opposite is presumed. India isn’t all rainbows, though.The conditions are much harsher than anything I’ve experienced in Canada, but the ‘love’ remains intact.
My cousin is inured to the pains of hardship but is vibrant with the love in his country. It’s an idiosyncrasy that is difficult to put into words, but it is with this ‘love’ my cousin endures.
Our last meeting was poetically in front of the gateway of India — built for the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary roughly three years after my great-grandfather left for Guyana. It was getting late and KKY offered his goodbye. Before he could go, I offered him recompense for all that he had sacrificed (including days at work) for my comfort. Before I could take the rupees out of my wallet, he gently placed his hand over it and refused, persistently, but elegantly. He said that he considered me as a family member; and that he has enough money.
[Photo Courtesty of Vijai Kumar]
I returned to Canada with a heightened awareness of my own country as well as my cultural sensibilities. My parents and sister insist on hearing my stories about India, and as much as I would like to limn every detail of my adventures, I encapsulate my sentiment saying “you must go and see for yourself.”
I speak with KKY regularly on Facebook. Recently his sister got married — as did my cousin. We exchange pictures and well wishes. It’s pleasant to be able to speak with my distant relative, to remind myself of my extended identity, but I also think it’s about time for him to discover the land to which Gopi Yadav traveled over a century ago.
Vijai Singh is a student at the University of Waterloo studying Political Science and Economics. Born in the Canadian city of Brampton, he enjoys getting involved in city-based cultural initiatives such asThe BramptonistandBrampton Says.He is fascinated by big existential questions, which is represented in much of his personal writings. As a pastime, Vijai enjoys playing the tabla, the popular drum of North India.
It is officially that time of year—the holiday season. There’s nothing like Christmas and New Year’s in the West Indies. Between the pepperpot in Guyana and the palm trees decorated in lights in Trinidad, the home food, warm weather and laid-back ambiance makes us wish we could escape the cold and head back to the Caribbean. Most of us, however, cannot “take holiday” and find ourselves hungry for fresh dhal puri and doubles. But, thanks to these Indo-Caribbean food bloggers, we can bring the motherland to our kitchens.
From Diwali mithai specialties to curry chicken, Matthew is creating a name for himself as a young Guyanese food blogger. He makes a great effort to incorporate Hindu holidays and traditions on his Instagram account, in conjunction with the customary foods and sweets associated with these religious events. However, his expertise does not end there, with new and alternative recipes for classic dishes such as curry chicken and bhara, Matthew takes center stage sharing both traditional Guyanese dishes as well as specific religious dishes made for festivals. His most popular YouTube video, with 1.4 million views, features his grandmother and focuses on the best tips to make the softest Guyanese paratha roti. In addition, his YouTube account is home to many videos offering guidance to Indo Caribbean cooking. Find recipes at @mattews.guyanese.cooking
Natasha Laggan of Trini Cooking with Natasha is wildly popular throughout the Caribbean and the U.S. With humble beginnings, Natasha credits her love of food to her family’s business. She speaks of the nostalgia home food provides her as she reminisces memories of her grandmother’s cooking and helping her mother make sandwiches early in the morning. Featured by Forbes, Natasha grew her Facebook following quickly throughout the pandemic by posting old YouTube videos. Today, she has more than 1 million followers on Facebook and over 200K followers on YouTube. She uses her passion for cooking and Trinidadian culture to bring easy-to-follow recipes to viewers. Her following has now reached the West Indian diaspora globally as she has also become a brand ambassador to two well-known food companies. Follow the food expert @trinicookingwithnatasha.
With over 100K followers on YouTube, Ria is quite the expert when it comes to making roti. Her dhal puri, sada roti and paratha roti tutorials have over 1M views! However, her expertise does not stop there. Of the 180 YouTube tutorials, her recipes vary from curry to other Trinidadian favorites like macaroni pie and pigtail soup. Just scrolling through her YouTube page makes your mouth water. From doubles to classic Trinidad bakes like pound cake and sweet bread, she provides precision and anecdotal commentary while guiding you through the familiarity of home food. Check out Ria’s page at @cookingwithria.
Known as Chef Devan, Devan Rajkumar embraces his Guyanese Canadian heritage by creating recipes combining flavors of both the East and West Indies. His love of food has allowed him to expand his role to judge in a popular Canadian cooking show: Food Network Canada’s Fire Masters. His cooking often blends the flavors of multiple cultures but also creates the classic recipes of his motherland. With a multitude of interests, Chef Dev uses his social media platform to connect with followers by sharing various aspects of his life that go beyond cooking. His most recent YouTube video provides a trailer for an upcoming video “Tastes Guyana” which shows him exploring Guyana from the inside, specifically deep parts of the inner country. To learn more about Chef Devan follow @chefdevan.
Reshmi is the chef behind the growing blog, Taste of Trinbago. A Trinidadian native who now resides in Texas, she uses her love of food and Trinidadian culture to share hacks, tips and easy recipes with West Indians throughout the globe. She finds a way to simplify traditional West Indian meals, that we once watched our elders make with curiosity. From holiday specialties like black cake to Diwali delicacies, Reshmi has brought vegetarian and non-veg recipes to followers in an extremely accessible way. She even posts recipe cards on her IG highlights for followers who may need written instructions. Her IG profile is a mix of various West Indian foods while also sharing bits of her life and even her secrets to baby food. Follow her @tasteoftrinbago.
These are just five Indo Caribbean food bloggers sharing their secrets to easy cooking. The once very daunting recipes and food instructions our parents gave have been simplified by most of these bloggers through video, voice over and modernized recipes. We no longer have to estimate a “dash, pinch or tuk” of any masala. We are just days away from Christmas and this is the perfect time to find the best-suited recipe to make that paratha for Santa.
From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.
Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.
Continue reading to learn more about her journey!
What do you like about acting the most?
I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.
As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?
Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.
What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?
Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.
Who is your inspiration and why?
My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.
If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?
I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie.
What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?
There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.
What are your other passions?
I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.
What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?
To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.
Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?
I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.
What types of roles do you see yourself playing?
I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.
Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here.
Search “why don’t Indians smile in photos?” on Google and you’ll find an astounding 6,760,000 results trying to get to the bottom of this age-old question.
Despite having rich, celebratory cultures, it’s no secret that South Asians and the diaspora alike are known for being reserved with their emotions. Expressing ourselves — crying, smiling, laughing, even speaking — out of place is often looked down upon. And Indian-born comedian Zarna Garg has had enough of it.
“Culturally, we’ve been told ‘keep your gaze low. Don’t look people in the eye, all in the name of respect,’” Garg pointed out, with her signature fervor, as we chatted.
“And laughing? Forget that. Don’t smile, nothing. Don’t show any indication of joy. And it’s absolutely outrageous!”
A former lawyer, and mother of three living in New York, Garg has been taking the American comedy scene by storm with her unique voice and brand of humor. She believes that brown people, and especially brown women, “have a right to laugh,” and she’s on a mission to make sure they do.
Though it’s only been four years since Garg took the stage, she’s already entertained millions of people across the country, and beyond, through social media, sold out shows, and her critically-acclaimed Amazon special,“One in a Billion.”
But what the comedian really wants is to get people talking, and not just about herself. On her new podcast, aptly named “The Zarna Garg Show,” Garg sits down with her family twice a month to get comfortable with the uncomfortable — discussing, and even laughing, at topics that brown families tend to avoid such as sexuality and parenting styles.
We at Brown Girl Magazine sat down with Garg to dive deeper into this project, her journey, as well as the impact she hopes to make with it all.
Space for a “happy brown woman”
After being a lawyer and then a stay-at-home mom for 16 years, Garg found herself in search of new opportunities. She said she made several failed attempts as an entrepreneur and felt stuck.
“I thought that my time was best spent doing something that no one else was doing; something where I could have a real, unique touch,” she shared.
However, despite always being a strong writer — she wrote an award-winning screenplay — a creative career never seemed like a viable option.
“First of all, when you’re a mom, whatever your kid tells you is wrong,” she joked, recalling how her daughter was the first to encourage her to try stand-up comedy.
She scoffed at the suggestion, not understanding how telling jokes could be a real career that made money. It wasn’t until she actually set foot in a comedy club that she began to see the possibilities.
“That first day changed my life,” Garg continued. “I was like, what? This is an art form? I realized there was a space for a ‘happy brown woman’ telling stories. Not heavy-sad stories, but just goofy stories, stupid stories, sexy stories, regular women’s stories about our lives — not the stuff Hollywood loves to make about our people.”
Garg also realized there wasn’t really anyone else like her in the space. No one was talking about, not just Indian culture, but being a mom, wife and immigrant in a lighthearted way that people could relate with.
“When I started looking around, I was like, ‘No one’s doing this. Why isn’t anybody doing this?’ That set me on a journey of thinking even deeper and harder about our culture; the things we are okay talking about and those we shy away from.”
The taboos Garg uncovered became the foundation of her material. She jokes about marriage, motherhood, in-laws and Indian stereotypes — but not to everyone’s delight.
The comedian frequently shares some of the critical direct messages she receives on Instagram.
And she welcomes these individuals with a smile, saying “Namaste haters.”
“I invite my haters to my comment section to get involved and hear the other side. Listen, you might change your mind. You might just see why everybody is getting on board the Auntie Z train.”
Garg also reflected on the supportive, yet enraging, messages she’s received from South Asian women abroad who watch her videos in secret.
She explained, “There are people who find my videos funny but don’t openly acknowledge it. They’re so scared that if their husband finds out that they like a mother-in-law joke or something like that, they’ll get in trouble, and it’s completely preposterous.”
Garg wants to use her platform to raise awareness and start conversations about these issues. She discussed how brown women are often taught to be obedient and respectful to the point where they tolerate abuse, and how the policing of her comedy is merely a small example of these bigger problems.
“Mother-in-law humor, family humor is older than the hills,” she continued. “But, as brown women, we are expected to be the culture police. It’s like if your mother-in-law is pouring gasoline over you and lighting you on fire, you’re supposed to say ‘thank you, thank you mummy ji.’ What are you, nuts? When I point these things out, I get trolled, but then, every few months, something really bad happens in India or elsewhere.”
Garg considers herself extremely lucky to live in a place where she has the freedom to do and speak as she wants.
“I’m not speaking about you or me. I’m not worried about me. I’m speaking out about all of us — my sisters, my in-laws, the extended family of brown women that we are part of.”
And her voice doesn’t stop at just women’s issues. Garg’s podcast is her latest effort to push the envelope and spark important conversations brown families should be having.
“I asked myself ‘If I’m in a position to open conversations that otherwise have been taboo, how best can I use that power and broadly reach people?’ That’s what inspired the podcast. I feel like the time has definitely come when [brown people] have to join the rest of the world and have these conversations. Our kids are out there living life. It’s not okay for them to be completely unaware and drifting into social situations with no idea what they’re talking about. I wanted to come to our community and to our world with the authentic truth.”
In the premiere episode, you get just that.
Garg’s children open up about sex, its role in their individual social circles and age groups, and how they felt their parents handled the topic at home. The discussion is full of bold moments, but also plenty of laughs as is Garg’s modus operandi.
On Labor Day weekend, she even hosted live recordings of the podcast in New York City where fans could attend with their loved ones, have a Q&A with the Gargs, and play some games. The event will return in November during the New York Comedy Festival.
The comedian hopes that her playful approach shows people that having a conversation doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating.
“People often misunderstand my videos and stuff. It could look like I’m seriously reprimanding my daughter. I get it! But even that right there generates a first conversation. Even when you fully understand what I’m doing, it’s enough to open the door.”
People reach out to Garg regularly telling her how one of her videos or tweets encouraged them to call their children or parents to have a conversation and she couldn’t be happier.
More than meets the eye
“I’m as Indian as they come.”
Garg joked describing herself, and she is, but there’s also much more to her than meets the eye. While, on the surface, her proudly-worn bindi and modest style may have some thinking she’s just another “Indian auntie,” it couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Garg left India at the age of 16 to escape an arranged marriage. She met her husband, Shalabh, in 1997 through Internet dating. She left behind a law career to take a chance on a creative endeavor that was completely unknown to her and she wants to see more people do the same.
“Comedy is a young person’s game and I really wish I started at least 10 years before I did. Now, I tell my own kids, and I’m saying this to all [readers]: ‘there has never been a better time to take a chance at something new. Do it as a side hustle. Do it as a hobby. Do it as a weekend thing. Whatever it is, just get going. You owe it to yourself to take that shot and see if it’s gonna work. Don’t be worried about failure, be worried about not trying.”
Garg is challenging every brown norm and stereotype, and that includes helping Indians smile.
“We’re very stressed out people. We love stress. I feel honored and blessed to be a catalyst in our community who is bringing joy and openness of culture. I’m not a movie star or anything, but there are times when people see me from a distance and I see a smile on their face. People associate me with humor and joy and I’m so grateful for that.”
You can learn more about Zarna Garg’s upcoming shows and projects on her website, or follow her on Instagram and TikTok to get involved in the conversation. “The Zarna Garg Show” podcast releases new episodes on the 1st and 15th of every month and is available on YouTube, Spotify, and all other major streaming platforms.