If you’re active on Twitter, chances are you’ve heard of Scaachi Koul—a senior writer at Buzzfeed, Koul’s sharp wit and humor are the edifices of her online presence. Koul’s debut book, “One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter,” is a collection of fiercely witty and deeply vulnerable essays about growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Western culture—and it’s a book almost any brown girl will be able to relate to.
Koul was raised in Canada, the daughter of Kashmiri parents who immigrated from India. In book’s the opening essay, “Inheritance Tax,” Koul talks about her fear of flying, tying it seamlessly to her parents’ story of marriage and moving to a new country.
“When I was thirteen, my mom asked me where I’d get the money to travel and I said, “From you, of course.” She laughed me straight out of her kitchen nook,” Koul writes.
The essay sets the tone for the book, with essays on a variety of topics that are bridged together by something I felt incredible resonance with throughout: the immigrant experience. Koul and I had a chance to chat recently, and I asked her about this theme that loomed large for me as a reader.
“I think a lot of the immigrant experience is ultimately about loneliness and loss,” Koul shared. “You sort of come to the States or Canada or wherever you go and it feels really lucky, like you have such fortune to be able to do that. But then you move and you feel this inescapable sense of loss because you can never get things back. And it doesn’t mean that you regret the decision or it was a bad one or your family won’t profit from it, but it creates this legacy of anxiety.
I don’t know if this is true for all immigrant families, but certainly for mine, we are predisposed to misery—so right out of the gate, we were going to be unhappy about something. Certainly, the immigrant experience influences the overarching themes of the book but a lot of is about that loss when you break connective tissue.”
This loneliness within immigration, Koul said, is a lot of why she felt she had to write a book like this.
“When you move or your family moves and you’re not a part of the majority, you end up feeling lonely. I certainly felt lonely when I was younger and I wish I had things like Brown Girl Magazine or my book to help that transition when you’re kind of confused about what your deal is and where you fit. It’s also nice to be able to own art. Brown people don’t have a great ciritical mass when it come st o music or movies outside of Bollywood. We don’t have a lot of north American things to attach to, but we do have some really good books. I thought it would be nice to be sort of like here, we can all own this.”
The book is immensely relatable, but what truly sets it apart is Koul’s witty take on everything from the serious to the lighthearted. In many essays, her heartfelt attachment to the experiences she’s had catches me off guard, which shows me the silencing of vulnerabilities that many of us as South Asians have been socialized to. Koul talks about body image, full of confessions and scenarios most brown girls have also faced, from finding the right size of clothing (or, in Koul’s case, facing the plight of a dressing room malfunction) to body hair and colorism. She also addresses harassment and rape culture, as well as post 9/11 racism. It’s all heavy (and sometimes sad) stuff, and yet, Koul’s insightful humor manages to toe the line of being real and vulnerable but also being able to laugh.
“A lot of people ask me, “when did you become funny?” and its like, I had to or else I would’ve killed myself,” Koul said. “You need something. I cant and won’t write an opus the misery of human existence as a brown person and not give you a joke at the end of it, because you’ll go insane.”
This is exactly what makes the book hit so close to home as a fellow brown woman.
In another essay, “Mute,” Koul opens up about Twitter backlash she faced non-white, non-male people to contribute to BuzzFeed. The kind of vitriol she faced even got picked up by the news and the whole ordeal pushed Koul out of the Twittersphere for a while. When I asked which of the essays was her favorite, Koul told me she wrote “Mute” in a blind rage.
I asked Koul how she built up the kind of thick skin she seems to have with internet trolls, and just people in general, without playing the victim about how hard it is to be a brown person.
“It’s not very effective. I just don’t know what anyone would get from that. Life is sad. Parts of it will be sad but I don’t get anything from that. There were protions of the book some that white angry people will view as victimizing and have and have told me as much that’s a misinterpretation of reality.
I cant listen to a lot of it because it doesn’t mean anything. The context with which you come to the book is relevant. Of course, as a brown woman, you can relate to it. But for others, I think you can read it and still like it, even if you’re not brown. However, I don’t need to cater everything to [those people]. So if you come to it and don’t like it, that’s unfortunate but not everything is for you.”
Koul’s parents, of course, have a visceral presence in the book. With everything from frenzied calls to bouts of silence, their mixture of obligation and love and guilt blend into a parental cocktail that feels immensely familiar for South Asians. Beyond stories about them, emails from Koul’s dad cushion the introduction to each new essay, giving the reader an intimate glimpse into their relationship. He even read his own emails for the audiobook.
I asked Koul how her family has reacted to the book:
“I know some of my extended families have bought it but no one has said anything to me which is correct. My mom read it and did her whole fainting couch routine but now she’s fine, which is exactly what I thought would happen. My dad hasn’t read it and he won’t because he knows better. My mother said to him, ‘you can’t read this and get upset because it’s not for you.’ And it’s not for him; it’s not.
His whole thing is he just wants to know how many have sold. I’ll call him and he’ll pick up and just say ‘What’s the number like a psychopath. He wants to be part of the publicity team, which, quite frankly, he’s doing a great job.”
So what does Koul hope readers will take away from the book?
“I hope it makes you call your dad more often,” she said.
And her advice to young brown girls who grapple with the same issues she illuminates in the book, is of course, to read the book. But there’s also more.
“I think feeling amiss makes you strong later but its hard to sort of see that when its happening. I spent a lot of my younger years trying to fit by carving myself into shapes that weren’t gonna happen. I would hope someone younger than me doesn’t do that because its going ot make you miserable. And nothing bad happens to you if you don’t fit in in those ways.”
Also, in a very Scaachi-esque bit of final advice, “get a sense of humor because you won’t make it otherwise.”
Priya Arora is a queer-identified community activist, editor, writer and Netflix enthusiast. Born and raised in California, Priya has found a home in New York City, where she currently works as a Web Editor at Hearst Business Media. When she’s not working, Priya enjoys watching old school Bollywood movies, laboring over NYTimes crossword puzzles, reading books she never finishes, and eating way too much of her partner’s homemade Hyderabadi biryani.
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.
In honor of women’s history month and Ramadan, we are publishing this short story by award-winning author Adiba Jaigirdar. We had the pleasure of interviewing and connecting with Adiba in the midst of the pandemic, and she has remained a supporter and a friend of the literary vertical and Brown Girl Magazine. This short story by Adiba encapsulates the spirit of friendship and community in a time of celebration. Adiba’s next book ‘Do and Donuts of Love’ will be out on June 6, 2023.
It’s not Ammu yelling my name over and over that wakes me up on Eid morning, it’s the sweet aroma of payesh, floating up from the kitchen, through the floorboards, and making my mouth water.
It only takes me a few minutes to roll out of bed and down the stairs, peering at the massive dish of payesh right in the middle of the kitchen table. It’s what I’ve been looking forward to for all of Ramadan — Ammu’s famous payesh recipe.
“Safa, don’t you dare touch that,” Ammu calls from where she’s standing, by the stove, making a fresh batch of porotas for our Eid breakfast.
“But it’s been so long since…” I start to plead, but Ammu cuts me off.
“Get dressed, get ready, and after Eid prayer, we can have some payesh,” she says, though her voice has already lost some of its fervour. When I glance at Ammu, she has that familiar look of nostalgia. Unfortunately, I know exactly what she’s remembering. “If only it was the payesh that your Nanu used to make…” she says softly.
I heave a sigh, and say, “okay, I’m going to get dressed,” before slipping out of the kitchen as fast as I can. In our house, you can’t really talk about payesh without Ammu’s long-winded story. It always starts with how she wishes we had the ‘real’ payesh recipe that our family — the Jahangirs — have been known for around Bangladesh, since the Mughal era. It’s the recipe that’s been passed down for generations in our family. That is until, after our Nanu unexpectedly passed away two years ago, the recipe seemed to disappear.
This is where Ammu’s long-winded story ends: her bitterness that her older sister has the recipe but refuses to share it with Ammu.
Now, we can only have Ammu’s payesh. Even though she has spent the past two years trying to recreate our family recipe, she insists that there’s something missing. A key ingredient that made our Mughal-descended recipe famous around all of Bangladesh. So, Ammu’s payesh comes with a bitter footnote — a strange kind of loss that people outside of our family would probably never understand.
Back in my room, I shut the door and take a deep breath. Because today isn’t just any ordinary Eid. Today is the day that I reunite my family.
But Ammu doesn’t know that yet.
I fling open my wardrobe and pull out the dress that I had bought online weeks ago. It’s a long violet kameez with floral stitching running down its length. Silver embroidery lines the cuffs of the sleeves, and the ends of the dress; making it sparkle when it catches the light. It’s perfect.
Better yet, it’s part of a matching set.
My phone pings just at that moment. As if, my partner in crime can read my mind.
“Ready for today?” Marwa’s text reads.
My hands hover over the keyboard for a moment. And even though my heart is beating a little too fast in my chest, I type back “totally ready,” and put the phone back on my bedside table. I’m hoping that acting like I’m totally confident in our plan will actually make our plan 100% successful. But truthfully, I’m not sure how Ammu will react once everything is in motion. And I’m not sure if I’m a good enough liar to convince her.
But if all goes to plan, by the end of this Eid day, Ammu’s payesh story is going to get a lot shorter. And Marwa and I won’t have to hide our friendship any longer.
With that thought in mind, I change into my Eid dress.
“I don’t understand this Eid party business,” Ammu complains during the drive from the mosque to the community center, where the bi-annual Bangladeshi Eid party always takes place. “In Bangladesh, there aren’t any Eid parties. It’s just visiting your family and friends; not this ‘party purty’ with virtual strangers.”
“Yes, Ammu, I know,” I groan, glancing out the window and trying not to roll my eyes. I know that will lead to an entire lecture about not being respectful to my parents. “If you made up with Khala then we could…”
Ammu cuts me off by glancing back at me with a stone-cold glare that I’m pretty sure has the ability to kill. It’s the same glare she sends my way every time I even mention that she has a sister. That I have a khala. That these people exist and live in the same city as us. That we could be celebrating together, but the years-long feud between our families has kept us apart.
“No more talking,” Ammu declares, staring straight ahead. She’s clutching the dish of payesh to her chest now as if it’s her lifeline. Considering how much she has sacrificed for her payesh, I guess it kind of is her lifeline.
But, as I glance out the window at the rush of trees and cars and buildings zooming by, I can’t help but think about what our Eid celebrations used to be like. And wonder how Ammu is so okay with letting all of that slip through her fingers.
The buzz of my phone distracts me from my thoughts.
“We’re here!” The text from Marwa reads.
“We’re five mins away,” I text back quickly, before glancing at Ammu. She has her lips pursed — obviously still annoyed that I dared to bring up Khala on a day as special as this. My heart beats a little faster at the thought of what she’ll say when she spots Khala at the party. She hasn’t come to one of these parties in the two years since their fall out, and it’s thanks to Marwa’s spectacular lies that she’s there now. Not knowing exactly what’s waiting for her.
I can tell the party is already in full bloom as soon as we pull into the parking lot. There are barely any spaces left. And the inside of the community centre is like a burst of colour. Whoever decorated the place for our Eid party did a marvelous job. There are multicoloured balloons and streamers hung up around the room. A giant banner on one wall reads ‘EID MUBARAK!’ and the other side of the room is filled up with kids’ drawings from the annual Eid art competition.
“Too many balloons,” is Ammu’s only observation as she shoves one of them aside in order to place her payesh on the large table, in the middle of the room. It’s already filled with different dishes — but I know everyone’s dying for Ammu’s payesh specifically.
I heave a sigh and glance around the party. Through the throngs of people hugging and cheering and laughing, it’s not easy to spot two people. But I do. In one corner, closed off from everyone else, stand Marwa and her mom. Khala doesn’t look happy at all, though she’s wearing an expensive-looking sari and a full face of makeup. And Marwa is looking around impatiently. She’s wearing a salwar kameez that matches mine perfectly — except instead of violet and silver, her outfit is blue and gold, perfectly complementing her bronze skin.
When Ammu’s back is turned, I wave to Marwa. Her face breaks out into a grin as soon as she sees me. She waves back, before motioning to her phone. My own phone vibrates with a text.
Marwa: “Meet me by the bathrooms in two minutes.”
“Ammu, I…have to pee,” I say.
“You couldn’t have gone before we came here?” Ammu says with a sigh. “Okay, go.” She waves me off. But just as I’m leaving, I notice that she’s already trying to push her bowl of payesh on our Bangladeshi neighbours. Not that the payesh needs much pushing. It may not be the recipe descended from the Mughals — but it’s still pretty damn good.
“You’re late!” Marwa says as soon as I’m in her earshot. She pulls me to the little corner just by the bathrooms — almost completely out of sight.
“Ammu wanted to talk to way too many people after the Eid prayers,” I say. “I tried to stop her, but you know what she’s like.”
“Stubborn,” Marwa mumbles under her breath. We both know all too well about that. “Did she bring the payesh?”
“Would it be an Eid party without it?”
She smiles, even though I can tell her heart’s not quite in it. Just like me, she’s nervous about the plan. About how both our mothers will react — after declaring each other enemies years ago and refusing to even be in the same room together. All because of a dessert recipe.
“What if this doesn’t work?” Marwa asks the question that we’re both thinking about. After all, convincing both of our moms to bring their payesh to the same Eid party so that people can taste them both and show our mothers how it doesn’t matter who has the family recipe or not, seems like a good idea — in concept. In execution, it has way too many chances of falling apart. There are so many factors that Marwa and I just can’t control.
But after months and months of trying to come up with some way to get our moms to reconcile, this was all we came up with. Once upon a time, our moms were so close that they named their two daughters — born within months of each other — after the two hills in Mecca. For years, we grew up side-by-side, like sisters more than cousins. Until our parents decided they would ruin all that. Over a dessert that non-Bengalis think is as simple as rice pudding.
“It has to work,” I say, with more conviction than I’m feeling. Marwa nods in agreement.
“Was she suspicious?” I ask.
“Not even a little bit. Once I convinced her that Khala had gone back to Bangladesh to celebrate Eid and that she had the chance to showcase her payesh recipe, it was easy. She wanted to get here early to scope out the best spot for her payesh,” Marwa says, rolling her eyes, but I smile. Because that’s exactly the kind of thing Ammu would do too. The two of them are so alike — and that’s exactly why this feud has kept up for so long.
“Even if this doesn’t work,” I say slowly after a moment. “We’re not going back to being friends in secret.” It’s been too many months of secret phone conversations and text messages. Too many days where I’ve lied to Ammu about meeting a friend from school, just so I can see my cousin. When before, it was sleepovers every week and seeing each other every day. A friendship that seemed boundless.
“We’re old enough to fight them back on it,” Marwa says, not sounding convinced at all. Bangladeshis don’t talk back to their parents…but ours are being ridiculous. They have been for too long now.
So, I gave a determined nod, and the two of us step away from our corner, and back to the main room in the community centre. Where all hell broke loose.
In the middle of the room stand our two mothers — both wearing their new Eid sarees that are now in disarray. They’re in the middle of a screaming match, either unaware — or uncaring — that everybody in the room, around them, is watching them with wide eyes. This is definitely going to be the gossip topic of the year, doing the rounds on all the ‘Auntie/Uncle’ WhatsApp and Facebook groups.
“Ammu!” Marwa calls rushing up to her mom, while I make my way over to mine. “Stop! Everybody’s watching!”
“You told me that she wasn’t going to be here. You lied!” Khala says, sending such a powerful glare toward Ammu that I’m surprised she doesn’t wither away.
“Yes,” Marwa says, even though I’m shaking my head at her vigorously. “Safa and I planned to bring you both here, so you could see how ridiculous you’re being. Right, Safa?”
Everybody’s staring at me now. Except for Ammu, who has taken all the power of Khala’s glare and turned it towards me.
I shift uncomfortably from foot to foot for a second before slowly nodding my head. “Yes…Marwa and I planned it. You both brought your payesh, you can see how it doesn’t matter. People are going to love both of them. They’re…”
“You brought payesh?” Ammu’s voice is a whisper, but somehow it seems to envelop the whole room.
“Of course, I brought my payesh,” Khala says, propping her chin up defiantly.
Ammu turns to the table where all the snacks and desserts brought in by various people are laid out. There’s a bowl of chotpoti, plates of shingara and shomucha, boxes of roshogolla and kalojam. But right on the edge is a dish filled with payesh that is definitely not ours.
“Ammu, no…” but I’m too late. Before I know it, Ammu is striding towards the payesh faster than she’s ever walked before. She grabs hold of the dish, and it’s almost like the entire room is collectively holding its breath.
She glances over at Khala, but there’s no wicked grin on her lips, no evil glint in her eyes. She almost looks…sad.
“You should have given me the recipe,” she says, her voice so low it’s a surprise we hear her. “I deserved it as much as you did.”
Khala frowns, stepping a little closer to Ammu. “I should have given it to you?” she asks. “You’re the one who kept it from me.”
“What are you talking about?” Ammu asks. “Ma told me that she gave you the recipe years ago. And after she passed, I asked you for it. You said you wouldn’t give it to me.”
“I said I couldn’t give it to you!” Khala cries. “Because you were rubbing it in my face. You were the one Ma gave it to. She told me so.”
“Wait!” I exclaimed, stepping forward. Normally, I would never raise my voice like that to Ammu, but this definitely doesn’t count as a normal situation. “You mean neither of you ever had the recipe?”
“She did!” Ammu and Khala say at the same time.
“Nanu lied to you both!” Marwa chimes in.
“Why would she lie?” Ammu asks.
“Why would I lie?” Khala asks. “And why would I keep the recipe from you?”
Marwa and I exchange a glance. All of these years, our moms had been fighting a feud that they shouldn’t have been. But Ammu is right. What reason would my grandmother have for lying to them both? For pitting them against each other?
“Do you think Nanu lost it?” Marwa asks. “Or…maybe that the payesh recipe descended from the Mughals is just a story.”
“It’s not just a story,” Ammu protests, shaking her head stubbornly. “The Jahangirs are descended from the Mughals.”
“But did the Mughals make payesh, or even eat payesh?” I ask.
“I don’t remember seeing any payesh in Jodha Akbar,” says Marwa, like a Bollywood movie is the best factual reference for our family history.
“If you never had the payesh recipe…what is this?” Ammu asks, glancing down at the bowl she’s holding.
“It’s my own payesh recipe…I made it in memory of the one that Ma made.”
“I made mine in memory of the one that Ma made too,” Ammu says softly. “But…I don’t understand.” She shakes her head, glancing down at the ground like that will have all her answers. “Why did Ma lie to us? Why would she lie to us?”
Khala’s eyebrows scrunch up like she’s deep in thought. But for just a moment. “Do you remember when we were kids?” she asked slowly. “And our Nanu used to make the payesh, before Ma ever did?”
“I remember,” Ammu says with a nod.
“When I used to think of Nanu, I used to think of the smell of cinnamon,” Khala says. “Because…”
“That’s what her payesh used to smell like,” Ammu finishes off, glancing up to meet Khala’s eyes. “But Ma never put cinnamon in her recipe.”
I’m not sure what transpires between them in that moment, but it’s like all the years of enmity that didn’t need to exist vanishes just like that.
“So there was no payesh recipe?” Marwa asks, glancing between our two moms, looking a little distraught. I can’t blame her. To think that we’ve built our entire family identity around this and our pride for this famous payesh recipe that goes back generations.
“Maybe once upon a time,” Khala says. “But…I don’t know when it got lost. Maybe it was our Nanu who lost the original recipe.”
“Or…maybe it was Ma,” Ammu says. “And that’s why she lied to us.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure,” Khala says.
“But…now we have these two payesh recipes,” Ammu glances down at the dish still in her hands. But instead of looking sad or even angry, she looks happy. Happier than I’d seen her in a long time. “Do you want to trade our recipes?”
“Yes!” Khala exclaims excitedly.
And I watch as Ammu and Khala saunter off arm-in-arm to celebrate Eid, catch up on their lost years and — most importantly — trade their payesh recipes.
“I can’t believe our plan worked!” Marwa says, coming up to me with a glint in her eyes.
“Our plan didn’t work,” I point out. “Our plan didn’t even start before Ammu and Khala started going at each other’s throats.”
“Yeah, but…they would have never had that conversation if we hadn’t tricked them into the same room, right?” Marwa shrugs her shoulder.
“I guess. I think we can take credit for this. We’ve earned it.” It definitely feels like our victory watching Ammu and Khala talk and laughs, as if those two years of separation never even existed.
Marwa grins and loops her arms through mine. “Shall we try some of the famous non-Mughal payesh?” she asks.
“We should, especially now that we have two recipes in the family.” And as we wander off to fill up on the tastiest dessert in the world, I think about how Ammu’s payesh story is definitely going to be a lot longer next year.
I was taken aback when my late cousin shared this with me on the cusp of our twenties.
As a fairly modest Indo Guyanese girl raised in the Connecticut suburbs, the thought of discussing a stranger’s love life seemed not only foreign but shocking to me. Nevertheless, my cousin was always bold in this way. She took pride in the more daring aspects of our Caribbean culture with natural confidence. It was one of the things I loved and now miss most about her.
Admittedly however, it was over a decade before I started to understand some of her deeper curiosity in love, sexuality and mental health. This awakening was thanks greatly to Dr. Samosa.
In early 2020, Dr. Sarika Persaud, a New-York based, Indo Guyanese psychologist specializing in relationships, sexuality and complex trauma, took to Instagram as “Dr. Samosa,” an alias inspired by her favorite South Asian snack — and one she feels is a common thread for brown girls.
The platform became a safe space for brown girls to connect on topics like mental health, psychoanalysis, sexuality and relationships. From discussing sexual empowerment to building a strong sense of self, Dr. Persaud quietly became a confidant for those craving practical and candid insights the community shied away from.
Dr. Persaud and I sat down to talk about her journey and breaking these taboos in the South Asian society.
Her interest in psychology started as a journey of self-discovery as a pre-teen.
“I think I experienced myself as different from my peers,” she explained during our interview.
She didn’t get caught up in teenage drama and avoided certain types of relationships and people. Meanwhile, the friends she did make saw her in “this sort of teacher role.”
“I became curious about that about myself — how, in some ways, I found it beneficial to feel my feelings and have a depth people were drawn to, but also use it in ways to isolate myself,” Dr. Persaud said.
She was also beginning to identify as bisexual.
She shared, “I think I was avoiding my sexuality in some ways and psychology became a way for me to understand myself more. It’s always been this confluence of philosophy and science and even art for me.”
Growing up in Queens, New York, Dr. Persaud saw fellow Indo Caribbean women at a “very specific intersection of religion and culture.” It was the nexus of Caribbean values which welcomed sexuality and more modest Indian traditions. Caribbean influence seemed to “remove a boundary” on how Indo Caribbean women felt permitted to present themselves sexually, she explained. On one hand, after her Bharatanatyam dance classes, she saw her didis (the older girls) leave their classical moves behind for sexy Bollywood choreography and dancehall songs.
“It was exciting, like they were just beginning to find ways to express their sexuality,” she reflected. Then, around the same time, Dr. Persaud discovered a copy of the “Kama Sutra” at home and her mother was appalled. “What’s wrong with your daughter?” aunties asked.
Confused, Dr. Persaud thought “You own this. This is from our culture and it’s a Sanskrit text. It’s literally a religious text. It all seemed so powerful — and yet so many people were afraid of it.”
Something didn’t add up.
In 2013, she started a blog to bring a voice to topics like these. As word of her content spread, Dr. Persaud was met with backlash from her temple. Leaders said her blog was inappropriate and dishonorable to her community, but she stuck with it and her family stuck by her.
A few years later, when she launched Dr. Samosa to share her research and insights with a wider audience, sexuality came front and center.
“Sexuality — how you understand and honor what you want and like, and the ways you let yourself experience that pleasure — is intrinsically connected to how deserving you feel in the world,” she explained.
For example, if you think you’re worthy of a raise at work, a partner who desires you, or a family that listens to you — all can be linked back to a block in your relationship with yourself as a sexual being.
However, if you can feel confident in something as “primal, instinctual, and personal” as your sexuality, Dr. Persaud argues you lay the foundation for confidence in these other areas of your life.
Dr. Persaud says the fear of sexuality comes into play for South Asians.
“Being comfortable with your sexuality means being comfortable with your power,” she explained. “If everyone felt empowered and had a healthy relationship with themselves sexually, a lot of our relationships and hierarchies in society would change. And there are just so many people who benefit from women and marginalized communities (like LGBTQ+ and those with chronic illnesses) being disempowered,” Dr. Persaud said.
Throughout her work, Dr. Persaud has found it’s especially difficult for South Asian women to feel pride in themselves as sexual beings.
“There’s so much shame about the self and the body. Women especially are held to a double standard and it’s so confusing. If you look one way, you won’t get a husband. If you look sexual, no one will want to hire you for a job. Regardless of the South Asian ethnic group, there’s the same shame and belief that your body has to look a certain way, and if it doesn’t, you’re not desirable. Everything gets tied up in sexual shame.”
It’s undeniable that Bollywood movies have also heavily impacted many of our views on love and sex, but Dr. Persaud didn’t condemn this.
She says, “People need to realize Bollywood started from a tradition of classical drama and dance from ancient India. Those dances were meant to be explorations of dreams and mythical and philosophical ideas. Bollywood is just a continuation of that. It’s meant to be a break from reality.”
Real relationships are much more fraught and complicated than in films, but that doesn’t mean you should be ashamed of looking to Bollywood as a way to be in touch with romance and love in your life.
“They’re a fantasy,” Dr. Persaud added.
She also argued Bollywood isn’t necessarily as “censored” as many claim.
“People don’t have to watch others physically have sex or kiss to be in touch with their sensuality,” she noted. “It can be much more nuanced to see two people just embracing in a way that stirs up feelings. Like, how does it feel to have your lover’s head against your chest? Culturally, we just explore and express sexuality differently than the West.”
When it comes to becoming more comfortable with our bodies and sexual health, Dr. Persaud says it starts with self-reflection.
“Ask yourself why you’re afraid of being sexy or seen as sexual. Are you afraid your family will reject you? That you’ll be thrown out of your home? We all have different triggers, and once you identify yours, you can get to the issue underneath it all.”
Dr. Persaud encourages women to ask themselves important questions.
“If you’re afraid that if you assert your sexuality, your family will reject or not support you, how can you be more financially independent? How can you find pride in being able to take care of yourself?” She urges women to take inventory of what they like. “Look at books and movies and what you see in the world and consciously take note of what you react to. This puts you more in touch with yourself.”
When it comes to fostering open conversations with others, Dr. Persaud says to lead with vulnerability and clarity.
“If you wonder whether your friends have had sex yet and are embarrassed to ask, voice that concern. Share how you’re feeling or ask yourself why. Leading conversations with vulnerability allows people to connect a little bit more; to feel safer to share.”
“If you’re uncomfortable with something your partner does or want more of something else, talk about what you want to change and why it’s important to you. It’s not a shortcoming on their part, but rather you saying ‘this is what I need for myself. Is this something we can talk about and work on together?’”
With South Asian families, especially older relatives, things can get a bit more complex. Boundary setting is important as the family can bring out your biggest triggers.
“You need to be at a point where you own yourself,” Dr. Persaud explained. For example, if your mom finds out you were out with someone and questions you about it — “A bai? A boy?!” — you should be able to say confidently, ‘Yeah I was on a date,’ and also not feel obligated to give more details. Of course, that may not always be safe for someone younger, but at a certain age, it is OK to be private, to have that shield to protect and develop yourself and your confidence,” Dr. Persaud says.
Dr. Persaud also reinforces the importance of knowing your boundaries when reflecting on “coming out” to parents. She wanted to be open about her bi-sexuality with her parents; that she was dating — but not just men. She stresses however, one does not need to be excessively open.
“Not everyone has to come out and not everyone has to come out to everyone. You’re likely not facing anything new from your parents when coming out. If they are critical and judgmental generally in life, they’re probably going to be like that again. South Asian dads can really just be like, ‘Okay, don’t tell me you’re a sexual being,’” she laughed.
While Dr. Persaud is thankful for her parents’ acceptance, there are members of her family who’ve been less than supportive. She credits her confidence and sense of self for drowning them out.
“I’ve found the more I become comfortable with myself, the more I have this sexual energy that I can use creatively and in other good ways. If my dad rejects me, it doesn’t change that I am bisexual. Or if my mom rejects me, it’s not going to change this thing I know so deeply about myself. I’m just sharing something true. I can’t change it.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I shared with Dr. Persaud that I wondered how my own family would react to this article. I felt a bit of shame.
But she reminded me, “You can also find pride in it — ‘Yeah, I’m really proud of the fact that I’m one of the people breaking the stigma. I’m talking about something important to people’s health.’”
And she’s right, as was my dear cousin in her early ambitions. These conversations are never easy, but walking in curiosity, confidence and pride can help us find our power as South Asian women. It can help break the stigma surrounding love, sexuality and relationships in our community and their roles in our greater health.
In so many ways, sexual health and mental health are not only connected but interdependent. In fact, Dr. Persaud believes the more confident people are in their bodies and identities, the more confident they are as a whole — and the more attractive they are.
“Sexual attraction and energy comes from people being competent and peaceful and calm with themselves; knowing who they are,” she said, and the more we learn to embrace this and speak about it openly, the more we can not only grow but thrive.
For more on Dr. Sarika Persaud’s (aka Dr. Samosa) doctoral work and writing, visit her website or Instagram @doctor.samosa. For more on how to talk to your family or children about sexual health, visit sexpositivefamilies.com.