The Storytellers in the Mandir
By Gaiutra Bahadur |
APRIL 6, 2020
Archival Creators Fellow Gaiutra Bahadur taps into the oral history project, "Ro(u)ted by Our Stories," that creates a space for Indo-Caribbean womxn to confide and contend across generations. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The collective of womxn who created Ro(u)ted by Our Stories (who are advisors for my material memory project documenting Guyanese immigrants in the New York metro area) created an online archive of oral histories that I want to highlight and honor. They interviewed a few dozen female or gender-nonconforming Indo-Caribbeans, young, middle-aged and elderly, about navigating their lives and relationships: as mothers, sisters, professionals, first-generation college students, wives, single women and daughters. Listening to them tell their tales to each other, breaking silences in a confidential circle they have built for themselves, I was moved to tears more than once and also felt buoyed by the candor, insight, humor and audacity with which they are discussing and seeking to transcend an inheritance of harm.
Colonialism and indenture, the system of semi-coerced plantation labor developed in the wake of slavery, with many of slavery’s excesses, left us with legacies of domestic violence and alcoholism that have for generations haunted our families. That is our past. Yet, the past isn’t past. Still, the voices I heard give me hope for the future. Code-switchers, dropping anecdotes in the Creolese dialects of Guyana as deftly as they deploy the language of American social justice movements and the American academy, they speak openly about the challenges of navigating the gender expectations of their communities and families. Their conversations range widely, from periods to PhDs, interracial dating, campus feminism, slut-shaming, the terror of the subways on first arrival, the ironies of motherhood and forging careers against the odds of scant social and cultural capital.
Listening to them, in the glory of their many moods and modes of speaking, I thought of the Caribbean-American writer Paule Marshall’s celebration, in her essay “The Poets in the Kitchen,” of her mother’s generation of Caribbean immigrant women and the generative power of their infinite variety of talk in the kitchens of basement apartments in Brooklyn brownstones. They gossiped. They nurtured. They got serious about politics. They were down-to-earth. They used dialect. They taught her to tell stories. Kitchens play that role for Indo-Caribbean women too. But what other spaces traditionally reserved for women might be likewise subverted by them? Most of the interviews for Ro(u)ted by Our Stories took place in the Bhuvaneshwar Mandir, a long-established Hindu temple in Queens. Prayer spaces in Guyanese diasporic communities, whether in formal temples or in the basement of someone’s house spread with sheets for a puja, have been traditionally held by women sharing stories, gossip, ritual, black humor and sometimes suppressed sorrow. Why not formalize that with an oral history questionnaire guiding the gyaffing – to use a West Indian word for all this wordplay – to document where we have been and where we are going?
The archive created by the women and gender expansive folks behind Ro(u)ted by Our Stories, supported by the advocacy group Jahajee Sisters, is an index of our common struggle to reinvent and to heal. To do that, we have to break intergenerational silences, a deeply radical goal. It involves talking with and talking about not only our mothers, but also our fathers. The affection, the pain and the dissonance of relationships with fathers and grandfathers struck me as a common thread in the interviews, and I would like to allow the Storytellers in the Mandir, if you will, to speak for themselves on that count. Here is what five of them, using pseudonyms, told the team who gifted us with these oral histories.
Immigrated in 1971, when she was 17
[M]y dad my was an alcoholic. When he got drunk, he was very cruel. He would beat my Mom very badly. He would beat us up too and being the oldest, I got a lot of the brunt of those beatings. … [A]s you grow older what happens is you begin to understand—I understood that my dad was a sick man, that alcoholism is an illness, that he couldn't handle whatever it is that he couldn't handle, that's the way that he medicated himself. And then whatever it is he couldn't take, he took it out on his wife and his children….
When I first came [to the United States] and I was younger, same thing, but the first thing I did the first time he hit me, I called the cops, had him arrested, went before the judge—this was in probably 1972. I remember they prepared me to go in front of the judge. I had a huge black eye, because he hit me with the phone, and I said, “No.” I stood my ground. I said, “No, this has been going on for far too long. It's been going over and over. It put me in the hospital twice in Guyana and this is not gonna happen.” So I went before the judge and I told the judge my stories—family court—and the judge gave him a warning and put him on good behavior, right? Then he said, “If you love your family, you're not gonna do this again. If you do it again and have to come here again, you'll have to move.” But I didn't stay around for long. By 19, going on 20, I had to leave. …
[The interviewer here asked what her relationship was like with her parents after she left.]
You know that's the thing, it got better. Yeah especially with my father. I didn't have to deal with him. So, I go and I visit them and I bring him gifts. Even though I was asked by my child, ‘You know, Grandpa was so nasty to you, so bad to you, why are you so good to him? Why do you go visit him?’ That's my father. That's my dad, and like I said, when you grow, you begin to understand that that's a sickness, that's the way he handled it. I always believe in humanity, that when we know better, we do better and if we don't know better, we can't control what we're doing. …
I missed Guyana for a long, long time. Guyana was a state of mind for me. Even now, it's sometimes when I'm going to bed, I imagine myself back there, in a safe space—that's what it was. It was safe, and I felt safe. Even though my dad was all that, I still felt safe. We slept with our doors and windows open. We didn't have telephones. I don't know if you've ever heard this, but if something happened to you three miles away from home, they know before you. People at home know before you. … I miss that and I know there's nowhere in the world that's like that anymore. ... I used to wrap myself in a cocoon of back in Guyana, just to feel safe.
Immigrated in 1986, when she was 9.
Moving here, the first five years of living in this country, we lived here illegally, and that is the part that was sort of the worst parts of my life. … My mom was a teacher back in Guyana, but when she came here, became a babysitter. My dad was an accountant, and he came here and he became a taxi driver, right? And he's a security guard and he took the odd job. These are young professionals back home, but they came and had to kinda start over and just take whatever job. I mean, these are the kind of job you would take in high school to get pocket change and this is what my Mom did as a profession or my Dad did as a profession that stayed. That's what you do as a new immigrant coming to this country. … The transition from high school to college was brutal because I went from this very diverse, mostly black, Hispanic, very few Indo-Caribbean young people in high school to going to this pervasively white [college]. There were 15 black and brown kids in my class of 400. … I had to figure out a way to survive and to (do) that I have to change my accent. I have to learn how to speak American. My dad completely refused to, and he is so down-to-earth and he's deliberately remained down to earth.
Born in the United States. In her late twenties.
...[W]e'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. … 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.
This was probably in my teens. I don't remember exactly what age. I printed it out, maybe 50 of them and I pasted (them) 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.’
… [M]y 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.
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. …
… 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 … 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.
Came to the US as a child. In her late thirties.
I felt like I had to do a lot on my own. I had a very supportive family, but because I'm first generation, so no one in my family, in terms of the adults, had gone to college, and because I'm an immigrant, I had to figure out a lot by myself. … Our families are investing in us so that we can get jobs and opportunities and money that they couldn't get, right? For generations, people have been sort of investing in me through their labor, through working in cane fields, rice fields, right? By migrating here, my mom's a nanny. And so I felt like there was a lot of expectations for me to...definitely to go to school to get an education, but also to get a job that would end up making money and (putting) myself in a better position than my previous generation. So deciding to go to graduate school, to do English, for me, was a struggle because there were these expectations. … I talked a lot about myself but my mother, my grandmother, I've seen them in relationships where they've always had to appease the men in their families. So, with the older women in my life, I've seen domestic violence, especially my father and my mother. My father was abusive. He was an alcoholic. He beat my mother, but he also wasn't present and didn't contribute economically. So, she was always working. She had kids and we were home a lot by ourselves. We did a lot of things by ourselves but it's because she had to work all the time, and so not only was he physically abusing her, but he also abused her by not contributing to the household and not taking care of his children.
[The interviewer asked her what she thinks stands in the way of women across generations building relationships.]
Hiding the stories, you know? I don't ever talk to my Mom about my father and about their relationship, about abuse. It's just something we don't talk about. There's so many things I wish I had known about my grandmother and I can't ask her now because she's not here. She died. We started talking about, as women and girls, we don't really get to ask questions and we don't really get to talk, and I think that like stays with us and it affects the way that we communicate with each other, you know? It's really hard for me to talk to my Mom about her life. Sometimes I feel like she doesn't want to talk about it, not because she doesn't necessarily want me to know, but because it's just really hard for her and she's just kind of locked away a lot of her stories, but I wish that I knew them. I think there's just silence in general and like this idea that we can’t ask questions, especially between generations, like the younger generation can’t ask the older generation questions, I think that's part of it.
Born in the United States. In her early twenties.
So my maternal grandfather, we have a really crazy relationship because we're like best friends. His call-name is Waldo or Ivan, and I think ever since I was maybe fifteen, or probably younger, I've been calling him by Waldo. And then as I got older, we started calling each other. We would just make fun of each other. So now if I call him, he'll answer the phone, and he'll be like, "Ugly!" and I'm like, "Ugly!" … I don't remember the last time I called him "Grandpa." It's just like, blech. So we have a good relationship, and he is the funniest man because I think with me...I'm one of four of his granddaughters, one of five granddaughters, but him and I have the closest relationship because I call him every day. He knows a lot about my life, and I think the reason that he is so open and receptive to what I do is because he was the exact opposite with my Mom, and he saw what that did. And I think with him he realizes now, things are so different, and things are changing. He's just supportive, which I feel so lucky to have, because I know that other Indo-Caribbean girls in their twenties don't have a grandfather who literally just wants to see them happy, doing whatever it is. Sometimes he'll call me, and the brown will come out in him where he'll be like, "What's for dinner?" and I'll be like "Oh, I'm making pasta," and he'll be like, "Pasta, pasta! Yuh dunno how te mek curry?!" and I'm just like "But, there's so much stuff in the pasta, it's so good!" and he's like "Pasta! Yuh eat pasta!" So he's funny in that way. I think also with him, I've checked off a lot of the boxes that he's wanted me to check off, and so I think that's another reason why he's so supportive of me doing whatever it is that I want to do. Because let's say for instance I was an artist and I didn't go to school and I just pursued my art, he might feel differently about that and me doing whatever I wanted, as opposed to now where it’s I have my Bachelor's and my Master's and I'm the only person in my family who's done that. So he's like, “Okay, you at least got your education, something that I couldn't do. Do whatever you want.” Then, you know my partner is brown, and he's happy about that, and he loves him. He loves him because his family is from Guyana, he can look at his grandparents and be like, ‘I know you from somewhere.’ And he doesn’t, but he can do that.”
Gaiutra Bahadur, author of Coolie Woman: the Odyssey of Indenture, is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University-Newark in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media. Her Archival Creators Fellowship project focuses on documenting within Guyanese communities descended from Indian indentured laborers.