Chuski Pop: A podcast for desi feminists and brown girls with sass

A new online platform celebrates the aspects of desi-ness that brown women once felt ashamed of.

What does a desi feminist look like? According to Sweety and Pappu, creators of the podcast Chuski Pop, she is a little bit like them: “Two desi girls riding the fourth wave of feminism in our salwar kameez and golden heels, while flipping the bird to uncles and aunties.”

The description marks all that desi girls on the internet share: independence, fluid identities, diverse interests, a unique and original voice that is feisty and stylish. Desi girl humour has a culturally-specific punch (most recognisable in the art of hatecopy or Pakistani Martha Stewart) and usually refers to shared instances of patriarchy (aunties who tell them to cover up or sleazy uncles who stare too hard). Pop culture, usually Bollywood, also provides a shared context. Finally, desi girls as opposed to bhartiya naris, or the traditional Indian woman, are not afraid of talking about sex.

Chuski Pop embodies all of this and the idea that no matter where a desi girl lives, she thrives online. Much in the way that early internet blogs and later, YouTube channels offered creators a way to make media for culturally and racially diverse groups, feminist podcasts like Black Girls Talking, Call Your Girlfriend and Sooo Many White Guys have widened the platform for young women to engage with culture on their own terms – to produce a narrative, instead of merely consuming what the mainstream tells them about themselves.

Credit: Chuski Pop
Credit: Chuski Pop

Brown girls rule

As young girls of Indian origin, who spent some part of their lives in the Middle East, Sweety and Pappu became accustomed to being identified in the same social or racial club with other young women who were Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan. It didn’t matter how different they felt from one another, to outsiders, they were all brown. It was through this external identification that they began to consider what desi really was: a shared history, shared experiences and an opportunity to create a community of brown power.

Chuski Pop was born of a political and personal struggle for identity. In the summer of 2014, Sweety, a 33-year-old graphic designer, wanted a creative project which would distract her from the loneliness and draining professional routine of a new job in a new country. After two years and a couple of false starts, she was joined by her best friend, 31-year-old copywriter, Pappu, and finally began Chuski Pop in August 2015. Like every aspect of the podcast, the name of the show was carefully selected – the two considered various other names, like Kiss My Chuddies and Wheatish is the Way to Go, but settled on Chuski Pop instead.

“To me, Chuski Pop represents childhood nostalgia,” Pappu said. “But in the hands of a precocious Lolita it turns into something dangerous and suggestive all because in our primarily patriarchal society any phallic-shaped fruit or food can mean only one thing. I imagine myself and Sweety as precocious Lolitas sucking hard at our kalla-khatta and kachi-keri flavoured golas, giving zero f**ks but plenty of death stares to tharki uncles.”

Sweety, who came up with the name, agreed. “Yes, it’s supposed to be sexual and suggestive because I wanted to take the sexual narrative back into the hands of desi women,”

Credit: Chuski Pop
Credit: Chuski Pop

Like several other desi feminists, their outspokenness online is a direct consequence of how much they must censor themselves in real life. Sweety and Pappu never use their real names on the show, or for interviews, because they are afraid that their political opinions might endanger their families – some of whom still live in the Middle East, near violent and conservative neighbours. At present, the podcast is available on apps like iTunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

While both Sweety and Pappu enjoy the work of white feminists like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, they are more inspired by brown women like Lily Singh aka Superwoman, who created a career on YouTube by owning her desi-ness, or Rupi Kaur, a young woman whose poetry is universal enough to be shared by anyone, yet profound for its specifically South Asian context. Drawing anecdotes from Bollywood, adding phrases in Hindi, the women discuss issues that one would understand only if one grew up in a desi household – family pressure to try out matrimonial websites, bizarre experiences with meeting people on dating apps, beauty parlour ladies who tell you your skin is “too tanned”, the culture shock caused by live-in relationships or dating people of different ethnicities.

Pappu and Sweety do not mind being compared to these women, in fact they congratulate themselves for it. Chuski Pop, like Lily Singh’s comedy or hatecopy’s art, is part of a global effort to create an exclusive desi club, which celebrates the aspects of desi-ness that brown women once felt ashamed of while growing up.

They also want to carve a space for conversations and realisations of more intersectional feminism, discussing more cultural specific issues. They seek to create a repository of shared experience and wisdom. Sweety feels strongly about this: “I feel as desis we have a tendency to be inclusive of other cultures that wouldn’t necessarily be inclusive of us.”

The episode Pappu is most fond of, titled Kya Baat Hain Kya Cheez Hai Paisa #Money talks about the importance of being financially independent. Rather than “getting a degree so that you can marry a better guy”, as desi women are often advised to do, Chuski Pop tells young women to study and work hard so they can become wealthy and successful themselves, a version of the person their parents wish they would marry.

Chuskipop has also aired one collaborative episode with fellow desi podcasters, Chai tea party, but are up for more collaboration in the future. Their wishlist of guests for episodes include a desi burlesque dancer based in South Africa and a young disabled American girl who identifies with being gender fluid and flaunts her desi-ness with sass.

The sisterhood of Sridevi fans

The cheeky graphics and illustrations on their website, Facebook page and Instagram feed have been created by Sweety, who designs children’s animation shows for a living. The images are inspired by Bollywood, projecting the persona of a woman who is vocal and unapologetic about her sexuality, body and intellect.

“The feel of the paintings stems from my own fond childhood experiences of visiting India, when we would hop onto the Deccan Express on our way to Pune from Dadar Station in Bombay,” Sweety said. “Before getting on the train, my mother would buy all the film magazines like Filmfare and CineBlitz, and I would go through them on the train ride, tearing out the sexy pictures of Rekha or Sridevi and folding them up and putting them away in my bag. These women oozed sexuality and confidence and I loved them for it – so the folded-up paper effects you see on a lot of our Instagram posts are inspired from these childhood moments. I would often pass by artists or painters on the streets who used to paint all the Bollywood posters by hand, I would watch them paint wondering why I couldn’t be an artist for a living too!”

Image Credit: Chuski Pop
Image Credit: Chuski Pop

Bollywood provides a strong element of cultural inspiration because it provided a world Sweety and Pappu could escape into while living abroad, where they were in a constant flux about their racial and social identities, living with their conservative families, in societies which treated Indians like second class citizens. Their memories of, and associations with, Indian cinema and dialogues are similar to the way people engage with art or poetry – a layered language of its own, filled with nuance only true connoisseurs can uncover.

The nostalgia and specificity of growing up in the 1990s comes up often on the podcast too. In one episode, Pappu vividly describes sitting in front of her television set as a child, to watch a special programme celebrating the new millennium, with Aamir Khan’s somewhat hysterical performance of the song Dekho 2000 Zamana Aa Gaya.

But as fondly as the duo remembers old movies, they are quick to judge how sexism and misogyny were a huge part of storylines, particularly in films from the 1980s and 1990s. Representations normalised sexual harassment, patriarchal gender norms were constantly reinforced and unrealistically idealistic ideas of love and marriage glorified.

Image Credit: Chuski Pop
Image Credit: Chuski Pop

One of the most fun segments on Chuski Pop blends Bollywood critique with sound bytes taken from old Hindi movies, which mark the intro and the outro of the podcast. Taken out of the bizarre internal logic of the film, the sound bytes are revealed for their cheesiness, or jarring ridiculousness. These intros are meant to be humorous and bizarre, while the outros capture a pro- or anti-feminist montage.

Image Credit: Chuski Pop
Image Credit: Chuski Pop

The greatest draw of Chuski Pop, however, is its honest celebration of female friendship. From school, where they compete for grades, to adolescence, when they compete for attention, young women are constantly taught to hate each other. Desi girls in particular, like Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone, are constantly pitted against the other – as if there can only be one successful brown girl in the world at a time. Sweety and Pappu find this uncool. “Don’t desi girls have insecurity ingrained in us though from childhood from our parents?” Sweety asks, in one episode.

Although they were raised in different cultures and temperamentally are poles apart, Sweety and Pappu personify how empowering and stimulating a healthy female friendship can be. On the show, they often talk about their personal struggles with love, employment, the anxieties that come with “adulting” or internet-speak for growing up. Each woman is a cheerleader for the other, and a solid shoulder to cry on. Who needs Jai and Veeru anymore?

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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.