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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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.