I rung in my new year, as some of you saw on Instagram, with beautiful things: family, the full moon, the splendor of California beaches and my beloved ice cream. But as is the way with the cognitive bias towards negativity, I witnessed a dog die right in front of me, and that, sadly, has managed to trump all of the other lovely bits and bobs that made my new year day so beautiful. The sight of her death and the overwhelming feelings of guilt and helplessness managed to replace much of the emotion I felt on that day. The circumstances of her death aren’t terribly extraordinary. She seemed blind at best and possibly mute as well, a pudgy, old, black St. Bernard, casually walking across a busy avenue in my hometown, oblivious to bright car headlamps and my rapid honking as I swerved and slowed to avoid her blood on my hands. And yet the suddenness of her walking across the other end of the road and the car that did not see her and the driver that may have been preoccupied in a 60 mph vehicle that mowed her down with nothing less than a dull thud; that entire episode is replayed in my head over and over again. Not a welp. Not a bark. Nothing dramatic. Just an end.
In all the exultation surrounding the end of the garbage year that was 2017, which like all good garbage, had many salvageable and in some senses, quite wholesome moments, 2018 was heralded as a respite, a new dawn. And to be reminded of the frailty of it all in the death of that poor dog was overwhelming.
So I’ve chosen to again focus this year on gratitude yes, but also on spending time with the people I love, now. As this last year has shown me, there will always be work and that will never stop. There will be new opportunities and ways to busy myself further. But in between the humdrum of the mundane, I’m choosing to spend all my free time finding ways to do the things I’ve wanted to do now as opposed to postponing them for a distant, beautiful, wealthier, “better” future. This includes:
- Spending quality time with my family while we’re all whole and able
- Sending those random messages to someone when you’re thinking about them (unless of course, it’s injurious to their health or yours)
- Going on adventures with my friends now, marriage, babies, life, moves notwithstanding; distance is distancing
- Taking the trips I’ve wanted to take, sure they won’t be the fanciest, straight out of Vogue, retirement plan version but they’ll probably give me a hell of a lot to talk about when retirement comes around
- Sharing the experiences I’ve wanted to have with my people now
- Reading the books that they’ve recommended and talking to them about those books now
- Laughing at the jokes that I’ve wanted to share with them
- Writing them the cards that I’ve bought them and stockpiled for all of the birthdays ahead; I’m giving them to you now folks, get ready
- Enjoying a meal that I think they will enjoy, with them
- Keeping them in my prayers and intentions
- Basically, anything I can do to avoid a “wish you were here” message is golden.
Life is going to go on, but in a jarring analogy that stems from the Sanskrit Shrimad Bhagavatam, we are gathered together like straws floating in the waves of the ocean, gathered together for a limited amount of time and then separated by unforeseen laws. While my straws are aligned, however long they are, I intend to make the most of my time, by being more, doing more, loving more, now.
OK. So I start this year off with some honesty. I am lost. Like properly have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going or what to feel lost. I’ve been on autopilot for a while. I’m good at my job, I’ve jostled together a savings account, I live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, I own a car, I have the most loving family, I have friends and I have some faith in something sublime. But I also have a lot of shit. I’ve become really good at coping in the past year and even better at pushing through stressful situations in the only way I know how: laughter and time with people I love. But I’ve struggled with that strange divide of what’s appropriate to share with a literal world of strangers; it’s one thing when you’re sharing with people who have a peripheral understanding of your past and background. It’s another thing entirely when you’re a very open, honest and vulnerable person and you find yourself exposing your raw soul to the world, open to comments from random people and subject to advice and criticism.
My #100daysofgratitude project gave me a space that was safe enough for me to start treading that line but over the latter months of 2017 and now into 2018, I’ve found myself struggling more and more with the idea of boundaries – what is mine and what is for everyone else? In my quest for acceptance and friendship, I’ve blurred those lines until they have been rendered indistinguishable. If it happened to me or if I was present, I’m more than happy to dissect incidents and overshare (“revealing Radhika”) to literally anyone who asks. You’ve all seen unfiltered (ha) Instagram stories of my parents, my friends, my brother, me, my life – but what then? When is it content and performative and when is it my life, safe and sacred for me? How do I grow the shield to protect myself when I’ve been especially candid? Where do I draw the lines for what is truly enough?
Writing has been cathartic for me, allowing me to process my pain, share realizations and see clearly what to distance and where to just let go. But with all these new boundaries I’ve been trying to delineate, I find myself stuck and numb.
There is so much I want to unpack this year in my writing. I want to talk about my identity, my faith and lack thereof, my worries and fears of judgment, my experiences with “having it all”, my relationships, my traumas – I know there’s an audience out there for whom some of this can hopefully resonate and I am aware that in sharing stories we can establish commonalities and shared camaraderie. But I also know that I’m putting my entire family on an imaginary pedestal for my readers to examine. Because like every good brown girl, I’m both myself and an extension of a larger family unit, tied to history, culture and tradition that run deeper than my superficial understanding of it all. My mother always told me that my oversharing with people would be the end of me but as I’ve started censoring and muting myself, I feel like I’m clipping away at the wings that could set me free. I itch to write and share but I catch myself and say no, it’s not the time.
We’re living in a time where vulnerability is finally get its due. People are celebrating emotion and feelings. Women and POC in particular are fighting to be heard and are being heard in new, unprecedented ways. Trauma is being revisited. Mental health is finally being considered real. Healing is happening on a grand level. Hurt is also happening on a grand level.
What happens to those of us that don’t feel equipped to deal with the aftermath not because we’re scared of repercussion but because we’re scared of what comes after the big reveal? Who have I helped? Will I be known as another survivor? Will I be yet another girl coming out of a failed relationship? Does my pain become my identity? Can I separate myself from it?
Growing up, I was never into building things, choosing to immerse myself in my fantasy worlds, books and the lives of my dolls. I colored outside the lines, scrawled my name on everything, rushed through learning to write letters, skipped to the end of books so that I could do what I loved most, immersing myself in relationships. My brother was the complete opposite, patiently solving puzzles, excelling at math, pursuing physics and building LEGOs, choosing to create his imaginary worlds between blocks. His LEGO love grew into models with thousands of pieces; the Imperial Star Destroyer, space shuttles, and car replicas. When he chose Engineering and I chose English, everyone shook their head yes. It made sense based on our childhood choices. He had the gift of patience and I had the gift of words.
“You aren’t patient.” This reminder came up to explain the little mistakes I made (stunning given that I was notorious for my editorial nitpicking), my seeming lack of attention to detail (which was always amazing given that I remember the most random and useless bits of information) and would be justified by my non-affinity for traditional tasks that illustrated “patience” like building LEGOs or voluntarily studying calculus in college (also incredible because I pride my analytical abilities; I could give the FBI a run for their money with my stalking abilities). I accepted this characterization, internalized it and never bothered to look at a LEGO set or activities that hadn’t seemed interesting to me before. When I asked myself why, the answer was deafening – I didn’t have patience! I used more of my right brain. I was an emotional soul. I lacked attention to detail. That’s just who I was.
While dealing with the loss of a friend earlier in the month, I found myself turn to a leftover LEGO set my brother was convincing my mother to finish. As I turned each page of instructions, my logical brain was on overdrive while my emotional brain finally was able to marinate. I was processing so much. When I finished the set, I felt a sense of accomplishment; I had effectively turned little piles of plastic bricks into something that resembled reality, troubleshooting by trusting in my abilities.
So I write this to say, we often don’t do things we could enjoy just because it didn’t suit us or we heard all the chatter that was now characterizing our ability and then we chose to believe it. Maybe we didn’t take to a particular activity because we weren’t in the mood, maybe it wasn’t the right age as temperaments change as children develop, maybe that particular set wasn’t interesting because of how things are marketed; these lines are all so arbitrarily drawn. There are a myriad of reasons that are not identity characteristics; choose to reason with these instead of believing everything you hear said about you. As a related side note to readers + parents, words do matter – seemingly inconsequential ones often hurt the most and the way we choose to characterize everyone, especially children, can be so significant in the grand scheme of things.
I built this LEGO in about 2.5 hours. It felt so weird to be doing this and not be reading a book, cooking something or binge watching The Crown as would be expected of me. I did it my own way – sorting the bricks in the box, building on my bed, pausing to read the trivia in the booklet and listening to French rap along the way. There was a strange giddiness throughout the process, an excitement to finish and an acknowledgement that I was doing something I didn’t think I was capable of. In typical Radhika fashion, I rushed through building the set, sacrificing an hour of sleep to keep going. Sure the tower fell off the top at the end but I reengineered it to finally stick. The four little squares that I incorrectly attached? I just reattached them. I actually enjoyed the process. I was so proud of myself.
In those 2.5 hours, I reflected on my “lack of patience” and managed to build a mental tower of reasons why I actually do have a lot of patience; patience at work, patience talking to difficult people, patience doing tasks that may seem beneath me, patience cooking, patience going out of my way to do nice things for people (yes this is selfish but makes me happy), patience commuting, patience internalizing my frustration so as not to lash out as much (ok, still working on this), patience tolerating all that this year has hurled at me. Patience, like all characterizations, is a construct based off of ones’ own realizations and criteria. It is also a work in progress because we are constantly learning, growing, developing and adjusting to different circumstances; pieces might fall off here and there but that is starkly different from a complete lack thereof. It is also a choice – you choose to be patient for things that are important to you. I defined this construct for myself, choosing to build an Eiffel Tower but also, my own sense of identity along the way.
Obvious question – why The Devi Dasi?
It feels almost bizarre to call it a rebrand but I felt the need for an identifier that was as pervasive to me as my name.
I’ve written about my name and the weight and sanctity it holds to me here.
In addition to my name, however, as long as I can remember, my father introduced me to his social circle as Radhika Devi Dasi. The theological importance of this additional moniker cannot be emphasized – Hare Krishnas are taught (in my case, from a young age) that our names have power. Being named after God – name, attributes or form – has a special potency that gives you a sort of metacognition of Him. There is however a clear emphasis on the point that you are not named after God with the intent of ever becoming Him; you are merely His servant. You are like God in quality but you can never be God in quantity with the analogy being given of how the ocean and the ocean drop are qualitatively the same and quantitatively different.
The goal of this spiritual path is loving God by serving Him and this service, “devotional service” or bhakti yoga, is the path that practitioners are on. Your identity is simply as the servant of God. Hence, as a long standing Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, the Sanskrit suffix “das” is added to most initiated Hare Krishna names. Shrila Prabhupada, founder and guru of the Hare Krishna movement, added the additional suffix of “devi” and then “dasi” to most of his female disciples’ names. The word “devi”/ देवी is the Sanksrit word for goddess. According to Douglas Harper, the etymological root Dev- means “a shining one,” from *div- “to shine,” and it is a cognate with Greek dios “divine” and Zeus, and Latin deus (Old Latin deivos).
I always looked at this addition as telling – the men are simply called “das” but the women, whether or not this was a conscious choice, have the additional reminder of this divinity added to their names. That weight is quickly tampered with “dāsī,” which according to Merriam Webster, is the feminine form of the Sanskrit dāsa which means servant, handmaiden, slave. But together, the two words suffixing my name have been a part of my identity as long as I can remember.
I never liked being called Radhika Devi Dasi as a child. There would be random uncles and other practicing devotees in the community who would insist on referring to me by that entire name and I’d ask them as politely as I could to just be called Radhika. As I got older, people would try to shorten Radhika into Rad or various awkward mispronunciations of my name. I’m grateful to my mother, always, for her insistence on shutting that shit down, in the best possible way, and helping me own my name and my identity. As an adult, however, and as one who is openly grappling with her relationship to her faith, I was literally shook, (to quote modern parlance) when my dad jokingly called me one morning and boomed his greeting into the phone. “Hare Krishna Radhika Devi Dasi, my princess”. Suddenly, I began to give this title much thought. In the Hare Krishna world, the addition of these few words can almost instantly denote spiritual seniority by way of initiation. As a specialist in Postcolonial literature, I also could just gloss over the historical precedence of and pejorative use of a very close cousin term – the devadasi – temple dancers – a group of women, who, over the course of colonialism, were descended into a life of poverty and relegated to the status of ordinary nautch girls or prostitutes. There is so much historical context packed into those two words, one that Hare Krishnas can, in their modern spiritual aspirations, ignore. As an Indian woman of a Brahmin background (whose family most likely prospered in pre and postcolonial India by dint of that pedigree) who also happens to have a background in Odissi, (a very beautiful and rich but also very much appropriated form of those womens’ dance form), there is a certain guilt felt in the enormous amount of privilege these activities and titles confer upon me. While these few sentences feel reductive in their explanation and one could spend an entire book on the nuances of this subject matter alone, I decided that the terms “devadasi” and “devi dasi” were different enough to hopefully not have a full coating of colonial residue. I’ve chosen to take the latter term for its previously discussed literal definition.
For me now, there is something poetic about juxtaposing the word devi with dasi: the balance of sheer humanity as middle ground between the Goddess and the servant. The reminder of humility and grandeur, their coexistence and the recognition of both within oneself. The faith-based interpretation – I am both named after a goddess (Srimati Radharani) and reminded of that with the additional “devi” suffix but also actively cultivating the mindset to serve her as Her “dasi”. I’m reminded of my life’s mission of serving someone far above and removed from the trivialities of our world. Reminded of the magnitude of goddess-like responsibilities but simultaneously marinating in the intent to always serve. I’m reminded of the respective powers in being both a functioning goddess, removed from this world and a servant whose livelihood by definition is in the power of service. As a writer, I’m reminded of the implicit power of my words but also the awareness of how ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, they are just words. As I explore this moniker further, I hope it will also help to shed some light on the hybrid existence I seem to be living – a foot on the path of spirituality so carefully inculcated by my parents as well my other foot, jogging along in pursuit of my material aspirations on variant paths that sometimes do not align. A grounding realization – neither one nor the other, the complete duality and hybridity of my existence – The Devi Dasi.
I’ve toyed with the idea of a blog for 11 years. Buried deep on the internets are my initial iterations, recanting my first ever encounter with boba/bubble tea, the trials of a younger brother addicted to runescape and the musings of being the only woman on the Boy Scouts Venture Crew division. In some ways, I suppose all three observations were precursors to some of my current realities – I love bubble tea, my brother is a software engineer and I work in a male dominated tech world. But I digress.
I’ve dragged the #100daysofgratitude project out about three months more than I needed to because I honestly didn’t want it to end. I’ve waxed poetic about how it’s kept me busy yet fully engaged with my world and how is the first time in many years that I’ve written for fun. The experience of putting my work out in the ether of Instagram, hashtagging the shit out of it , sharing it widely across generations and having it read, even if clandestinely (with no little “read”/ heart to reveal identities) has been oddly liberating. I’ve gotten past the idea of my work as a harbinger of my identity and broken through a debilitating sense of self-doubt.
I’ve had profound conversations with so many people because this has been a creative process involving hours of mindful thought, which turns into great fodder for deep conversation. I’ve also had some of my most vulnerable conversations in the last few months because the incidents or thoughts causing stigma and shame have been thrown out in the open for all to see.I’ve publicly brought up memories and emotions that I had sequestered to the recesses of my mind. Weirdly, instead of causing me more shame, I’ve found the courage to embrace all of these memories as aspects, defining or not, of my current identity.
I’ve cultivated a ritual of gratitude that, while adapted for Instagram, has made me hyperaware of everything around me. I’ve learned to appreciate writing as a process and have learned to love sitting with a piece for a few days, editing obsessively, until it feels right. (I’ve also loved the process of writing something and putting it out there, grammatical mistakes and all, as a piece of expression.) And perhaps most importantly, I’ve found a sense of purpose in my writing because it allows me to process so much that seems to slip away in the blur of the weeks, the months and then the years.
I’ve always struggled with the idea of being a “blogger” because I thought it was predicated on the self confidence of being a “writer”. I always wrote but I never felt ready. I felt like my writing was verbose. I felt like my writing lacked depth. I felt that people would critique it incessantly and in so doing, critique me. Instagram is fillled with the motivational message of if you don’t do it you’ll never feel ready. My friend Kayla was in town a few months ago and she revealed to me that one of her preceptors had given her the tip of leaning into your criticisms.
For example, if someone commented on your long sentences or adjectives, you should keep writing long sentences and using adjectives. If you keep writing, as you are, that underpins your style. Style is constantly in flux and subject to trends. Your truth, however stylized, is your truth. Your experiences and musings are valid. People do not need to like them for you to feel that sense of validation. When you create art for yourself, you give yourself the agency to process and express your emotions. That is valuable, difficult work. It is not created with the intent of altering other’s judgement. It’s removing the layers that prevent your authenticity from shining. It’s the cleaning of the internal mirror, if you will, reckoning with the dirt and seeing yourself, sometimes for the first time in years.
So here my friends, is the beginning of my truth. Off of Instagram, formalized into a blog, archived on the internets for all to see.
Grateful for this brother of mine Krishna and all the other brothers/bhai-jans/brother samaj in this world. I’ve been blessed with your care, love, ridicule, song recommendations, endless teasing, bad relationship advice and free dinners. Thank you for letting me be a part of your lives.