Ankita Mishra‘s parents, who moved to the US in 70s, brought her up like every other immigrant parents who try hard to keep their children close to their roots. “They have educated me in many subjects — my own Bihari and Hindu background, physics, world religions, cooking, and the urgent art of not questioning authority and keeping my mouth shut,” Mishra writes in her article on the Brown Girl Magazine. She says how, despite temptations, she stays quiet instead of retorting because of social conditioning. She says,
Though I pride myself on being outspoken, I stop right before the punchline. There is a moment, right before I give someone what they’re due, when I retract. It’s the same invisible line my parents give up at, the aunties and uncles whose brazen voices dim to a whisper in mere seconds when a cheery, Midwestern voice asks them to spell their name over the phone.
However, recently when she went to House of Yes in New York, she could not stay quiet on seeing a curiously-decorated VIP bathroom. The bathroom was decorated with bejewelled images of Hindu gods. She called this the ‘price of silence’. She says how the Hindu holidays and festivals will continue being American and European accessory as long s we keep quiet.
Not the one to bog down, Mishra after sharing her experience on social media, penned a strongly worded letter to the venue’s public mail.
She writes how as a “queer woman of colour” she is used to “silencing her voice” in the service of “keeping peace in public.” She recounts her visits to the venue with her partner and have fond memories. However, her 29th September visit disappointed her. She visited one of the private bathrooms behind the DJ booth. She says she was shocked to find Mahadev on the tissue dispenser. She then spotted more images of gods and goddesses everywhere inside the toilet, including that of Kali right above the toilet. “I was inside a temple but it was all wrong– I was wearing shoes, I was peeing, and my ass was out,” Mishra writes.
Mishra describes her struggles of fighting misconceptions and cultural appropriation. But to be faced with such blatant cultural appropriation when I was relaxed, a little drunk, and surrounded by people I felt championed by was too jarring to ignore,” she adds.
She explains how cleanliness and purity are “obsessive rules” in Indian households and how one learns basic respect around Indian deities. She explains how you don’t offer a flower to the God after having smelt it and how people remove footwear before entering temples. Hence, a bathroom is not really an appropriate place to have images of gods and goddesses.
She explains how Hinduism does not believe in eternal damnation and neither does it have evangelists who carry out religious conversions. “You cannot impose your own punk and subversive cultural standards onto another religion. It is just another form of misinterpretation and desire to control something that is not yours,” she says.
Mishra says how western capitalism continues to exploit Hindu, Buddhist and South Asian cultures in name of spiritual awakening and sexual exploration. “Our culture is not a ticket to your self-discovery. India was under colonial rule for 200 years and I, frankly, am tired of how uneducated America seems to be about that. Do you think you would even be in that yoga class if it hadn’t been perfectly packaged for you to consume?” she questions.
She goes on to explain that one of the reasons she points out the cultural appropriation is that the people who would use the private bathroom are the ones who have money and power and probably “does not even fully take in the fact that an entire ancient culture and religion is being reduced to a playscape for their vices and routine board meetings.”
Ankita expresses her disappointment at how no one thought how insensitive this would be to her sensibilities. “As I sat on the toilet, I thought “Is it possible that my culture is again being dehumanized and treated like an accessory of white culture, here on Jefferson Street?” she questions.
She politely requests that the decor of the bathroom is taken down. “My true desire is to see the bathroom taken down. My parents would not have had the courage to stand up for what is right, but I as their daughter, do. Your mission statement is one that touts inclusivity, positivity and safety. Please don’t make me lose faith in the ability we all have to right some wrongs and truly hear each other out,” she concludes.
Surprisingly, she got a response. Kae Burke, co-founder/creative director at House of Yes who had conceptualised the bathroom decor reached out to Mishra. She apologised to her for not researching the history and culture that inspired her before undertaking the decor. She apologised for having hurt Ankita’s feelings.
She promised that the bathroom decor would be changed and redone as soon as possible. “To be transparent, the soonest I can take it on is right after Halloween. If you insist, we can put paint over it until then,” Burke said in her apology to Mishra.
Mishra then says how Burke’s response was everything we never expect. An apology. “I had broken my silence and spoken up. Kae’s response was everything I had convinced myself was impossible: an apology. And yet why did I fear her apology so much? Is it because some hurting goes so deep, genuine remorse cannot erase it?” she writes.
Finally, the images of human rights leaders and feminist icons will be painted over these images of gods and goddesses instead of dismantling the all entirely.
This one act of speaking up and standing up has encouraged her to not get bogged down and not be embarrassed to do the same.
You could read Ankita Mishra’s letter and Kae Burke’s response here.