A captivating, illustrative tale of a young Indo-Fijian, “Kalyana”, by Rajni Mala Khelawan, will wrap you in the intoxicating natural beauty of Fiji while bringing to life a heartbreaking coming-of-age story of the main character, Kalyana. A plump, bright-eyed girl, Kalyana represents all Indian women whose family-centered lives and narratives around women and shame shaped her thoughts and opportunities.
Indo-Fijians, formerly brought over from India as indentured servants, chose to stay and build a life. However, the strong divide between indigenous Fijians and Indians remained for generations to come. In the book, Fijians were rarely introduced as a main or significant character, other than the housekeeper, Roni, who became Kalyana’s mother’s best friend after her sister moved to Canada. Besides differing countries of origin and obvious language barriers, religious and cultural differences are also what kept the populations apart. After much of this institutionalized learning, Kalyana was disgusted when her mother, Sumitri, sought Roni’s advice for a family matter. However, Sumitri said that she saw Roni as a woman first, and women were bonded by something deeper than their indigenous differences.
A common theme throughout the book, Kalyana, Sumitri, and Sumitri’s sister, Manjula, represent three women at three different stages of life, but who are bonded by the silent pain and suffering of women and the lack of opportunities for the time. Radical things for Fijians in the ’70s included things like the second-wave feminist movement in America and education beyond high school years. Seen as the faraway land of America:
“…the women had stopped cleaning, cooking, and shaving under their armpits, and rebelled against their husbands”.
Despite the modern ways of the outside world, the progressive culture had not penetrated Fiji’s island borders. Kalyana and her family learned about the second wave feminist movement through a small transistor radio. Of course, young Kalyana had thought of men as the dominant brothers, fathers, and husbands in her lives and never as lovers of even friends. Seen as just another passing day, the neighbor’s wife, Tulsi, endured endless beatings from her husband – all heard by the townspeople, but no talk or acknowledgment that what was happening was incorrect. The blame was placed on Tulsi, and the beatings were seen as the righteous punishment for whatever she had done.
“Blood and pain, she said, marked the passage of a woman’s life.” Always written in the context of marriage and childbirth — two core life stages that are unduly given some surreptitious over importance yet undereducation to women in our patriarchal society — menstruation, sex, and child-rearing all involve blood and pain. The very things that are supposed to give a woman the pinnacle of happiness, sex and pregnancy, are taught to all stem from suffering. Never spoken about in the context of pleasure, sex is an act of necessity, not of want. For women, sex is a form of required pain from which the beautiful boon of children is to emerge. Sumitri only imparts what she is aware of and sets the stage for the type of thought that Kalyana is exposed to with that statement.
Before Kalyana was able to manifest the idea of what love and sex could mean, that ephemeral honeymoon period was snatched away from her when someone close to her, someone in her very own family, stepped over his role into that of a convict. The idea that a women’s body can be dominated, shared, and used was not a new concept – Kalyana was very much aware that boys, including her younger brother, could “sow their seeds” anywhere they please prior to marriage. However, the idea of consent was never introduced to her, neither was it introduced to the generations that preceded her.
Between the pages of womanhood and wisdom lie storytelling – an essential part of Kalyana’s growing up. Specifically, the storytelling included those of Hindu gods including Ganesha and Krishna. These stories transport the reader to the days of religious fervor, where these stories changed thoughts, dispensed encouragement, and enabled compassionate, yet god-fearing people. Themes of these religious stories would manifest themselves in Kalyana’s dreams and nightmares. More often than once, her nightmares featured snakes with blood-soaked fangs or violent waves of water. A cry for help, her subconscious was crafting narratives around these celestial themes.
“Kalyana” is a riveting, enchanting, and relatable story about the effects of Indo-Fijian political discontent, familial migration, and cultural institutionalization that manifest as generational trauma. Each page is rife with a different idea, a different thought, that is told through the innocent yet observant lens of a young girl on the brink of adulthood. I was humbled by the refreshing reminder that innocence carried for a lot longer back then, where the western ways of the world could barely breach the bordering beaches of the Fiji Islands. A commentary on what was and what could be, “Kalyana” is a story for all.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
“What you do is not who you are. Our capitalist society spends a lot of time trying to convince us that we are our work, but we don’t have to fall for it.”
When I first met Joy Batra, she wasn’t an author. She was a multi-hyphenated individual who floored me with her charm and her aura. Joy not only had gone to business school and law school at one of the most prestigious universities in America, but she also valued her hobbies and her passions that were completely extraneous to her working persona. Her nontraditional career path was one that, at first glance, confused me. “I’m a dancer and freelancer,” she had said, and I batted my eyes as if she was talking in a foreign language. What’s a freelancer? Why and how did she come to identify herself as a dancer, when her degrees all point to business and law?
Joy Batra’s therapeutic and timely book “Freelance Mindset” provides relevant stories, guidelines, and motivation to take ownership of your career and financial well-being. Particularly, the book is centered around the pros and cons of life as a freelancer and practical advice for how to get started as one. At its core, the “Freelance Mindset” encourages diving deep into the relationship between career and identity, and how the balance of both relate back to your life view.
In the words of Batra:
“Freelancing is a way to scratch a creative itch that is completely unrelated to their day jobs…Freelancing harnesses that independent streak and turns it into a long- term advantage.”
Batra’s older sister’s advice is written with forthright humbleness and glaring humility. Batra leads us through the fear of facing our existential fears about careers, productivity, and creativity. She leans into the psychological aspects of how we develop our careers, and reminds us to approach work not just with serious compassion but also with childhood play:
“You are naturally curious and passionate. As a child, before you needed to think deeply about money, you probably played games, had imaginary friends, and competed in sports. Those instincts might get buried as we grow up, but they don’t disappear altogether.”
Batra also provides us with a diverse cast of inspirational freelancers who provide their honest perspectives across a wide range of domains from being a professional clown to actors to writers. Especially noticeable is the attention paid to South Asian women through notable interviews with Vyjayanthi Vadrevu, Saumya Dave, and more. On social media, it’s easy to find these women and immediately applaud their success, but behind the scenes, it takes a lot of grit, persistence, and determination to reach the successful level of freelancing that you see. Batra encourages a spiritual way of thinking that is marked by rational needs (ex. Maslow’s hierarchy): not to seek immediate gratification and corporate climbing, but rather to view life as a “jungle gym” as coined by Patricia Sellers. Taking risks is part of life, and just like entrepreneurship, freelancing is just as ambitious and off-the-beaten path, despite stigmatization.
“One of the strange paradoxes of the working world is that entrepreneurship is fetishized and freelancing is stigmatized.”
I recommend the “Freelance Mindset” to anyone who is starting out their career in these economically uncertain times, as well as seasoned workers who are looking for inspiration or a shift in their career life. Whether or not you are considering becoming a freelancer in a certain domain, this book is the practical wake-up call that workers and employees need in order to reorient their purpose and poise themselves for a mindset of success. I view this book as a “lifer,” one to read every few years to ground myself and think critically about the choices I make and where I devote my time.
I leave you with this quote:
“We can adopt the new belief that no single job will meet all our financial, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs…We have one self, and we must figure out how to integrate it into the various situations we find ourselves in.“
You can purchase a copy of the Freelance Mindset here. Follow Joy Batra on Twitter and Instagram for more content!
For BGM Literary, editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with writer Sri Nimmagadda. In this short story, we follow a man in a gray suit who makes a stop at a church to bide his time before a job interview. Sri Nimmagadda is the Chief Program Officer at MannMukti, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the stigma around mental health in the South Asian community through storytelling and advocacy. He lives in Los Angeles with his dog, Rani, and is passionate about authentically growing inclusion and diversity through storytelling in the entertainment industry. Editor Nimarta was extremely grateful to have Sri join the legacy of wonderful and moving authors for the literary vertical in honor of Mental Health and Awareness month.
A man in a gray suit stands in front of a church and looks up and through the entryway with the resignation of a desiccated man taking a bitter medicine he’s absorbed for years but simply accepts as a fact of his life, however unpleasant. So, the man in the gray suit — a get-up slim but not so lean as to emit a cockish, metrosexual air, scraggly lint escaping the seams across the surface in a manner that supposes either venerability or somewhat tired desperation — thinks about what it means to take a bitter medicine, the trade-off between the instantaneous sour, bitter, wretched, and cloying and the promise of perhaps a better tomorrow, or a better tonight, or a better five-minutes-from-now. After some consideration, this man in a gray suit — an outfit that some would’ve supposed he’d purchased from Goodwill, the night before, for a painfully wrought $95.67 with tax after getting into an argument with his wife about who was going to take the kids to school in the morning and fucking Brenda skipping out on babysitting again — steps inside the church.
This man in a gray suit — armed with a briefcase, and the last and latest copy of his résumé that he’d worked on until 1:30 a.m. the night before after Max and Annabelle had long gone to sleep and his angry, exhausted wife laid restless, in their shared bed, thinking about whether she’d consult the number of the divorce lawyer she’d been recommended by one of her girlfriends in the morning before deciding she’d give her husband another shot just as she had the night before and the night before that and the night before that — paces towards the front of pews almost cautiously, as if someone were watching him, afraid to be caught in the act of being vulnerable and giving himself up to some higher power. Maybe if you go to church and the pastor or some other demure, God-fearing soul sees you, they’ll call you out — who are you? why are you here? — and you’ll realize that for as much ado as people make about the unconditionality of God’s love, they make claims to His love the way they’d claim a parking spot or a position in a queue at a grocery store. Faith, it appears to the man in the gray suit, is really about paying your dues.
So the man in a gray suit approaches the front-most pew — the communion table before him standing guard ahead of a cross. He lays his briefcase down. He sits at the pew. He closes his eyes. Please, he begs Him in his own mind. I need this.
But then this man in a gray suit considers his pathetic whimper to God, how he can’t even acknowledge God by his name, how he begs Please rather than Please God like a weak, unfaithful man who cannot bring himself to say his wife’s name when begging her for forgiveness after his own infidelity. What a mess, he thought of himself. So, he tries again.
Please, God. I need this.
The man in a gray suit considers this again and admonishes himself for his cowardice — when you pray in your head, words and phrases, and sentences and prayers, and pleas twine and intertwine and mix until the signal becomes the noise and you can’t really figure out whatever you’re trying to say. So, for a half-second, you think the only way to get it out of your head is to blow it up so that it all spills out and maybe then God will understand how you really feel — and so he tries again, and puts his prayers to air. The man in a gray suit is not used to coming to church. This is his first time coming in a couple of years. He’s going to need a couple of tries to get this thing down.
“I’m sorry,” the man in a gray suit exhales, “I’m just not used to praying.” But that’s okay. Prayer is a process, the man in a gray suit would find, and what begins feeling ridiculous, or like grasping for spiritual straws, ends up feeling akin to a dam giving way to water; unrestrained, unexploited. So the man in a gray suit — the man who’s come an hour and a half early to an interview because the early bird gets the worm, only to find himself with an hour and a half to kill and nowhere but a church to grace with his presence — prays, and he prays faithfully, and he prays well. He picks up the Bible on the shelf of the pew in front of him, flips it open to whatever page presented itself and begins to read. He closes his eyes, and at that moment he feels safe, like God’s hands envelop him, and that tomorrow will be a better day, and everything will be okay.
Somewhere along the line, this stupid fucker in a gray suit fell asleep in the middle of Galatians and missed his interview.