On this Pakistan and India Independence Day, we wanted to pay homage to our brothers and sisters in both countries by collaborating on a photo series that would showcase the unity between the countries, its people, culture, food, clothing and language. Through this series, we hope the next generation will put away past historical and political differences to unite the two countries so we can prosper together as opposed to hurting separately. Photos are by Amritpal Bharth and jewelery is courtesy of The Pink Bazaar.
“Pakistan and India were divided on the basis of religion and that to this day is the only path to unity. The notion of ‘Bhai-Bhai’ is often paraded around in rallies, advertisements and movies but that notion is as reliable as a politician’s promise on the night before Election Day. For me, it’s impossible to forget what happened in 1992 Babri Masjid, 2002 Gujrat or overlook the Muslim-ification of ‘villains’ in Bollywood (to this day). It’s also unfathomable how neighbors turned on each other in 1947. These were people who ate together, joked together, sent their kids to school together.
As a Sikh man, I was recommended, taught, and inspired to hate Muslims and Pakistanis over and over again. Sikhs and Muslims have a very tense history. But I’ve found it impossible to ignore that the Founding Father of the Sikh religion was born in Pakistan, blessed is that place. I’ve found it impossible that the foundational stone for the Golden Temple was laid by a Muslim, Hazrat Mian Mir, blessed are his hands. And I’ve found it impossible to not respect that tactfulness, humility, and grace practicing Muslims display.
Between the two countries, unity is only possible if we are willing to accept that the other is better than us.
Yeah. ‘Bhai-Bhai’ doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked. Because it’s rooted in the inconvenience of peace. When someone has to accept something is better than them, that requires humility and respect. Both necessary for unity.
All countries, religions, and communities are imperfect… We all have flaws. But admitting something is better at least helps us inspire to become better versions of ourselves.”
“It didn’t matter that I grew up Indian-American, the hate and propaganda about Pakistan have spewed in all aspects of my life. I remember when I first realized we were once one country and my grandparents from both sides had fled Pakistan during the partition – I ran to my mom to ask her if this meant we were half Pakistani and Indian. She didn’t say much at the time; I think mostly because she probably thought I was too young to understand the animosity between the two countries. So for a very long time, I thought I was half and half. But sooner or later, my naive-self understood that I was 100 percent Indian, and my neighbors in Pakistan weren’t too fond of me and my people, and vice versa.
The Bollywood movies, the late night news on the Indian television channels, the newspapers, and the aunties and uncles would all talk badly about Pakistan, but it was hard to understand why.
We’d speak part Urdu and Hindi because of the Indian-Muslim towns my parents grew up in, and Punjabi because of our background – just like my neighbors in Lahore. We’d relish in the same cuisine, wear the same type of clothing, and our traditions kept us grounded in America. So, what made us so different and why did we hate one another? It honestly took years to fathom the truth – we were fighting over a border, a no man’s land or possibly both. The long-drawn fight has made us forget what caused the war to begin with.
Years later, as a 20-something desi New Yorker, it doesn’t even matter – the war, the border, the hate, and the propaganda. We’re all one in America, that’s what keeps us going, the unity of South Asian-Americans rising together.”
“The year 1947 might’ve birthed India and Pakistan as two separate countries, but the schizophrenic sentimentalism revolving around the partition still circles our generation today. Whether it’s Bollywood movies, television, discussions between elder generations or even friends, it’s almost as if this cheesy need to continue this psychological feud in our heads has been passed down from generation to generation.
How many generations is it going to take for someone to realize that no one is ever going to gain anything from holding on to hate and damaged love for the people who look, function, dance, eat, just like us?
Separating a plate full of mac and cheese into two will still have you with the same exact mac and cheese on both sides. Tasting exactly the same, looking exactly the same as the other side, no matter how many ways you turn it around to look at it.
Food for thought: Instilling nothing but POSITIVITY into the heads of future generations for regions, cultures, and religions other than our own might finally free us from being prisoners trapped in the past – a cycle of endless, pointless, and overrated hostility for the same exact goddamn mac and cheese.”
“For as long as I can remember, as an Indian-Hindu, I’ve been taught to hate Pakistanis and Muslims. I can’t tell you who taught me any of this, just that it was a such an ingrained part of my life that I didn’t even think to question it. The animosity between the two countries and religions is portrayed in many Bollywood movies – some subliminal, some just outright Islamophobic. Hindu nationalism is on the rise across the country as if India has forgotten that its strength lies in its diversity.
I hear about the lives lost during the Partition and the lives we continue to lose in Kashmir even in recent years. And I cannot wrap my head around why an arbitrary border would cause people who had coexisted peacefully for years to turn on one another. I wonder how different our countries would be if we spent less time fighting one another and more effort helping each other.
As I stood there next to my Pakistani sisters, I tried to figure out what makes us so different. Religion? Nationality?
The truth is, I see a reflection of myself in every single one of these beautiful souls.
I consider myself lucky for having grown up in the diaspora where often we are all grouped into the same category, regardless of whether we are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or any other part of the subcontinent. I spent more time being amazed at the similarities between our cultures than harboring hate at our differences.
As South Asians living in the diaspora, we are uniquely positioned to come together as a community and lead the way towards ending this animosity. The time has come for us to transcend political borders and religious separation. It’s time for us to come together to celebrate our collective successes and overcome the obstacles that both nations face together. As we celebrate our respective Independence Days this year, I hope we all take some time to reflect on how WE can change this hatred into tolerance and tolerance into love.”
“Living in the Western world and looking at Southeast Asia from afar, it’s apparent that this rift between India and Pakistan has caused damage physically and mentally. Besides all of the irrational violence that‘s taken place, the partition of these countries created a deep-set and highly flawed ideology that Indians and Pakistanis are enemies. Even generations born in other countries are brought up to continue this feud. It’s extremely detrimental to our generation; we’re brought up as Americans to embrace one another and celebrate diversity, but our ancestors have trained us to represent Pakistan or India, and not to support descendants of the other. As a Pakistani-American, I can’t accept this mentality. In America, the issues of previous generations in the homeland should not affect our behavior towards one another. Growing up as a brown girl, the daughter of immigrants, I faced a whole other set of issues – I was a “fob,” I didn’t look like the other kids, my parents didn’t pack me the same lunches… If anything, I felt more united with other minorities, including the other brown kids (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, etc.), not caring where their parents were from. They just understood me, and what I was going through.
My sister is marrying a man who is half Pakistani and half Indian, and their children will be taught to love both cultures and countries.
I feel so fortunate that my parents realized that nation lines mean nothing when it comes to character, but sadly I know this isn’t the case for so many of my friends, who have to hide from their parents that they’re dating someone from the other country. It’s very hard to tell your grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, etc. that they need to update their thinking and stop being so close-minded, and most importantly to embrace their neighbors instead of rejecting them, but I think it’s key that we have these hard conversations.
I think our generation is the most united that Pakistanis and Indians have been in a long time, and I think we will raise the next generation to appreciate one another rather than hold onto nonsensical hatred. Unity is our future.”
When I was asked to join this photo shoot I have to say I was surprised. Being Indo Caribbean I thought of myself and my cultural identity as separate from the Independence Day of two nations that are so far behind me historically.
With that said, my view of the division between Pakistanis and Indians is seen through an entirely different lens.
There are many of our ancestors that brought the prejudices faced between Hindus and Muslims with them to the Caribbean, and it isn’t uncommon in the Indo Caribbean community for families to shun someone for marrying an opposing religion.
But now, after many years apart from the mother nation and then their second mother nation, Indo-Caribbeans living here in the US and abroad have seen a change—in my opinion—more acceptance.
Many Indo Caribbean’s over generations have traveled from India to Guyana to the US, UK or Canada, to name a few destinations. This is a group of people that have been forced to mix and mingle with other cultures over time, changing their perceptions slowly.
And yes, many Indo Caribbeans fiercely hold on to their cultural heritage and religions, but there is an evolution occurring.
I have a Muslim boyfriend, and I remember being nervous to tell my grandparents about his religion—they are Hindus whereas I’m a hybrid of Christianity and Hinduism—yeah that’s a thing, folks. I even remember my cousins being nervous for me, as none of us have ever traversed the religious gap between Hindus and Muslims. When i finally told them, they were actually happy for me, without hesitation. So maybe my story is unique, maybe it’s not – but if it isn’t it shows that there is hope for a united future.
So in a call for unity across the entire diaspora whether you are Hindu, Muslim, Pakistani, Indian or Indo Caribbean I hope we can continue to learn more about each other and eradicate the divisions that separate us with love and tolerance.
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.
Featured Photo Credit Kevita Junior | Left to Right: Tu hiya ka kare he, Tu kaha bate, Tu hamar ke bate
Thundering waves clawed on the body of the vessel as the sea swallowed the voices of terrified passengers. They clung to the shreds of the Eagle Speed as each hour submerged the ship deeper within the kala pani (dark waters). Steamer ships were sent for rescue, finding two children alone, clenching to the remains of the mast. The unscathed captain and crew fled in boats, leaving the lives of coolies (indentured laborers) to the fate of the dark waters. TheEagle Speed set sail on August 19th, 1865 from Calcutta to Demerara. This tragedy took the lives of over 300 hundred indentured laborers. The coolies onboard were not just casualties of the kala pani, but a larger system of British colonialism.
The crossing of these tumultuous seas wasforbidden for Hindus, as it meant the severance of reincarnation and the unraveling of caste. Yet more than 2 million Indians were taken across the kala pani. The forbidden water carried stories along its transatlantic waves, bearing witness to history lost against its tides. The restraints of caste drowned along the voyages as surnames and relations were cast across the seas. They became Singhs (lions) and Maharaj’s (great kings), Brahmins by boatinstead of birth.
These indentured workers were mainly taken from regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to different corners of the globe, with some of the largest to the Caribbean. Guyana experienced around238,909 workers, Trinidad 143,939 and Suriname 34,304. With 399 Indians, the Lalla Rookh docked on June 5, 1873, at Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname, later becoming known as the coolie depot. As workers poured out of ships and onto plantations, they experienced violence and oppression at alarming rates, especially against women.
They were nameless and barefooted with gold jhumkas and bangles adorning their bodies. As tourism increased in the Caribbean’s, photographing indentured women on postcards became part of its selling point. These women became subjects to appease the white colonizer gaze and fetishized exotic ‘Coolie belles.’ A bulk of these postcards were shot in Trinidad and sold in local shops to visiting tourists. Yet these postcards failed to translate the hierarchy of power between the photographed and those behind the camera. The white European men who carried out these photoshoots chose backdrops that masked the real conditions of sugar cane fields and living quarters. Who were these women? What were their names? The women were juxtaposed with the term ‘Coolie,’ a slur for laborer and ‘Belle,’ the French word for beautiful. They were coined as laborers of beauty, yet their eyes tell a story of fear of pain.
Tu hamár ke bate? (Who are you to me?) Tu hiyá ká kare he? (What are you doing here?) Tu kahá báte? (Where are you?) Artist Nazrina Rodjan posits these questions that rummage through the minds of many Indo Caribbean descendants. Who were my ancestors? What did they experience? Rodjan aims to explore the experiences of indentured women through her oil painting series “Kala Pani.” In this series, she reimagines the postcards of indentured women alike the depictions of European nobility. In conversation with Rodjan she mentions,
I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be ethical to reproduce these staged images of women who might have felt scared and uncomfortable being brought into these studios to be photographed by men. I will never know their true experiences and how they might have felt knowing a stranger in the future will decide to paint them in the same positions they were put in for the original photograph.
Rodjan’s art series started as a way to commemorate 150 years since the first indentured workers arrived in Suriname and expanded to include regions like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.
Wanting to reclaim these images comes from feelings of injustice whenever I see these postcards. They were made from a dehumanizing perspective. Reclaiming these images becomes necessary knowing how the violence Indo-Caribbean women still face today is just a continuation of the violence brought onto indentured Indian women then. To me, creating this piece, symbolized the acceptance of questions remaining unanswered, stories being lost forever, and realizing that after a history full of trauma, there’s a treasure in the women that are still here to tell their stories.
The ratio of men to women arriving on these ships left little to no autonomy for women. Experiences of violence on ships and plantations were common throughout the Caribbean. Despite this, indentured women became trailblazers and pioneers in uprisings against poor working conditions.
Everything about these women seems to be a question we can never answer, but I decided to give them titles in Hindustani that are questions they might have for me as the painter who looks at them and sees both a stranger and a loved one. Tu hamár ke báte? Who are you to me?
Living in the Netherlands, Rodjan talks about her experiences tracing her ancestry and honoring this history:
Unfortunately, in the Netherlands learning about the history of Dutch colonization only meant memorizing all the different spices they brought in and listening to teachers talking proudly about the Dutch East India Company in elementary school. Tracing back my ancestors has so far only led to a picture of my parnani and a few more names in the family tree.
OnMay 5, 1838, Anat Ram stepped foot on the rich grounds of Berbice, becoming the first Indian laborer in Guyana. The Whitby and Hesperus departed from Calcutta on January 13 and arrived in Berbice first then West Demerara. Over the course of 79 years, approximately259 ships voyaged from India to Guyana. While the experiences of these ancestors may remain unknown, artists like Suchitra Mattai aims to revitalize the voices of our indentured ancestors.
Suchitra Mattai is an Indo Guyanese multi-disciplinary artist. Through her work, she uses the experience of her family’s migration and the history of indentureship to rewrite and expand our notions of history. In her piece, Life-line, a rope of saris pours out of a tilted boat, mirroring the experiences of her ancestor’s journey across the transatlantic. The saris serve as both water and a connection to two lands, India and Guyana. Mattai further explores indentureship in the piece “Coolie Woman,” depicting a woman seated with a sari, embellished with jewelry and flowers.
I wanted to reimagine the photo to give her agency. I also wanted to address the desire for people of the diaspora to connect to their homelands and ancestral pasts. The painted wallpaper drips and fades to parallel the way my memory of Guyana ebbs and flows, Mattai says.
Anchoring at the Port of Spain on April 22, 1917, the last ship to ever carry indentured Indians made its final stop. A system that bound Indians to an unknown land finally ended after 79 years.
To invoke conversation and pay homage to their memory, artist Gabrielle Francis creatively analyzes indentureship. Gabrielle Francis is an Indo Trinidadian queer interdisciplinary artist, writer and organizer from Queens, New York. In her piece “206:21 Queer Altar Mixed Media Performance,” Francis pays homage to her indentured ancestors with a focus on queer identities. The title 206:21 reflects the ratio of men to women that journeyed on the Fatel Razack, the first ship from India to Trinidad. A mirror is decorated with the colors of Trinidad’s flag along with six candles embodying the pride flag and vibrant red carnations. Written across the mirror is, “I wonder how many of you were queer?” A question that allows for openness and conversation around potential queer ancestors. Written records around indentureship were translated and produced by European men, leaving little to no room for women or queer folks. Francis’s work aims to transform and challenge Eurocentric narratives surrounding indentured history.
As descendants of indentureship, it becomes difficult to sit with questions that may never have answers. Visiting National Archives or exploringdigital databases can help connect descendants to learn about their own history. As we unravel difficult experiences of the past it’s important to ask, how do we carry the legacies of our ancestors? How do we honor their sacrifices?
As they were stripped of their identities and reduced to passenger numbers, they fostered new relations—jahaji bhai and jahaji bhain (ship brother and sister). From shipmates to family, to present-day melodies of chutney music to the stew of pepper pot on Christmas morning, these bonds of community have evolved and are seen across the diaspora today.