Namrata Poddar, curator of the “Race, Power, and Storytelling” series at Kweli — an online journal by and for people of color – is on the rise. You may have seen her fiction in “Best Asian Short Stories,” her fashion commentary on Instagram at @stylegully, or her takedown of the colonial writing maxim, “Show, Don’t Tell,” at Lithub. Or you may have seen this California-by-way-of-India, France, and Mauritius girl doing yoga on the beach.
Poddar and I connected over our hopes for a wider lens on the diaspora — encompassing not just India and the US/UK but all of the places our community lives, loves, and thrives — as well as our experiences as first-time novelists and mothers during a pandemic. I recently joined her for a conversation about her debut novel, “Border Less,” out in March 2022 with 7.13 Books.
*The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Your debut, “Border Less,” is coming out next year, but you’ve been writing for years now, from many perspectives: as a writer of shorter fictions, yes, but also translator, a scholar, a critic, fashion blogger, and an interviewer. What does the novel specifically, as a form, and this novel, in particular, allow you to explore, or to express?
In almost all of my writing, I talk about decolonizing literature. The fun with fiction was a possibility to imagine other scenarios of P/power and to “tell it slant,” to savor the freedom we experience as writers when there’s no obligation to convey “truth” as it happened. Writing fiction allowed me the psychic space to move away from whiteness to truly focus on our brown communities, to critique us for ways in which we re-enact the colonial power dynamics within our communities too.
“Border Less,” for those eagerly awaiting their own copy, is a multi-vocal exploration of a South Asian community stretching from Mumbai to Mauritius to California, and the ways in which these places and voices are depicted is a real highlight of the book. How does your injunction to writers not to get bogged down in “show don’t tell” intersect with the voices throughout “Border Less?”
I started “Border Less” with a story collection in mind, although the book had a mind of its own and I had to learn to listen to my writing over the voices in my head, mediated by the literary establishment and what it hallows as good storytelling. “Plot” here happened after most of the book was written, where characters and their situations of conflict seem to recur, and connect organically, I was often told, through certain themes. Once the early drafts of individual stories or vignettes were done, I’d to figure a way to connect it all—the easiest part within this book’s journey. As for show-don’t-tell, I wrote against it in my essays because a visual over an oral/aural component is over-emphasized in white-dominant writing workshops, but in my fiction, I try to do both, show and tell in ways that emphasize a non-white over a white lineage of storytelling, even if non-white v/s white in postcolonial writing are seldom easy binaries.
As a total ABCD, I loved the way in which you skewered so many aspects of ABCD culture. How do you approach writing this type of cross-cultural humor? (A lot of it is parent-specific: Did you find your sense of humor shift when you became a parent?)
So glad to hear that you see a certain humor in the book. Humor is such an intrinsic part of an individual, unique to each, that I didn’t try consciously to do humor in my writing; if it’s there, it’s because it’s a part of the self that does the writing. As for humor changing with becoming a parent, I would say the change resides in the fact that it expanded my sense of humor. Motherhood impacted my life, my worldview and my identity in such dramatic ways; it continues to remind me to take myself less seriously.
You share Marwari identity and an LA location with many of the characters in “Border Less” – what are facets of these roots that didn’t make it into the book?
On roots: I believe no book can do full justice to the idea. I mean, how do you write a place with all that the a place encodes – history, geography, topography, language, culture, ethnicity, humor, clothing, social codes, to name a few? The best any writer can do is to offer a glimpse. I hope mine does this for Marwaris—rooted in my ancestral home of Rajasthan, and those uprooted and living elsewhere, but also for Mumbai and Southern California, places where I’ve lived longer than any other part of the world, another kind of rootedness.
Finally, we’re here in Brown Girl Mag, and your publisher, 7.13 Books, includes another brown girl, Hasanthika Sirisena, on its editorial board. Which desi short story writers, novelists, poets, in America but also in the Indian Ocean, in India, and elsewhere, are creating things you’re excited about?
Among the newer voices, especially those writing and publishing outside of India, Divya Victor for deftly weaving critical thinking and poetry to center a South Asian American experience, Aruni Kashyap for exposing state repression in Northeast India; Rajesh Parameswaran for re-imagining the contemporary American short story; Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent work as I relate deeply to the pull toward a foreign language and what it does to our preconceived notions of identity. Last but not the least, writers from the Indian Ocean region because the region has a much older and richer legacy of migration, and I love stories by South Asian diaspora who center a global South over a global North. Thinking here of Ananda Devi, Shenaz Patel, Nathacha Appanah, and Kama La Mackerel, all of whom are doing excellent work with moving away from the white gaze in storytelling.
I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.
When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?
It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.
How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?
Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community.
Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?
My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience.
It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.
The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?
I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.
One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?
For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.
Why explore the psychology of a house?
It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.
What makes a family?
I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.
The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?
Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.
What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”
I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.
Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.
“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.
For the literary vertical, BGM editor NImarta Narang was honored to delve into sci-fi with author extraordinaire Premee Mohamed. In ‘Sleeping Beti’, Premee details a wedding that is due to take place in two weeks after Anju wakes up 75 years later from cryopreservation…in space. The detail that Premee gives us is so engaging; her flair for creating new worlds is on full display. ‘Sleeping Beti’ also shows us that aunties are everywhere… even in outer space.
Anju was dying.
She knew she was dying because there was no possible way someone could feel this sick and live through it; she was sure she could feel death creeping through her bones as she heaved over the considerately-placed glass receptacle. Dimly she wondered who had put it under her head, and why it was glass — but her thoughts kept submerging in the pain and vertigo. At first, nothing came up; then, after an eternity, an endless rope of pink-tinged clear gel, as if she had eaten a whole bucket of the transparent fidget putty she kept in her office.
“Good, very good,” a voice said near her head. Anju seized on it like a rope thrown at a drowning woman. It was a warm voice, rounded, oddly familiar. “Good girl, Anju. Get it all out.”
She was good. She was being a good girl. She seized on that too.
The voice said, “It’s easier than having it extracted, believe me.”
Another more distant voice, said, “This is great. Better than we could have hoped, better than the model predicted. Her signs are all green across the board, look.”
The first voice said proudly, “She’s always been a strong girl.”
Anju sensed unconsciousness grappling for her, brushing its dark fingers warmly across her face. She fought it off and took a deep breath, rolling back onto the bed she had been dangling from. White ceiling above her. Square glass panels, bright white lights glittering against the glass-like stars. “What happened?” she croaked. “Am I in the hospital? Mom?”
A beat. Then a face leaning over her: not her mother but eerily similar, a resemblance more sister-like than twin-like, although Anju’s aunts on her mother’s side actually didn’t resemble one another in the least. This woman was a smudged copy. Same black hair, temples left artfully silver, worn in the same crown; same eyes, mouth. A bit bigger, more muscular. “No, beti,” she said gently, smiling. Same teeth, same shape. “You can call me Mrs. Sharma.”
But my mother is Mrs. Sharma, Anju almost said. “What’s going on?”
“… Let’s get you something to eat, hmm? It’s a long story.”
Her first questions were answered by the place Mrs. Sharma took her to eat: a glass table extruding smoothly from the wall as they approached, followed by two glass chairs and glass plates of food rising through the table’s hollow pedestal to sit neatly in divots on the surface. Anju stared at the food first. It looked like palak paneer and brown rice. She then stared out the window next to them, which looked convincingly like space seen from a movie spaceship. In real life, she knew, you rarely got views this pristine. The New International Space Hub, the CanaDorm, and the Pan-Asian Science Station, all had machinery, cables, screws, wires, bits of foam and plastic in the way. And none of them had windows like this.
Anju ate slowly and cautiously, because Mrs. Sharma told her to, and because she could barely speak anyway. The Earth floated below them, ochre swirls, yellow and amber, long streaks of sepia clouds, and below them somewhere the ocean, a dead-looking blue. They were in space. Genuinely in space. The fork, too, was made out of glass. She stared at it.
“Uh, isn’t this kind of … unsafe?”
Mrs. Sharma chuckled. She was eating the same thing as Anju as if to encourage her by example. She was wearing a baggy, oddly aerodynamic white jumpsuit like the one Anju had discovered she was wearing, and both now boasted tiny spots of deep green spinach. “It’s not glass. It’s transparent nanoceramic. Stronger than titanium. You’ll find we use a lot of it here. Hardly anyone uses real glass anymore. Artists, I suppose.”
“And here is … where exactly? Mrs. Sharma, I … what’s going on? Is this a … prank, a joke? Some kind of sim? Please tell me I haven’t been kidnapped for one of those billionaire reality shows.” She heard the whine in her voice and hated it but couldn’t help it. She’d never been so confused in her life and she didn’t want to be a bad sport, either. “The last thing I remember is going into Dr. Li’s office to get that mole removed on my chin…”
“Oh yes,” Mrs. Sharma said. “We did remove the mole. It wasn’t cancerous if you’re worried about that.”
“I was, but now I’m—”
“Let me explain. There’s a presentation later, also. A ‘sim,’ if you want to call it that.”
Anju gradually stopped chewing and simply stared as the explanation spooled out. Yes, she was correct to remember Dr. Li’s office, her mother fretting in the corner, Will there be blood? I will look away if there is blood! I don’t like to look! Mom prettied up in skinny jeans and sandals and a silk blouse because they were supposed to go to lunch later. The tiny, cold sting of the needle in her face. And then waking up here … 75 years later.
“Cryopreservation,” Anju said slowly. “But that’s not real. That’s … that’s sci-fi. I mean, movies…”
“Well, so was cloning, 75 years ago.”
“I … what? Are you a clone of my mother?”
“A modified clone descendant, not from original cells for several generations,” Mrs. Sharma said serenely, waving a hand to dismiss Anju’s horror. “Legally, modifications must be made. No unaltered clones. There are laws! And Precision Sharmaceuticals were the experts then, and the experts now. Which is why it was decided to take this very exciting step—”
“Are you referring to freezing me as—”
“We thought you would be delighted!” Mrs. Sharma seemed genuinely hurt, but Anju was quite used to this kind of unsubtle emotional manipulation from her mother, or even a lineage of her mother, and stared at her stonily as the older woman made a show of rallying to continue her explanation. Cryofreezing was already illegal on Earth, so both the cryo-tubes (“Wait, go back, why is there a plural there”) and the companies (“Again—”) (“Don’t interrupt, Anju, or we’ll be here all week”) had been moved into orbit, which was technically legal, and they did want to do everything by the books, after all.
And doing things by the books was precisely what Anju was doing here, to answer her question. An enormous tax loophole had been created when corporation mergers had been prohibited over a certain size, which the former CEO had realized they could dart through — “For everyone’s benefit, Anju!” — with a marriage and a specific clause in the prenuptial agreement, uniting not only two perfectly darling and very compatible young people, but two families, and two mega-corporations.
“But I didn’t agree to any of this! You’ve … My God, Jesus Christ, what the hell is going on here?! You … You abducted me, you froze me against my will, you—”
“I didn’t do any of that,” Mrs. Sharma said. “I didn’t even exist! Your parents made the decision. All the astrological figures have been calculated. A date’s been chosen. None of that was my doing. And,” she repeated meaningfully, “they thought you’d be happy.”
“My parents knew shit about me and my happiness! Or else they’d never have done this!”
“That isn’t true,” Mrs. Sharma said. “Come on, you need to watch the sim your parents left for you. And you’ll feel better.”
“One second,” Anju said. “I think I’m going to throw up again.”
It was a big room — like a miniature auditorium, a bowl shape sloping down to a platform in the center. Or, Anju thought morbidly, like one of those surgical theatres. They wanted to make sure that everyone could see the horror being enacted in the middle of the floor. Several more people, Mrs. Sharma had informed her, were expected; there would be a wait. Anju sat and shivered in her nanoceramic seat — relieved when Mrs. Sharma reached over and adjusted something on her white suit, sending a slow warmth creeping from her core down to her wrists and ankles, like the whole suit was one of those heated seats in a fancy car.
Cars. Did they still have cars on Earth? Or up here? Her car, a bargain-basement Honda Civic, hadn’t even had heated seats. That had been an add-on she couldn’t afford. Where was it now? Forget the car. Where was her life now? She had been partway through her master’s degree in sociology, (much to her parents’ highly vocal horror). Now she would never graduate. Her apartment! Had someone been watering her plants? No, they must all have died a few weeks later. Her mother had hated her place anyway. “Why can’t you live at home? We’re only a 40-minute drive away. Or at least in a nicer building!” Anju, upon reflection, didn’t think she had loved it; but she hadn’t hated it, either. It was somewhere to live and it was relatively quiet and it was hers. Away from her parents.
But her friends, the other grad students under her professor, the kids whose papers she graded at night … everyone would be dead now. Or almost a 100 years old. Her parents were dead. Everyone in her family was dead.
She waited for tears to come, but nothing happened, only a cold lurch of nausea deep in her core that the heated suit could not touch. People were filing in now, no one with recognizable faces like Mrs. Sharma, which she supposed was one small blessing. As he took his seat across the bowl, a dazed-looking young man nodded vaguely at her, and she nodded back: Hello, the gesture said. I see you’ve been cursed in the same way as me.
She wondered what had been taken from her husband-to-be, what kind of life they had destroyed. Better? Worse? How did you measure that kind of thing? She realized she was waiting for the shock to wear off before she could feel the full measure of grief and outrage and mourning and anger that she knew must be building up inside her. It couldn’t have all gone numb. She was not that kind of person. Her parents had never really seen that side of her, had they? She had been concentrating so hard on being a good girl.
The sim was short and very realistic; Anju even recognized, more or less, the speaker, who had been a chief something of her father’s company. He was a big shot now, sitting on the board of Precision Sharmaceuticals. He was joined by a brittle-looking, gorgeously haughty woman who turned out to be the former CEO of CellRegenixx, which Anju presumed to be the company they were marrying.
Together, spiritedly, they delivered their congratulations on the engagement, explained the legalities (no divorce, no annulment, for a period of 10 Earth years), displayed the spectacular bridal sari that had been preserved for 78 years in its very own anaerobic preservation tube, discussed the wedding ceremony, and the guest list (almost all of whom would be virtual, naturally). They were now thawing the pandit out as the stars, moon, and Mars were right.
“We’ll go over afterward and introduce you to Prab,” Mrs. Sharma murmured as the holographic man went on. “Later tonight. We’ll have to do your hair and makeup, of course.”
“I don’t want anyone to do my hair and makeup.”
“It’ll be easier, trust me. You won’t be familiar with any of the devices and they’re not very intuitive.”
“That’s not what I meant, I meant—”
“Don’t raise your voice, dear.”
Anju sat back and glared at the young man they’d chosen for her — Prab, was it? Must be short for something, as Anju was short for Gitanjali. Heir, like her, to a mega-corporation of impossible wealth and power and, like her, technically unable to inherit it. It wasn’t like a monarchy. This was the only way, the sim was telling her. She ignored him and studied the room. She’d already barked her shin about a dozen times on various half-invisible pieces of transparent furnishings or ship fixtures.
She thought about her apartment again and its opaque furniture and the exposed brick of the walls and the subtle, indefinable scent of the brick, the sound of her spider plants scraping gently against it in the breeze. And again she waited for grief and again it didn’t come.
The next morning, she tried to steal one of the ship’s escape pods.
It wasn’t something where she could have argued later that she thought was a good idea at the time; she had eaten breakfast with Mrs. Sharma’s supervision, and then asked about the “Uh, hygienic facilities?” Thankfully, the older woman hadn’t insisted on accompanying her to help her ‘figure it out,’ which Anju had been worried about, and on the way back Anju had darted into a side corridor.
At first, she really had just wanted to explore the ship by herself. She marveled at the combination of carpet and tile, all intricate and colorful, in sharp contrast to the pale metal walls and transparent nanoceramic everything else. And then she had looked up to see the surprisingly extensive signage indicating yes, the facilities, but also a gym, a spa, and directions to the engine room, control room … and “Emergency Exits.”
Of course, on a spaceship, she had reasoned, you couldn’t have an emergency exit; exiting was in and of itself an emergency. So, it must have been something else. She had followed the directions, therefore, initially out of curiosity, and then upon seeing the unguarded room full of beautifully-appointed, arrow-shaped pods, had instantly decided to take one.
For about 30 seconds, as the pod powered up and began its initiation sequence (“Please wait … determining power levels”) it looked as if this would be the easiest exit of her life. Much easier, frankly, than her attempts to sneak out of her parents’ fortress-like mansion as a teenager, what with all the hired help in the house and the security system, and the placement of her bedroom, and the wall around the—
Sirens, alarms, strobe lights, lasers, and attack drones. Mrs. Sharma hauled her away for a respectful but thorough talking-to. After that, there was no more unsupervised wandering; the only exception, she discovered, was spending time with her husband-to-be, Prab, because he had supervision of his own.
“Its name is Satya,” Prab said gloomily.
“I hate it,” Anju said.
“Me too.” He reached to brush some of the dangling leaves away from his face, but the drone was already doing it for him; a featureless grey sphere with a couple of pin-sized red lights on it and grey limbs that folded out from its equator as if it were taking things out of its Bat-utility-belt.
They were in the atrium, where they had been told the wedding would take place when the stars were right, in about two weeks. If Prab and Anju had thought the dense and tangled greenery would allow them a minute’s privacy, they were wrong; Satya the drone had no visible propellers (Anju had no idea how it was staying in the air) and simply nudged through the foliage like a determined bird. The air smelled of hidden flowers, damp earth, sap, dirt, mold, wet concrete. Ordinary smells of a greenhouse back home, or the botanical gardens on campus.
“Anju Sharma,” she said after a minute, leaning on a decorative stone bridge over a little trickling stream.
She didn’t shake his hand. Eventually, he came over and leaned on the bridge next to her, not too close.
For a long time, neither spoke. Then he said, “Those … aren’t fish, are they?”
“Oh. Huh.” She squinted. He was right; they were projections of koi and koi-shaped shadows; very good, but not real. Occasionally the water shimmered in just the right way and the fish seemed to glitch. “The future is bullshit,” she said bleakly.
“How did they get you?” she said, turning to look at him properly. He was about her height, with a lot of curly black hair held back in a ponytail and the beginnings of a beard. He also looked like he hadn’t slept for about a week, rather than, like her, having been asleep for a large part of a century.
He sighed. “My parents took me to a cookout at my cousin’s.”
“They put a pill in my frozen yogurt. I felt it in the back of my throat just a second too late to do anything about it. It was too easy. If I was a writer, I wouldn’t even have put that in a book. Who just swallows a small hard object they find in their dessert?”
“Well, same,” she said. “I went in to get a mole lasered off. And you know what? Now that I’m thinking about it, it was my mom’s idea. I’d had that mole my whole life. You can see it in the photos where I’m graduating from kindergarten, for Christ’s sake. And all of a sudden, she’s like ‘Darling it could be cancer, you’d better get it removed’,” Anju said, gritting her teeth with sudden anger as she realized it, “they knocked me out with the so-called ‘local anesthetic’ shot. I also genuinely think Mom wanted me to not have the mole in my wedding photos.”
“Oh man,” said Prab. He had a broad California accent, so that when they had first spoken on the way into the atrium Anju had thought he was putting it on. Now she found she rather liked it.
“I can’t believe they did this to us,” Anju said, pushing away from the bridge. She couldn’t stand the fake fish anymore. The stone path to her right led into a kind of fern tunnel, a dozen types of soft green fronds growing out of artfully placed stones or cement, so she walked through that. Prab followed. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to get out of this, how to, I don’t know, contact the authorities, something. It’s practically sex trafficking!”
“We don’t have to have sex,” he said meekly.
“Oh, shut up. That’s not the point. I mean, in an arranged marriage, at least in my family, you get veto power. You’re absolutely allowed to say ‘I don’t like that boy’ at any stage in the process. Then they find you a new one. Or they don’t. Listen, I’m not saying the system is perfect, but I have — had — friends who were perfectly happy with whoever their family picked, and some who insisted on normal dating, and everything in between. I’ve never seen it so you can’t say no.”
“Me neither. I mean … actually, I guess for the girl’s family,” he said as if he was thinking about it for the first time. “I think it’s just expected that the boy will say yes to whoever.”
They paused, in the fern tunnel, and thought about that for a while. Prab reached up and ran one of the fronds through his fingers, gently collecting a bead of water that he flicked to the floor.
“I did actually ask Mrs. Sharma if I could say no,” Anju said, nudging past him to reach the other end of the stone tunnel. This area was devoted to orchids, dozens of varieties and colors, impossibly perfect.
“Did you? Good for you. I can barely look her in the eye,” Prab said.
“She’s kind of overbearing,” Anju admitted. “Anyway. She said of course I didn’t have to agree to the marriage. But she also spent about 40 minutes explaining to me what it would mean for, you know, the company, the literally millions of employees back on Earth, how much better it would make their lives. And how long this has been in the works, and how hard they’ve worked to keep that family business loophole open. How much my parents wanted it, how hard they looked for a merger partner and a man my age who would be compatible, and how many times the birth charts were run. They were obsessed with that part. It couldn’t just be anyone. It had to be someone compatible at however many points of compatibility.”
“Don’t ask me,” said Prab. “I was born in America. My parents were the ones who knew all that stuff.”
“Yeah, same. And no brothers or sisters so I mostly had to go off what I heard at family weddings for cousins and whatnot.” And now all my cousins are dead, she almost said, but she was also thinking of the rest of that conversation with Mrs. Sharma: the letter from her mother, specified to be delivered ‘just in case’ Anju was being ‘difficult,’ still unread in her jumpsuit pocket. “Your life will be limitless now, Anju,” Mrs. Sharma had said sweetly, putting her big, warm hands on Anju’s shoulders. “It will be as big as the galaxy! You’ll have money, ships, travel, clothes, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Didn’t you always dream of a life like that?”
She hadn’t. She had barely been able to dream of a week where she got enough sleep and maybe got to see her friends for lunch once or twice. But it had been hers, her life, constructed by her out of materials she had chosen. Mrs. Sharma stared at her blankly as if she’d started speaking another language. “What does that have to do with anything?” she’d said.
“At least you got out,” Prab said, laughing weakly in the face of Anju’s silence. “You know, I had cousins that teased me about it. Look at Prab, he’s 26 and getting his Ph.D. and still living at home…”
“You were getting your Ph.D.?”
“Yeah, high-energy physics. Which is funny. If my parents had just waited a little longer to do this, they could have put me in one of those — you know. Like Best Groom Match Magazine. Saying ‘He’s a doctor!'”
“Wrong kind of doctor.”
“I guess so,” he smiled a little and then returned to his somber state. “I always did what they told me. I never thought they were telling me to do anything … really unreasonable. I never questioned them. What was there to question? I had the basement to myself in the big house, I had a nice car, they gave me money. I never had loans. We fought about my major but as long as I was going to be some kind of prestigious scientist, it was okay that I wasn’t going to be a real doctor. And then this. I wonder how long they were planning it.”
“Probably longer than you think,” Anju said. “Did you hear that they picked up that bridal sari three years before they ambushed us?”
“What are we going to do?” she said, louder than she had intended. Her voice cracked in the middle and she thought tears would finally come, but still there was nothing. Only the despair and frustration, as heavy as lead around her; inert, cold.
He blinked. “What do you mean?”
She stared at him. Then she turned and left.
Back in her room — beautiful, transparent, and incredibly dull, because no one had thought to take even a single personal item from her old life to carry into her new one — Anju opened her mother’s letter. Incredibly, after so many years, it still smelled of perfume. Mom liked perfume and had perhaps a hundred bottles in her vanity room, a place Anju had liked to go as a child and had been permitted as long as she didn’t touch anything. It was enough to just look at the ranked bottles topped with spheres or octahedrons, angels and demons, wings, feathers, faces.
She sniffed the paper and felt the tears build up. Even before opening the letter, she knew what it would say. It would not be a heartfelt missive about how much her parents had loved her and how they knew they were doing the right thing to give their daughter the best possible life. Nothing her mother did was heartfelt. It would be brisk and affectionate and above all, extremely confident that her daughter would do her duty as demanded. What else had Anju done all her life?
They had never fought. Fighting would have implied that Anju was maintaining a position. Instead, she had simply shrunk down, diminished, become quiet and obedient, gotten the grades she had to get, and escaped only after making it out of her undergraduate degree, expanding her boundaries the tiniest bit so that she could experience the wildness of real air and not something her parents had already pre-vetted and pre-filtered.
Now she wished that they had fought. At least it would have felt like a connection. She unfolded the letter and read it, trying to stretch it out, because it was so short. Everything her mother had felt necessary to say fit in ten lines. The clear expectation; the assurance that Anju would indeed do what she was told; the ‘caretaker’ that would make sure Anju would do it properly.
What were you going to do with your life anyway? MS.
No ‘Love, Mom.’ Just her initials.
Anju folded it up and sniffed it again and put it on the transparent shelf next to her bed. It was the only thing in the room with a scent.
“I don’t know,” Prab said. “I think you need to ask yourself what you want out of life, you know?”
“Are you trying to give me an existential crisis?”
“I hope I’m not,” he said. “Are you going to finish that?”
“No, go ahead.” Anju handed him the paper bag of doughnut holes; she had lost her appetite.
He said, “I mean, my parents had this talk with me all the time. You know. The reason they came to America. They asked themselves what they wanted, and they answered it, and then they went to get it. So I did the same thing. Money, security, safety, those were important to me.”
“Were they? Or were they just the things your parents told you were important?” She was looking down at the artificial fish again, even though they gave her a headache. Or maybe it was Satya’s electrical field, which made her hair stand up when it got too close. She waved the drone away. “Mine never told me but I knew. Yeah, money, security, safety. Prestige. Image. Status. They didn’t just want to make money quietly, they wanted everyone to know it. And they wanted their baby, their only child, to be this kind of … crown jewel. That’s why they did this, you know.”
“I know. But what can we do? This is what we were frozen for. Looked at a certain way, it’s possible this is what we were born for. And would it be so bad?” His voice took on a slightly pleading note — not for himself, Anju thought. Not for his ego, or their future marriage. But this life, in space, spectral and shimmering, constructed out of nanoceramic and gems and gold, was being dangled in front of them but neither of them could touch until the marriage took place.
“It’s not whether it would be bad or good,” Anju said. “It’s that they took my life away. And they gave me something I didn’t ask for and don’t want. Don’t you miss your life, Prab? Your work, your friends?”
“Of course I do! But we can’t get them back. We may as well make the best of now.”
“But we’ll be right back under their thumbs. More, if anything. We won’t have a life. We’ll be controlled and monitored the entire time. We can’t make the best of that!”
“Yes we can,” he said brightly. “I believe in us!”
“You’re an idiot,” she said. “I give up. I’ll see you at the wedding.”
As the day approached and the celestial bodies moved in their paths, Anju unexpectedly acquired several security-slash-drone ‘cousins,’ who began to follow her around in unnerving silence. This left Mrs. Sharma to complete the arrangements for what appeared to be a surprisingly traditional wedding, minus the celebrations that came before, since no one would be arriving till the final day. Anju was surprised to find herself upset by this. She was 24; marriage seemed like an infinite distance away. She never dated anybody seriously. She hadn’t ruled marriage out completely; no, but she had not been thinking about it at a conscious level.
Even so, there must have been a part of her mind that, like her mother’s, was grinding away somewhere, some hidden sub-routine thinking about what her wedding would be like. And if she had to say it out loud, she would have admitted that there should have been parties, dancing, music, all her far-flung cousins and uncles and aunties, a house full of flowers and real presents and joke presents and houseguests sleepily scratching their hair and yawning as they figured out the coffee machine.
Not this cold and sterile ship full of administrators and bureaucrats and cryo-tube scientists and security people. Definitely not putting her hands into what looked for all the world like a toaster oven and waiting while it carefully printed the henna lines onto her skin. That was when she finally burst into tears, but since she couldn’t move her hands while the chemical curing process was taking place inside the machine, she just had to cry and snot onto her jumpsuit. It wasn’t supposed to be a machine! It was supposed to be her cousin Vera, who had steady hands and did mehndi on the weekends for extra cash!
“Are you distressed?” said one of the security drones.
“Go eat a magnet,” Anju said.
When her hands were done and dry, she followed her entourage back down the hallway to a warm little room where Mrs. Sharma proudly dressed Anju in the red bridal sari, “All the best, darling. The sari is entirely hand-embroidered, which is literally, not metaphorically, unheard of these days.” Mrs. Sharma grabbed one of the specialized drones to do her makeup and hang the jewelry. Her mother’s, Anju noted. Gold and sapphires and diamonds like stars in the sky.
The atrium was filled with ranks and ranks of transparent chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the big central gazebo, hung with vines and garlanded with very convincing but again, Anju suspected, not real flowers. Prab and Anju walked down the stone path together, not touching or looking at one another, unaccompanied, painfully aware of it. Anju felt the makeup on her face only psychologically; in fact, it had gone on in a mist, and she knew there was only the thinnest possible layer of pigment.
To squeeze through the family loophole, legally, it must be the case that the predecessors are deceased and the successors are assigned positions out of necessity … Anju still had to admit she wanted her parents there, her quiet father, her glamorous mother, watching her walk up the steps to the tiny fire and the thrones and the cushions. She knew no one in the crowd of real and virtual people except the board. And Mrs. Sharma, sitting in the front, nodding encouragingly, dressed in a blue lehenga so encrusted with crystals that it must have weighed twice that of Anju’s sari. Many guests seemed recently thawed out, a little shaky, like the pandit.
She sat down and did as she was told. A comforting smell of incense filled the gazebo — synthesized, she could not help but notice and is emitted from a couple of small nozzles buried in the vines. A world of glass, a world of fakery. A world in which she would be pressed like candy into a mold, and come out like this, shaped and transparent.
How can I escape?
She was still wondering as she and Prab signed their names on the register, pressed their thumbs to the screen, allowed their retinas to be scanned. Prab was smiling uncertainly, but it had a glassy look to it, as if, Anju thought, he had asked for a sedative before the ceremony.
And somehow his odd, glazed pliability made it easier to do the next thing — another thing, she would tell people later, that didn’t at all seem like a good idea at the time, but seemed bright and obvious as a flame.
“So I’m officially CEO now?” Anju said, drawing her face back from the retinal scanner.
“Well, you and Prab are co-CEOs.” Mrs. Sharma was beaming. “You look so good, darling. So fresh and young! Now, we have a list of policy proposals that need your signatures, those were developed some months ago, so we need to—”
“And I can do… Whatever I want, right?”
“With the approval of the board, and with the approval of your co-CEO,” Mrs. Sharma said, her voice dropping into tones of suspicion. She was too late.
Anju’s heart pounded. Sweat soaked into the layers of fabric at her back. Could they put her in jail for this? Not very likely … “I’m abdicating as CEO. With my co-CEO’s permission, of course, and the board’s. I’m appointing Mrs. Sharma as the new CEO. Try to keep me and I’m not signing anything ever. That’s the deal. Any objections?”
All the air seemed to leak out of the room. At her side, Prab let out a frankly hysterical laugh. She knew how he felt. She couldn’t stop smiling. Everyone was staring at her, mouths open, whether they were hundreds or thousands of miles away or present. One woman, Anju couldn’t help but notice, had actually clutched her pearls.
She didn’t think Prab would follow her, but he did, and they left the room full of shouting people without much notice; the board hadn’t been difficult to convince, and the swapping of Mrs. Sharma’s name for Anju’s had been signed off by the company lawyers in two minutes. They had the forms all ready to go, after all. Anju felt slightly delirious and wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scream. “What are you going to do now?” she said over her shoulder.
“Oh my God. Oh my God! I have no idea. What did we just do? What did you just do? Why did I go along with it?”
“Because you always do what you’re told.” She stopped, pulled him into a doorway, and put her hands on his shoulders. She squeezed hard, digging her newly-painted nails into the thick fabric. “Prab! For Christ’s sake. Look at me!”
“But, but we … we can’t just… ”
“You can go back if you want! What are you following me for? They’ll take you back. You won’t be CEO, but you’ll have a job, you’ll have a cushion for the rest of your life. Money. Whatever you want. You know that! And if they don’t, I don’t know. Tell them you were coerced.”
“Anju, you turned down this … gift, I mean, not even turned it down, threw it back in their faces…”
“No I didn’t,” she corrected him. “I passed it on. I re-gifted it. And a gift you don’t want is a waste anyway.”
“I guess so.” He took a deep breath and started to laugh, the first real laughter she thought she’d heard from him. “That was amazing. Her face. What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to go find those escape pods again.”
“And then what?”
“And then I don’t know.”
“I’m your husband,” he said uncertainly. “I should go with you.”
“You can if you want,” she said. “Are you listening to me though? I said if you want. I’m okay being separated. What do you want out of life? I just answered it. You have to do the same.”
“What was your answer?” he said, stooping to pick up one of her earrings. “Here.”
“Thanks. Uncertainty. Poverty. Adventure,” she said. “I never had an adventure in my whole entire life. I never even met my friends at the mall after dark when I was a teenager. But now…”
“Anything goes. You can follow me if you want. Or you can go have your own adventures. No one’s going to tell you what to do anymore,” she said, looking up at the signage again. “Not even me. Here we go.”
The sirens blared; the strobes flashed. This time, no one responded, and the pods finished their initiation sequence, checked their power levels, ran through diagnostics … and shot free from the ship like dandelion seeds, bright specks against the darkness of the sky; unnoticed and unpursued.
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.