I walked down the stairs, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and searching blindly for the loud voice that woke me up on a Saturday morning. I could hear the one-sided conversation, it was time for the weekly call with Baba and Dadi. We would likely follow the call with a call to Nana and Nani. But for now, my curious young mind was piqued. Why was Papa so animated in this call? Interesting news from the tiny village his parents retired to after a lifetime of traveling the world on academic adventures as professors? It seemed doubtful, but Papa was as enthusiastic as when he got to choose the movie on family movie nights. Some were such classics we were ever grateful to be introduced to (i.e., Star Wars, Back to the Future, James Bond) and some were so dreary that even mini-scholar me could not tell the characters apart, much less the storylines (any old war film about elderly white generals). The rest of us went into movie night dubiously, scorned too often by the latter. I maintained the same skeptical attitude as I found my parents in the kitchen.
Papa was leaning against the counter, on the phone. Mama was standing nearby sipping coffee. I proceeded to hug my mom, then dad, a routine pick-me-up in my morning traditions, while mumbling sluggish good mornings to my parents’ cheery ones.
“What does it look like?” questioned Papa to the phone.
“Do you know why it’s there?” he followed up.
I looked questioningly at my mom.
“What is he talking about?”
“I don’t know, ask him.”
“Papa, what are you talking about?”
“Oh, I’m talking to Baba Dadi. They are doing some construction on their house and they found a secret room. Here, talk to them.”
Young me had to know more.
“In Hindi,” corrected my mother, as if everyone wasn’t perfectly fluent in English. In my halting and accented Hindi, I proceeded to greet them and in the most basic terms asked them how they were. Then I slipped hesitantly in Hindi peppered with English which turned into a stream of English. My curiosity was too complex for a foreign language. No reprimands from the parents as I sneakily glanced at them, likely not even realizing the subtle switch since transitioning between languages was so seamless to them it was probably unconscious after over two decades navigating two countries. I launched into questions about my grandparents’ recent revelation.
“How big is it? What does it look like? Where is it?” I was trying to picture wherein the little house could shelter a whole-ass secret room for who knows how long. At least a lifetime. What intrigue for a tiny gaanv, a village that lacked constant electricity and required books and outdoors for all entertainment. This was real-life intrigue, rather than the Bollywood kind that held me to the TV for much too long.
Apparently, it was small, but the floor had perfectly preserved wood. It looked like a dance floor. I couldn’t quite picture where the discovery was, it had been a while since I had visited. They assured me not to fret, they would show me when we visited this summer.
My brother had made his way downstairs and I passed the phone to him. I turned to my dad for the next few questions.
“But like, why is it there? And how could it have been hidden for so long?”
“I don’t know. They put a wall over it at some point and nobody knew until it came down during the renovations.”
A slow nod from me. I just could not accept this simple explanation. The avid consumer of young adult’ mysteries I was, I knew there had to be more. Move over Nancy Drew.
“Spooky, isn’t it? Summer mein dekhenge.”
“Yeah, I’m so excited. This is so cool.”
My brother finished his conversation, handing the phone back to our dad. He put it on speaker, giving my curiosity further room to interrogate.
“But Dadi, why is it there? It doesn’t make any sense for it to be built and then hidden, that’s useless.”
“I think the bandits probably used it to hide stuff. Did you know Baba’s family used to be bandits?”
“Like…gundas?” I questioned further.
Chuckles emanated from the mature adults at my filmy vocabulary to interpret this situation, but the circumstances demanded it.
“It’s nothing like that, you know my family used to work for the British Raj, Jagriti Ji.” You could hear the eye roll Baba embedded in that statement.
“Your family wasn’t so innocent according to what I heard from your mother and uncles. They cleaned up their act by the time you came around.”
Dadi continued, “Yes, beta! Even once before when doing constructions we found gold coins.”
My dad mirrored his father’s eye roll with a smirk, shaking his head at me to signal she must be kidding. Still, 11-year-old me was fully ready to investigate and get underneath this enigma. This was the real-life escapade for which every Harry Potter and Percy Jackson sequel I poured through was preparing me.
As we entered Bahri, the driver navigated the sedan through the narrow streets of the village, too small even for the small car. A scene straight out of the Shahrukh Khan movie Swades. My long term goal was to transition my very normal life into a Bollywood movie. This seemed in the vein of the grand entrances they require, so I was confident I was well on my way.
We parked just inside the gates of the property, in front of my Baba Dadi’s little house, next to a courtyard flower garden they maintained. Dadi liked making rose perfume and Baba was a professor of agricultural genetics so plants were a preoccupation. They must have heard the car coming, or the commotion it caused in town because they opened the door right as we pulled up. Or maybe they just had a sixth sense about their son’s arrival.
Lots of hugs.
“Kitne bade ho gaye ho! How tall you’ve gotten!” exclaimed Dadi to me and my brother. “Are those new specs?”
“Yes Dadi, I got them a few months ago.”
I tried to remain respectful of the family reunion, but like, was nobody as excited about finally seeing this so-called “hidden room?” Clearly not, because we went inside for chai with no mention of it.
I sat quietly sipping my Frooti while the adults drank their steaming chai in the steaming heat and snacking on Parle-G. Why drink burn-your-tongue-hot chai in the Indian summer? The highly scientific explanation I got was that heating up your body to the temperature outside made the weather more bearable. I think this was a cover-up for the real explanation that chai set the mood for the gupshup that gossipy desis couldn’t live without. The heat could not hold a candle to this.
“You still haven’t asked Baba and Dadi about that secret room you were so excited about,” prompted my mom. Finally.
“Yes! Where is it? Can we go see it?”
My palpable excitement led the way around the side of the house to…a huge letdown. This was not a room. It was barely a nook the size of a large flat rate box from the post office. The bottom was lined with the perfectly preserved hardwood floors, as advertised. I tried not to make my disappointment as obvious as my eager anticipation. After a few more seconds of looking, I turned to my dad. He was still peering in and pulled away to ask, “Papa, what’s that hole at the top? Where does it go?”
He had a better view than I did because this observation was not visible to my low stature.
“We can’t tell, apparently we would have to tear down the whole wall if we want to know.”
“I think it’s a pipe that leads to the roof so they could funnel gold down,” interjected Dadi.
“Kya?” my dad and I blurted in sync.
“Haan! Yes, I told you on the phone how Chacha is trying to write a family history. He found old letters that back up what I was telling you about Papa’s family being bandits! So maybe those gundas hid their treasures here.”
So apparently she was not kidding. I guess we were going to have to take these allegations seriously.
Mohan walked up to Kavya’s teeming garden on the same narrow, unpaved streets their great-great-grandchildren would struggle to drive their car down a little more than a century later. She was waiting for him on a bench amongst the pink roses, green chilies, and red tomatoes she planted in front of her parents’ freshly constructed home, courtesy of the governor.
“Mohan, why did you call me here?” Kavya asked in hushed tones in case her parents decided to visit her garden.
“I’m going on another mission,” responded Mohan, matching her volume.
“Oh my god. You’ve done so much already. I thought we agreed we were done.”
“I know, Kavya. But I was thinking, how can we stop knowing we haven’t won? These badmaash, shadycolonizers and their bewakoof chamchas can’t take our land and money without even a fight.”
“Shut up, you know you are talking about my father. He is not a lackey and he will call off the shaadi if he finds out. The wedding is in two weeks, do you want to get married, or not?”
“He won’t find out shit, Kavya. Are you in or not?”
“Oh, of course, I’m in. What kind of question is that?” Kavya declared, affronted Mohan would presume to question her dedication.
“Right,” responded Mohan with a smirk and eye roll, knowing that questioning her scruples would be the quickest way to move forward.
Mohan explained that the gora governor of Bahri and the surrounding villages kept a stash of gold inside the safe in his office, according to reports from his servants. It was purchased through the taxes he collected from the town. They were going to get it and return it to the people to whom it belonged.
“Okay, but how will we get in?” Kavya was careful, ready to poke holes in any plan.
“The guard has agreed to let us in at 1 a.m. tonight.”
“And then what’s your plan? Are we going to bumble around his bungalow opening doors until we find the office?” Kavya said, raising her arms in exasperation. She hated Mohan’s habit of giving information in morsels as if there wasn’t enough suspense already.
“Nahi, no, we have the floor plan,” said Mohan triumphantly, laying bare his trump card. Nothing more left for Kavya to question. He had the upper hand, finally.
“How? The servants do not have the kind of education to draw blueprints.”
Mohan had been bested again. Of course, she had another question.
“They are coming from the local leaders of the independence movement.”
“Who? Isn’t that too convenient? Mohan, what if it’s a trap?”
“It’s not, Kavya. You know they can’t tell us who they are. It’s too risky, they could lose their access to the Raj and be persecuted. It would put everyone in danger.”
“Theek hai, okay. What’s my role?”
“Wait for me on your roof. I’ll bring the gold and you will need to hide it in your house until we can redistribute it. The governor trusts your father too much to search his house after he realizes what’s missing.”
“Fine, I’ll see you tonight.”
Mohan tore through the unpaved streets of the village in his flopping chappals with the governor’s son in pursuit, but Mohan had home pitch advantage. The gora didn’t know the town like Mohan. He grew up in British boarding schools, Mohan grew up playing street cricket. He took a sharp left, then a quick right, slipping into Kavya’s courtyard from the small side entrance. Hers was the only house in the gaanv that was gated. Her father was the tax collector, and for that, he was compensated royally.
Devoid of breath, Mohan made his way up the staircase that led to Kavya’s roof and tonight, Kavya herself. This was not the first time he had to make an escape faster than sound, but how had he not heard the muffled and argumentative tones from the top of the house? When he did he was already in full view of not only Kavya, but also her papa.
“I knew it was you she was sneaking up here to see. Beech raat main aise chup chup ke milne ki kya zaroorat hai? What’s the need to meet secretly like this? You’re getting married in a few weeks, aren’t you? Does anyone stop you from meeting all day? Then? As if I don’t have enough on my mind tonight.”
Mohan and Kavya were calcified, jolted back into motion only at the sound of knocking on the front door. All three peered over the side of the roof to see the governor’s son waiting. Now it was Papa’s turn to be petrified. Mohan was confused. What had Papa done wrong that he looked so scared? Papa looked back at Mohan, noticing the large bag on his shoulder for the first time.
He motioned silently for Mohan to bear its contents, putting the pieces together in his mind before Mohan even opened it. Afraid to make the situation worse and convinced Papa would protect him, if only to protect his own family, Mohan opened the bag. Papa took a quick glance to confirm his suspicions and quickly moved to the other side of the roof to move a collection of potted plants to reveal a latch which opened to a coin-sized pipe. He wordlessly instructed the couple to stash the coins down the pipe. Mohan and Kavya stared at each other, eyes as wide as the moonlighting their escapade. Why the hell did Papa have this secret hiding place? As they hid the gold, Papa went downstairs to smoothly handle their uninvited midnight guest.
“What happened, John? My god, how could they? The rascals! Did you see their face?”
A sigh of relief at the negative answer.
“Son, he’ll be long gone by now. There is no point in searching so late at night. Go, get some sleep. We’ll see what to do in the morning.”
CLANK. CLANK. CLANK.
John whipped back towards the house.
“What was that noise?”
Papa’s nails were digging into his palms. As well thought out as his plan for hiding the gold was, there was one key oversight: Metal on metal falling down a pipe makes a very noticeable noise.
Kavya and Mohan paused their activities when they heard the voices.
“Oh, it’s just the servants doing the dishes. You know how clumsy they can be,” offered Papa.
“At 2 a.m.?” questioned John, suspicions rising, peering over Papa’s burly body into the house.
“Yes, the maid puts her kids to bed before doing the dishes so they are ready for school. I will go reprimand her, she’ll wake the whole house! Anyway go home, get some sleep.”
John backed away, still facing Papa and the house when he noticed motion on the roof.
“Someone’s on your roof, sir!”
Papa bit his lip, trying to calm his irritation at his daughter and future son-in-law’s thoughtless behavior. Who could he blame, she got it from him. His wife never approved of his own involvement in the leading the independence movement either. Her opinion: Why question a good income? For a brief moment, he shared that thought.
“Yes, Kavya and her mother are sleeping on the roof tonight, the bedrooms can get quite stuffy in the summer,” he smoothly countered.
Not an abnormal activity, so John seemed placated. He walked away hesitantly, and Papa did not break his plastered on a smile until John was long out of sight.
Janmashtami festivities were swinging fully, hosted in Kavya’s courtyard by her family. Only they had the space to accommodate the celebrations and related activities. The whole town was crowded into the yard, barely leaving space to move, much less breathe. The governor and his family were situated in a place of honor on the porch, the only guests with seats. Any attempt to rise and serve themselves was squashed by doting villagers with their own hidden agenda. They needed to keep the governor from the real activity.
On the other side was a nook in the outer wall of the house with a pristine wood floor to hold a large murti of the god of the day, Krishna. While each guest went to pay their respects, they reached into the nook, out of sight of the governor, and pushed an inconspicuous lever, unnoticeable unless previously informed, and out of a pipe fell into their folded hands a single gold coin. Slipped surreptitiously into pockets and purses, the worshippers went on with the day’s festivities with the blessings of both Krishna and Laxmi supporting the entire gaanv’s quiet rebellion.
“Dadi, do you know what the gundas did? Where did they go? What did they steal?”
“I don’t know exactly, beta. The letters were very vague, they probably didn’t want their activities in writing.”
“Well, this is definitely not a room, Papa,” said my dad noting the obvious.
“Ok, I know. I wasn’t sure how else to describe it.”
“You know, Mummy, you could put a small pooja ghar here. A little temple with all the deities. And put in a door so they don’t get ruined out here. It looks like there are already hinges, maybe that’s what this actually was,” suggested Mama.
“That may be true! That’s a really good idea, hai na? We’ll do that.”
In her new book “Dear Durga,” author and life coach Shanita “Shani” Liu takes a different approach to self-help. Liu guides readers by providing a courageous framework. She writes to the Hindu goddess Durga Ma, who is a symbol of courage to Liu. Durga Ma represents power and protection in Hinduism.
Liu ties together the personal. She shares her experiences in witnessing fear-based patterns from her own Guyanese family and culture and noticing them in herself as a mother while proving coping strategies as a life coach. In this candid conversation, Liu explores the journeys of motherhood, writing, overcoming fear and leading future generations by example.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
It came from a diary entry I wrote in 2018 or 2019. I wrote that I was going to write a book called “Dear Durga.” I created a folder on my computer and it said “Dear Durga Book” and it was almost like I was setting the intention. I didn’t know what it was going to be about, but I did know that Durga and writing to her was an important part of my journey. And so I just had this intuitive feeling that I was going to be able to share this story one day.
In 2021, we were going through the pandemic, I just had my third child, and Durga was very much like, ‘okay, now you’re going to go write your book.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what? I’m sorry. I’m, like, trying to navigate motherhood again and my business and everything else that was going on.’ And she was like, ‘no, you’re going to participate in this writer’s workshop. You’re going to learn how to write a book proposal. You’re going to enter it into this contest. You’re going to win the contest, and you’re going to write a book.’ And I thought she was nuts. And all of my fears started coming up – who am I to do this, I can’t do this, I’m not enough, what am I writing about?
I had to muster up the courage to write this book. And so Durga was a catalyst for me to call on my courage and say, ‘it’s time.’ This moment made me realize what I’ve been doing professionally for the last seven years is walking folks through my framework to help them activate their courage. So even though I was terrified, I realized this book can take the personal and the professional pieces of this puzzle and really put it all in one place.
When you say that Durga was your driving force for action, do you mean spiritually and religiously, or something else?
For everything, yes—emotionally, spiritually. In 2015, when I was falling apart and embarking on these major life changes in my life, she came through. It was the catalyst for me to say, “I have to start breaking myself out of these fear-based mindsets and really start entering these new phases of my life with courage and disrupting old patterns.”
Describe the writing process for this book. How did you find that courage to move past your fears?
Definitely writing to Durga. Knowing that the book was going to be about this journey of me connecting with my courage, I had to accept the challenge. I’m a writer by training. I’ve been writing my whole life. I was an English major, so I knew I could write, but I had to sit down and excavate six years of my life. I had to go into my journals from 2015 up until when I started writing the book at the end of 2021.
It was wild to re-experience myself going through these various obstacles, these discouragements, these discomforts and then find the strength through this courageous energy I had within me, to take these small steps and overcome each obstacle. The excavation of my own life was an interesting part of the process for me to get clear on the themes based on what I remembered.
The writing process was very spiritually and emotionally transformative because I’ve been doing all this work with my own courage that I sort of had to channel it with my own creativity to write and to marry what I had been doing professionally and what I had been going through personally. So, once I formed the book proposal, the blueprint for what I was writing, and submitted it to the Hay House contest, I then learned I won the runner up prize, I was able to write the manuscript pretty quickly. At that point, I was like, ‘okay, I know what I’m writing about now. I know I have the courage to do it.’ Durga was right, after all.
Walk us through the four steps for somebody who is just hearing about this and is interested in your way of approaching courage.
I have a Courage Kit framework, and I’ve had to walk my talk through it, but I’ve used it with hundreds of clients. It’s a four-phase process to support you with activating your courage and keeping it alive. The first phase is activating your courage and calling it in, identifying your courage metaphor, how to access that energy and how to commune with it and build a relationship with it. The second phase is about aligning with your needs because, as mothers and women, we don’t ask ourselves what we need due to this societal expectation and cultural conditioning. That’s an important part of emerging victorious. Victory is important because it means to attain fulfillment. Being victorious means having the courage to honor yourself so that you can be victorious, whatever that is like for you. The third phase is alleviating stressors so you can feel your best. Then the fourth phase is taking action so you can start making baby steps towards your goals.
How was this journey impacted by being Indo Caribbean? What role did your culture play in this?
The role that my culture plays is huge. In the book, I talk about the legacies of sacrifice that I come from because of indentureship. I’m three generations removed from that history of colonizers exploiting indentured laborers. When you come from these legacies of sacrifice, fear-based mindsets and behaviors accompany it. When I was acting from a place of martyrdom and sacrificing my own needs, I realized I learned that from the women who came before me, who learned it from the women before them.
When you zoom out you realize this has happened across cultures. Why are women in our culture asked not to use our voices? Why are people telling us to shut up, play small and don’t cause trouble? Our voices have been collectively suppressed, and over the last few decades, we’ve been liberating ourselves. We’re going to honor all parts of ourselves and express ourselves as we need to, and we need courage to do that.
Why dedicate the book to your younger self?
I had to dedicate this book to my Little Shanny because her voice was suppressed, and due to cultural and societal expectations, she wasn’t allowed to be her fullest self. She’s very lively and creative. In the book, she is writing and we make rap songs and other things to call on our creativity. This book is an honoring. As I was honoring all parts of myself and healing my own emotional wounds, I was liberating her at the same time.
How would you describe your relationship with Durga Ma? How can others who are not Hindu achieve that sort of relationship with their metaphoric courage figure?
Regarding Durga and myself, I don’t say, ‘I got this courage metaphor, now help me.’ You have to build a relationship with it. In the last eight years, I’ve been able to build a solid relationship with her where my courage is almost automatic. If I feel or think about fear, my automatic courage alert starts going off. The stronger connection I build to her, the stronger our relationship becomes, and the more self aware I become about making courageous choices.
But, in the introduction of the book, I clarify that folks can use the Durga archetype or work with Durga whether they are Hindu or not. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from because she embodies victory over evil, maternal protection and an unapologetic courage that we need for fulfillment. So I encourage folks to connect with her because people who are meant to resonate with it will resonate with it and if Durga doesn’t resonate with you, you understand you have this courageous wisdom inside you. If telling my story about the way it looks for Durga and I, inspires somebody to ponder a relationship like that, that’s great! In the end, I just want folks to walk away feeling comforted and equipped with tools to be their most courageous selves.
How do you take this idea, this archetype, and apply it to yourself or anybody?
We’re human beings and I think sometimes we just need something visual or tangible to hold on to. Sometimes I need an idea or person to help ground what’s coming up for me, so the metaphor is really helpful because I can visualize and interact with it.
The metaphor offers information because when you’re scared and fear is clouding your judgment, it’s easy to default to doubt. Your courage metaphor offers information, encouragement or directions – targeted guidance. As long as you connect, communicate with and build a relationship with it, it will help you. That’s why I use “Dear Durga,” channeled writing, as a common thread throughout the book, it’s one modality that works. If this modality doesn’t work for you, then try interacting with it differently. But at the end of the day, regardless what modality you find, you can leverage that metaphor’s information to inform your next step.
How did motherhood and becoming a mother play a role in writing this book and also your career as a life coach?
I started life coaching when I became a mother. I was pregnant while I was in my Life Coaching Certification Program, and Durga Ma showed up just a few months before I found out I was pregnant. I think she knew I was going into the next phase of my life, and I couldn’t continue on my own anymore. So motherhood was a huge act of courage for me. I left a toxic job so I could embark on motherhood and begin making professional choices that would support me once I became a mom.
The beautiful thing about motherhood is that you become a different person – you change. Your ability to care, give, create and grow changes. Motherhood informed the work that I did with other women in their mind, body, spirit wellness and it forced me to focus on my own wellness. Also, Durga Ma just happens to be this maternal archetype, so maternal protection and nurturing felt important to my process as I was healing wounds. This is a powerful energy that can support other moms because we need support. We’re caring for little human beings and, as it is, most moms are under-resourced. Courage is a resource that doesn’t cost any money, that can help with life’s challenges.
Did you have to endure little battles with people around you to gain support for the kind of work that you do?
I don’t think anyone around me discouraged me. The battle was within myself and having the courage to say, ‘I’m this life coach who’s going to focus on courage.’ I had to get over my own impostor syndrome, self doubt and fears that were weighing me down about coaching with this mindset among many other coaches. When I started, I was focusing so much on self care, but then I realized it’s so hard for women to self care because we have a fear of doing it. Everything goes back to fear. That’s why I realized the root of all of this is coming back to our courage.
As an Indo Caribbean mother, there can be a lot of expectations. Did the courage framework also help with that?
Absolutely. Most moms are givers, especially those of Indo Caribbean heritage. We saw our moms constantly sacrificing everything so we can have high-quality lives. But this trajectory of motherhood and bringing my courage in through my own framework forced me to ask for help, set boundaries and put my needs first. Obviously we put our children first, we’re always protecting them. But I began to honor myself. To realize I can honor myself and my needs while managing motherhood felt really important. But that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to do that because we’re breaking out of old patterns from our family’s example. This is why, in ‘Dear Durga’ I tell a lot of stories about my grandmother, because she was a major influence in what I thought motherhood should look like.
Can this in turn create a healthier experience for the child?
Absolutely. You’re a demonstration to your children. Your children do not do what you say, they do what you do. I have daughters and a son, and I don’t want my daughters growing up thinking that when they get married or have kids and start a family, they have to clean the house all the time and never experience joy. I want them to see that Mommy can experience joy and fun and she can work, and she can do these things. It may not look perfect, but they can see that I can do all of these things without it costing my mental health and sanity.
Do you have a favorite story that you use in this book for reference?
It’s not my favorite, but the story about my grandmother’s death and the shock that my family and I felt stands out the most. She was the matriarch and anchor to our maternal line. So, when she passed away, it created chaos. As a little girl, it wasn’t until she passed away that I questioned: ‘Who was she? What was her life like?’ It allowed me to see what my grandmother was like outside of being a grandmother. When the funeral happened, I heard stories about how she sacrificed, whether it was for her education or her family. It gave me perspective on everything that went into my family coming to the U.S. But it also made me think, now that I have the privilege and the opportunity to change things, am I going to take advantage of that?
Liu champions personal growth and overcoming fear, emboldening us to find our courage, be vocal about our needs and refute the age-old myth that Indo Caribbean women must struggle to be successful. “Dear Durga A Mom’s Guide to Activate Courage and Emerge Victorious” is now available for purchase.
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.
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.