America has Queen Bee, Beyoncé, and India has Queen D, Deepika Padukone. There’s no doubt in my mind that Deepika is the definition of perfection for so many women (myself included), and not just South Asian women at that. She’s beautiful, she’s charismatic, and she’s someone we can all still relate to as being a normal woman with normal problems.
Having said that, when I saw Deepika’s face on the Femina India cover earlier this month – and I was a little disappointed, to say the least. Deepika possesses such a natural God-given beauty that, in all honesty, no camera or magazine cover can capture. While Queen D’s expression was the perfect mix of sultry and confident, her over-edited nose was a different story. At first, I did a double take and thought, maybe I just didn’t see it properly, but her nose was indeed altered.
Of course, Deepika is a natural beauty and she has the personality to match, but her face presented as a photographer’s art project just doesn’t sit well with me. In fact, it worries me as to what young girls who saw this cover will think about themselves. This, unfortunately, is the norm in “the industry” regardless of whether it’s Bollywood or Hollywood. But when females, young girls and women included, see someone they consider “perfect” look a certain way, it leaves an impression on the perspective of their own beauty.
According to Heart of Leadership (statistics from the National Report on Self Esteem), 98 percent of girls feel an immense pressure from external sources to look a certain way. In America, alone, by the age of 13, 53 percent of girls are “unhappy with their bodies” and that number grows to 78 percent by the age of 17, as found by the National Institute on Media and the Family. Now just take a second to think about that.
There have been so many times when I looked at a magazine cover or social media, even accounts of girls I knew, and just wished that my nose wasn’t so big or that my acne wasn’t so bad. I wanted to see the reflection of who I see on those magazine covers and in those movies – because that portrait is what has been accepted as normal.
It’s time that media outlets like Femina India contemplate what they are putting on their magazines. With them reaching such a large and impressionable female population, and how it affects females’ perceptions of themselves, it is even more critical that they evaluate their efforts. Especially because South Asian society, unfortunately, isn’t forgiving when it comes to physical appearance. The ‘Fair & Lovely,’ the “don’t wear this color of lipstick,” or “cover that up” trends still haven’t left us.
Finally, a personal message to Femina India: Deepika’s nose didn’t need to be restructured in the first place; please restructure your thinking instead.
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, being the only brown face in a room has never fazed me. I was always the little brown girl in the corner with waist-length hair and a name that made every teacher pause, but the feeling of “otherness” captured in this line was something I knew all too well.
This feeling isn’t unique. It’s the same experience of many immigrants and first-generation South Asian Americans, and that of the main character of “The East Indian”as well.
While a work of fiction set in the 1630s, the novel paints a very real picture of immigration and race in the United States today and the human need to belong.
It is the story of Tony East Indian, inspired by a real person documented in the country’s archives as the first known East Indian in the American colonies, but who is otherwise a work of the author’s imagination and research.
The son of a courtesan from the Coromandel coast of India, Tony unwittingly finds himself as an indentured servant in the plantations of Jamestown, Virginia at just 11 years old.
He accepts “Tony” as his first name — though he doesn’t care for it — because a fellow Tamil once suggested others in the world would find his real name “too hard to utter.” Then he adopts the surname “East Indian” simply because it is thrust upon him when he arrived in Jamestown. The protagonist can no longer even recall his birth name, but soon, he accepts it as a thing of his past.
Over the course of the novel, Tony lands at the center of scandal as he works to establish a new identity as a physician. All the while, he also struggles with isolation, prejudice and the challenges of trying to maintain pieces of the culture he carried with him from abroad.
He is confused as to why Native Americans are also called “Indians” and many colonists simply label him a “moor,” a term used for North Africans or anyone with darker skin, with no context for India or its people in this new world.
He, feeling disloyal to his “many Gods,” converts from Hinduism to Christianity, believing it will give him more credibility and a sense of connection to his peers. He begins to eat meat and spend time at taverns, all in hopes of belonging, and assimilating with colonist ways.
As he comes of age and furthers his physician’s apprenticeship, Tony also begins to ponder questions of race and social class to no avail. He reflects:
“I would talk to Doctor Herman and try to understand the reason behind white skin and black and brown and, more important, what greater distinctions of wit, sensibility, and soul the differences in hue signified. I read and was taught by my master the new ideas put forth by men of learning in England and Europe on the workings of the bowels, the brain, the blood; the causes of migraines, melancholy, and madness, but I never got closer to understanding the real meaning behind what they called different races of men, and if such difference exists in any profound sense that really matters.”
Overall, in “The East Indian,” Tony becomes a man. He learns of the world’s cruelty and its kindness. He learns to work, play, love, hate, scheme, grieve and care for himself and others. But, like most immigrants, he still longs for home.
“For home is singular and unique. Everywhere else is but a stopping place, a bed in a stranger’s house, eating off plates not one’s own, an unfamiliar view from a casement,” Tony said.
When attempts to head West and find an ocean back to India fail, Tony accepts that returning to his motherland is unlikely and resolves that he must learn to adapt.
He worries his love interest, born in the colonies, will not relate to him, for “her heart did not ache for another place beyond the sea” and also wonders what the future of his children will be. Nevertheless, he is never defeated.
“I would thrive wherever the wind laid me,” says Tony. “[I] will be my own shelter, my landing place. Like a snail, I will carry home on my back, find it where I happen to be, make it from what I bear inside me.”
Leaving or even kidnapped from their homes with little to no hope of return, thousands of Indians faced journeys fraught with violence, condemnation and injustice trying to create new lives and identities away from their homeland in places like Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, and Jamaica. However, like Tony, they also found the strength and courage to survive and establish their own cultures and communities.
While no details are known about the real Tony East Indian, Charry weaves a compelling coming-of-age tale that takes him as well as readers across three continents.
The novel, like life itself, has fast and slow moments, but it is filled with vivid, historically accurate depictions of the colonial world and moving moments that keep you rooting for the main character’s triumph.
It is this authenticity and compassion that makes “The East Indian” an invaluable modern work. There are no known first-hand accounts of the indentured or South Asian colonists in America. The only proof of the mere existence of many are the generations that have come after them.
With several years of research put into it, Charry’s “The East Indian” serves as a rare realistic portrayal of what life may have been for these individuals; the hardships they endured, and the strength they embodied. South Asian or not, it is a rich history not only worth reading but sharing and celebrating.
To learn more about Brinda Charry and her professional work visit her website. The East Indian is now available in print and audiobooks from all major book retailers.
Featured Image: Author Brinda Charry was born and raised in India before moving to the United States for graduate school two decades ago. She considers herself “a novelist-turned-academic-returned-novelist | Photo Credit: Lisa Arnold Photography
In the context of history, the written word enables us to see life as one did, understand the experiences of others, and contextualize our past within our present selves.
Published in 2021, the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA)’s well-researched debut anthology, “Our Stories,” was written by 64 scholars, activists, authors, and members of the South Asian community. The anthology is a compassionate and anecdotal revival of our history, identity, and political standing in a nation with histories of welcomed immigration juxtaposed against deep beliefs of racism. Each story presents the promised freedoms of the new nation paired with its challenges and differences.
“Our Stories” explores the current South Asian American cultural climate, detailing accounts that had lasting impacts. These include the September 11 attacks, Black Lives Matter protests, and voting patterns from recent elections. A majority of the anthology focuses on understanding our past. The first account of South Asians on North American soil dates to the late 1700s, when many Pakistani and Bangladeshi men entered the land as laborers aboard steamships. Although the presence of South Asian Americans was far and few until the 1900s, their strife is important to learn about, share, and remember.
Before the civil rights movement, South Asian American history was fraught with the fight for citizenship and a battle with unbridled racism. Take the Bellingham riots, where South Asian mill workers were attacked and made to feel unwelcome in their place of work, elements of which are still present in today’s America. Take Kala Bagai’s story, and her reality when her husband took his own life in 1928, seven years after receiving his naturalization. After his citizenship was revoked, he was also refused a visa to return to India, and ended his life in despair at the paradox of his reality. Raising three children whom she put through college herself, Kala Bagai’s harrowing story is one to remember, especially during a time when women were celebrating the chance to vote. Her voice was not heard. The early ’90s saw xenophobia, culminating in similar stories and despite some improvements since the 20th century, citizenship status is still a source of financial stress, with its purgatory limbos and unpredictable results.
South Asian Americans can immigrate to the country today due to a combination of the 1990 Immigration and Nationality Act and the Hart-Celler Act (1965), two key policies passed that welcomed the wave of highly-skilled labor, especially in demanding areas of information technology, engineering, and science. Beneficial immigration laws have been driven by the hard work of South Asians and other minority groups in North America.
Apart from the tumultuous stories surrounding the hardships of immigration, “Our Stories” introduces some nuanced positives of the South Asian American experience. From observing the allure that Niagara Falls has on South Asian immigrants, to the famous South Asian American literary writers including Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, and Jhumpa Lahiri, we can draw patterns between American culture combined with South Asian influence. Even the gradual growth of yoga as a practice in the West is explored — from the time of Swami Vivekananda, who is critical for bringing Vedanta to the West, to Rishi Singh Grewal, one of America’s first Indian-born yoga teachers. Originally taken as a mystical and magical practice, yoga has become more postural and meditative as it continues to spread across the United States.
We also have detailed accounts of impressive South Asian American women in history who helped break boundaries and create possibilities for not only South Asians, but for all women of the time. Dr. Anandibai Joshee, the first-ever South Asian American woman to receive a medical degree in the late 1800s, provided medical services for women in India who would rather die than accept medical assistance from male physicians. Pandita Rambai was another critical social reformer from the 1800s, whose hardships during childhood, drove her to provide a better life for women in India and around the globe.
Covering real-life narratives from the 1700s to the present day, ‘Our Stories’ is a must-read for every South Asian immigrant and descendant living in America. Understanding our history is critical while living in a country where racial identity is often both appropriated and appreciated. As South Asians continue to inhabit new geographies, we are entwining the history of the past with the happenings of the present, and the impact of that ancestral and spatial legacy will shape our future for generations to come.
You can purchase a copy of “Our Stories” through this link. Support SAADA by donating to the organization here.
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.