I’ve always conceptualized resilience as ‘the ability to withstand adversity and thriving in spite of it.’ However, an interesting and unique definition of resilience I’ve come across recently is: ‘Resilience is thinking about how you can create systems in your life that help you come back from hard things.’ I learnt this from Komal Minhas, resilience educator. It got me thinking about resilience in a new, different and more holistic way.
What is ‘Resilience Education?’
Resilience finds its foundational roots in positive psychology and the works of Martin Seligman and Viktor Frankl. Taking these concepts from abstract psychology papers and humanizing them, making them relatable and actionable — that’s resilience education. It’s helping people answer the question: How can I set up my life and create supports and systems that will help me thrive in difficulty? That’s the work Minhas does, with who I had the pleasure of chatting with for this article.
Minhas grew up in Alberta, Canada, and currently lives in Ottawa, Canada. But her journey from Alberta to Ottawa took her through New York City, working at a start-up, making a documentary (Dream, Girl) which premiered at the Obama White House, and three years of serious chronic illness. Through her own recovery journey, she learned about the power of resilience. Now, she shares this knowledge with people from all over the world through her training program, The Next Right Step (you can sign up for the waitlist right now!), and a podcast, ‘Lessons Learned.’
Within the ‘roots of resilience’ framework, which Minhas works within, resilience can be broken down into five pillars. These are the systems that need to be stable in order for someone to have high resilience:
Wellness: This includes your physical body and space, as well as your emotional environment. For instance, a toxic workplace would mean that your emotional environment is being impacted negatively, which would, in turn reduce your resilience. When thinking about creating systems, think about your immediate physical environment, your physical health, and your emotional health.
Community: This is the people you intentionally surround yourself with. Your community can be a strength to boost your resilience because they will cheer you on and support you in difficult times. One of the most beautiful things I’ve heard about ‘community’ was when Minhas said to me, “our community can be a reflection of who we are at our best.”
Self-efficacy: This is the belief in your ability to overcome difficulty. You can build this up by reflecting on all the hardships you’ve overcome in the past to remind yourself of your strength. Or you can build it up from vicarious experiences by taking inspiration from others who have overcome adversity.
Work: Here, work is defined as any paid or unpaid labour that you do to create, serve, or support others. When we feel fulfilled in our work and approach it with empathy and abundance, we show up as more resilient in life.
Connection to identity
Cultural: When we are strongly connected to our history, heritage, culture, or faith, we have a deeper connectedness. This sense of kinship increases the ability to withstand stress.
Superordinate goals: These are the goals that are the overarching mission of your life, your life’s personal mission statement. This increases resiliency by giving us direction and a purpose. This helps in interpreting difficult events to make meaning of them, also known as ‘Tragic Optimism.’
When you feel like everything sucks, and you’re completely depleted of energy, how do you get started at cultivating resilience?
Consider your wellness, prioritize re-filling that bucket first. Once you have boosted your physical body’s energy through movement, nutrition, and rest, then you will have the energy to start reflecting on the other aspects of your life.
Pick one thing to improve at a time, and focus on improving it for one month. At the end of the month, assess your progress. For example, if you know your physical health needs attention, and you need to go for an annual wellness check, make that a goal for one month. Break down the steps required (i.e., find a doctor who takes insurance, choose a doctor, make an appointment, etc.), and focus on only those.
Community is vital for building resilience. Review your relationships and notice the ones that increase your energy and the ones that don’t.
Write a list of things you’ve overcome or survived to remind yourself of everything you’ve overcome before helps to put your inner strength into perspective in the face of new adversity or crisis.
“The stronger we root into our lineage, the more resilient we are.” — Komal Minhas
Improving or strengthening resilience has a significant impact on your mental health; it is a skill that enables you to adapt to stress better. Research shows that high resilience in the face of adversity, trauma, uncertainty, or high levels of stress has better outcomes for an individual’s mental wellbeing and improves overall life satisfaction. Even though some people are born with a higher predisposition to being resilient, resilience is predominantly learned behavior. It can be cultivated and encouraged, not just at a young age but at any age.
If you’re curious about resiliency training or want to learn more about Komal Minhas’s work, head on over to @komalminhas on Instagram or www.komal.com.
July 7, 2023September 10, 2023 11min readBy Ushma Shah
BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with author Ushma Shah in this utterly creative and novel, pun not intended, story about a young woman who has just moved to the United States with her husband, and her trusted diary. Ushma is a short story writer and an aspiring novelist. She has her short stories published in a few anthologies and online literary magazines like Kitaab and The Chakkar. She was born in Mumbai and raised in Mumbai and Cochin. She has an MBA and works in the corporate world. Work and life have given her the opportunity to live in multiple cities in India. She currently resides in Seattle and goes by the handle @penthythoughts on Instagram.
She is the kind of person who doesn’t like to go into stores without a purpose. But she sometimes does. And that’s how she becomes a hoarder. She also prefers only tried and tested places. The kind where she doesn’t have to go out empty-handed. The urge to not disappoint people is strong. So she ends up buying useless things. Like a snow globe with a turnkey. Or 12. She loves the tiny magical people and animals in it. Rotating. Glowing. Musical. But I am deviating from the point. Who am I, you ask? I am her. A piece of her. She takes me everywhere. Writes down her thoughts in me. Writes how her day was. That’s why I know her so well. Why am I telling you all this? Because she hasn’t written for a week now. Longest she has gone in half a decade. I don’t understand it. She won’t tell me anything anymore and I am just so curious. No, curious is the wrong word. The intensity is just not right. I am impatient. Restless. Maybe even hurt, too? I see what she does. How she looks. But that’s just not enough. Not for me. Her confidante for five years and suddenly it’s all poof.
Human addiction is a true addiction. I was superior for those glorious thoughts that nobody knew about her. She doesn’t look happy. She opens and shuts me, picks me up and then back down. In her new Michael Kors bag she bought recently at a premium outlet mall. She always wanted to see a new country. 32-years-old and she had never visited any country other than the one she was born in — India. She should be happy she is finally here. She couldn’t stop chirping about it when they got their visas approved. She and her husband. She has been here for three months now. Initially, she was happy. But then the euphoria died down and anxiety kicked in. The last thing she wrote was: “I haven’t had a bath for a week now.” Her husband is too busy with work to notice. The new project takes up most of his time. Plus navigating life in a new country is a project in itself. I hear him not understanding why an appointment is required for a self-guided tour of the apartments. And that they have appointments only till 5 p.m. which means they have to go house hunting during his office hours. Downtown Bellevue mostly has apartments for rent that are managed by corporations rather than individuals. But at least he is okay with the cold, having survived Delhi weather all throughout his life. It also doesn’t help that she is not used to the cold, having lived in Mumbai all her life. It only needed to turn 22 degrees Celsius in Mumbai when she used to set off; removing her sweaters and jackets from the untouched-for-a-year cupboard. So house hunting is a major bummer, painstaking process even for her. In a place where it always drizzles but doesn’t bring the smell of wet mud. Everything around her is concrete. Asphalt. Sterile.
One day on their way back, they visited the Meydenbauer Beach Park along Lake Washington. I saw a hint of a smile. The first one in a week. The pine trees are a solace. They stand strong, holding their ground at maybe a 100 feet. She cranes her neck back and tries to catch a look at the tip. Making her feel dizzy. She feels like she is falling back. Tilting her five feet frame. She removes her feet from the shoes. She looks at the rounded stones. Big stones. The size of an ottoman big enough to comfortably sit on but hard enough to not sit for long.
But by the end of the visit, she looked worse. That night she wrote and I was thankful for the visit. The first sentence read: I feel claustrophobic. She has lived in Mumbai all her life and never knew that subconsciously the sea made such a big impact on her psyche. The sea, unending in its view. Its waves crashing and rebelling against the rocks gave her a sense of space even though she lived in a one-room kitchen apartment. The warmth. She missed the warmth, although sometimes too stifling. The sweat, and the saltwater smell. There was much to be thankful for here in Bellevue, even though there were no crashing waves and it was 45 degrees Fahrenheit today. The sand, too cold. But there was peace, there was calm. But what about the sounds that she craved, the feeling that stimulated her senses? That accompanied her every morning: the ‘tring tring’ of the cycles, the ‘tip tip’ of the water overflowing from the tank after it was filled. The daily TV news her Ma watched. The smell of her morning chai with grated ginger. The ting ting of her small bell during pooja. These are the things that she does not write but I know her. I know how to read between the lines.
But somewhere I have failed her. I must have. If she did not find comfort in writing. For how could she have gone on without it for a week? How could she? She is as used to me as I am to her. Or at least I thought that.
But now is not the time to feel irritated. She has started writing again. I was overjoyed; I thought everything would be back to normal now. How naive was I? A few lines in, and I am worried. I am also worried that my annoyance will seep through the pages and into her hands. She writes: I miss my place where the duration of the days and nights are almost the same throughout the year. A place where I don’t have to see a 4:30 pm sunset. Or a sunrise after 7:30 am. Nobody prepared me for less than 10 hours of daytime. I feel like I took the sun for granted. When I first came here in October, the sun set at around 7 p.m. Every day, the sun set a little early from then on. 6:50, 6:43, 6:22, 6 p.m., 5:54 p.m. And then on November 6 came the thing I was least prepared for. The Daylight Savings. I would gain an hour, they said! What I gained was a sense of doom. Because the clocks were set back by an hour, the sun set before 5 p.m. every day from then on.
The seasons are what make me. Why then, am I afraid of the seasons? No matter what the weather, the weather is constant. It is constantly too hot, or too cold or just not warm enough or just not cool enough. Every day in itself brings a new season.
“Oh, there is a heavy rain forecast for the whole day today.”
“Do you know it’s going to snow today?”
“Amazing weather! Isn’t it a perfect day to travel?”
Seasons are a universal language, everyone understands it. It transcends manmade boundaries. Just as I am feeling the cold under the layers of clothes I wear. A breeze rippling through the surface of the lake water makes me shiver. If the seasons are what make me, why do I feel cold and sad. Maybe because I long for a different weather. Having grown up in a tropical city, my body is not used to the cold. But is that all? The great reason for the hollow? It can’t be. And I am restless because I can’t figure it out. If not this, then what else? What else could it possibly be?
When she writes this I figure it out. I am always able to figure her out. Her mind does not want to go there. Because after all, this is the life she chose. Of course, how could I have been so blind?
Around two weeks ago I observed her. Observed and observed for a few hours. A few days. Even then I knew something was amiss. She was writing but her heart wasn’t in it. It was dwindling. She doodled and dawdled. A sentence here. A sentence there. Then I was discarded on the coffee table in front of her. My observations, you ask? She scrolls through LinkedIn, going through a series of posts about the looming recession. She searches and applies obsessively to 50 job openings every day. And day after day, her laptop or phone chimes in with a rejection email. She refreshes. Refreshes. Refreshes. Every 10 minutes. Whatever she is doing. No matter if she is in the kitchen or the washroom or the living room. She is glued to her phone checking for a new email. A new job opening. She set her filters to relevant job openings… And then goes on to the painstaking process of filling her details out on different company portals. When she reached the USA, she was hopeful. Of finding a new job. Was very optimistic. She had worked with global companies in India after all. Surely that had to account for something. But with each passing day, the light within her dimmed just a little. Bit by bit. I hate to admit it but I didn’t come to this conclusion when I observed her. It struck me when I stopped and she wrote again. Sometimes I need a macro perspective after micro is too much. She is so inside her head and not on paper that she cannot understand. But I also don’t think it is as easy to pinpoint. It’s a combination of things in her life, culminating in a single point of paralysis. Even now, who knows? It’s just my opinion of a subject I don’t understand completely. She is talented enough to fool everyone around her. Her friends and family also do not know this about her. They think she is enjoying her break from work. They think she is immensely enjoying the exploration of a new country without a worry in the world. She hates admitting that she is miserable. She wants them to feel that she has got it all together. That her life is perfect. When they go through her social media profile, they find her happy pictures. Ecstatic even.
A couple of months ago when she was leaving for the USA, her office colleagues had warned her: “One of my sisters lives in the States. She is miserable there. Wants to come back but her husband doesn’t.”
“He has a high-paying tech job and all so he is okay. But he is on an H1-B visa without an I-140.”
“So? What does that mean?”
“Which means the spouse can’t work. So she can’t work.”
“I am surprised you didn’t know this.”
“I haven’t started my research yet on the visa types and job search. But I intend to.”
“It is very important to understand your options. It is not always as picture-perfect as it seems. My sister is busy doing all the household chores. And she is not happy. Her social life was here. She has no friends there. Only his work friends they mingle with.”
“I know about my visa type though. I can still work there.”
“Oh, honey,” she gives a sympathetic smile, “but everyone wants to convert into an H1-B once they go there. So there could be a brief period where you might have to be unemployed.”
“But that doesn’t matter. Because we intend to come back in a few years. We just want to experience a different work environment and culture and to have that thrill of living in a new country. But only for a few years.”
“Honey, they all say that. As I said, consider your options once you are there before you decide anything. Okay?”
“I will, thanks. I am sure my husband would also check about these things. It is a major decision after all.”
“Oh, I am sure he would.”
She was very emotional on the last day of her job. She had worked there straight out of B-school. She had met some people who would become close friends and some who were toxic. But on the last day, she knew she would miss them all. She didn’t think that saying goodbye would be this difficult. Her name on the desk and chair in bright white letters with a black background came alive with memories. Memories of birthdays celebrated, lunches ordered, huddles and meetings, apprehension of deadlines, the adrenaline rush of getting it done just in time, the accolades. It felt empty by itself if not for the people she surrounded herself with. Her friends.
Her colleagues. They motivated her and pushed her to give her best. Her manager was always an inspiration. Solving problems and giving solutions in a way she herself didn’t think was possible. She learned a lot from each of them. But she was excited to begin a new chapter. But the isolation in a new country was what she hadn’t counted on.
Her husband noticed when she hadn’t had a bath for a couple of days. He thought it could be laziness. When he asked her about it, she said she would. Her reply was curt, and tone grumpy, so he left it at that. After a week of the whole no-bath scenario, her husband thought it was time to have a talk. This wasn’t one of those phases she would overcome on her own. A little push. A little nudge would maybe do her some good. When he saw her refreshing her Gmail inbox for the umpteenth time that day, he said,
“You know, we came to this country to experience a new place, a new city.”
“Hmm.” Eyes glued to the screen.
“Don’t you think it’s time to do that?”
He places his hand in front of her phone.
“What are you so worried about?”
She looked at him for a moment before answering. “That I won’t find another job. Every day on LinkedIn, there is a new company that’s laying off or announcing a hiring freeze and I am worried that my career break will just go on longer.”
“But weren’t you always saying that you needed some time off to pursue your passion of writing?”
“All that’s good to talk about. But I need to focus on my career too.”
“I understand that, but the recession is not your fault. You are doing everything you can.”
“I need to do more.”
“You need to get the bigger picture. Zoom out. You have a glorious opportunity to work on your writings. You have notebooks filled with stories. Don’t you think it is time you polished the pieces and submitted them somewhere?”
“What I need to do is get a job.”
“You will get it but the time that you have right now, in between jobs, is hard to come by. Think about it. You can try to do what you always talked about doing. Or was all that just big talk?” I could see, she took the bait.
She considered. “Hmm,” was all she said.
“I also found something for you.”
He had searched for a public library nearby. A magnificent three-storied red brick building standing beside a park. Just a mile away from their home. She could get herself a membership there. I thought this was an amazing idea. She had always wanted a house near a library. I could tell that this piqued her interest even if she feigned indifference to her husband. She wanted to see it first. I could see it in her eyes. And here I thought that the husband was too busy to notice her worries. I guess he was letting her be. Well, I couldn’t have guessed it. I can’t read his thoughts.
The next morning, she woke up to her alarm at 7:30 a.m. and had a shower. She was ready by 8:30 a.m., in time for the library to be open by 9 a.m. She was armed with her warmest winter jacket and a beanie. Wandered around the streets on her way to the Bellevue library. Taking in the strollers with their prams and pets. Warm coffees in their hands. In 10 minutes, she was standing in front of the library and was not disappointed. Covered with floor-to-ceiling glass panes, she could peer inside as she walked to the front door. She was also pleasantly surprised at a life-sized bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi just outside the library; in the midst of now barren trees. There was ample seating space inside. Aisles and aisles of books: classics, romance, historical fiction, new interesting fiction and non-fiction sections, choice reads, monthly picks, and a dedicated holds section for reserved books.
Her husband was right. Isn’t this what she always wanted to explore? Read and write. Write and read. Surround herself with books and pages. She had found her place. She touched her fingers in reverence to the cracked paperbacks, reminding her of the piles of books she left behind at her place in India. She borrowed a few novels and set off with them and me in her backpack. Couldn’t resist a warm cup of coffee from a cafe she spotted. Picked a window-facing table overlooking a park. She read as she finished her coffee. A good girl’s guide to murder was a page-turner. It was the first time in months that she had ventured out on her own. She felt at ease. At peace. Her breath, a little lighter. A little deeper. She saw two dogs playing outside. Free and wild. She picked up her phone and googled bookstores and art galleries around. She found that a couple of independent bookstores nearby also host monthly book clubs and writing clubs. She signed up for them and started off in the direction of the art gallery.
I was happy. She was bouncing back. One step at a time.
May is an important month for mothers around the world as we get to celebrate motherhood for Mother’s Day and support mental health for Mental Health Awareness Month. It is also a month in which a week is dedicated to honour maternal mental health before, after and during pregnancy. To honour this beautiful month, I would like to explore motherhood as I have experienced it as an South Asian, immigrant mom — the magic, the struggles, the mental health challenges, the community expectations — and share how I have reached the most comfortable, confident version of myself as a mother.
12 years ago, on a very hot, humid August morning, after going through a few years of unexplained infertility and then finally getting pregnant, I was rushed for an emergency C-section and my tiny, but very feisty, daughter was handed to me. As I held her in a severely drugged-up state, very much disappointed in my body’s failure to deliver naturally, I felt a rush of the most beautiful, gut-wrenching, fierce, protective love I had ever experienced. In the hours following her birth, I also experienced major confusion and anxiety every time she cried endlessly; I didn’t know how to soothe her.
I grew up listening to my mom, grandmothers and aunts talk about the beauty and miracle of motherhood, but no one ever talked about the extreme sleep deprivation, the mental and emotional breakdowns and the sheer physical exhaustion. I had seen most moms in my very traditional, Pakistani family, sacrificing their own needs for the comfort of their children. In fact often, I would be confused at how proud my grandmothers were for sacrificing their health and mental peace to raise their families.
After moving to Canada I repeatedly witnessed the same thought and behavior patterns in other South Asian maternal figures. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a cultural thing, especially among the older generation! They love to talk about the beauty and magic of motherhood and glorify the rough parts of this journey with a kind of toxic positivity. South Asian women, I find, generally don’t like to discuss the struggles, the vulnerability and the mental load of motherhood. Yes, motherhood is magical, beautiful and one of the biggest blessings but also it might probably be the most difficult thing you will ever do! In retrospect I do feel, had I heard healthy discussions about the mental and emotional challenges of motherhood, along with its privilege and beauty, I would have been much more prepared for this magical, roller coaster journey!
The mental health challenges, the invisible load of motherhood, the continuous mom guilt, the overwhelm, the self doubts, I experienced all of these during the happiest time of my life. And I felt extremely guilty for having these feelings! Was I not supposed to have that ethereal new mama glow and calmly enjoy this new phase with ease and joy? My overwhelm and anxiety as I protectively held my five-pound, feisty baby girl just felt wrong! It made me doubt myself as a mother.
As an immigrant mother, one of the hardest things I have had to do is to break away from, and unlearn, so many culturally-acquired behavior patterns and expectations. It is so important to acknowledge the fact that mamas need to be vigilant about and take care of their emotional and mental health in order to be fully intentional and engaged in raising their children and taking care of their families. Thankfully, the thought patterns are evolving and finally the South Asian community has started having discussions about mothers’ mental health issues and acknowledge that motherhood, though absolutely precious, is exhausting, rough and can sometimes leave one questioning their sanity.
After the initial years of motherhood, I started researching and reading on mental health and South Asian behaviour patterns. My observation and research has led me to a point in time where I can proudly say that I am the most comfortable I have ever been in raising my children. I have come to the realization that this will be the most fulfilling, but also the most daunting and exhausting thing that I will ever do. I have also come to a very solid conclusion, the better my headspace and mental health is, the better I will be at being the best version of myself for my children. I really want my children to see me making my mental health a priority so that they learn that their mental health is also as sacred as their physical health.
Once I realized how pivotal my own mental health was for my family’s wellbeing, I became more mindful about prioritizing my mental health. These 10 mantras have really helped make a difference in my mental health:
It is not normal to feel excessively overwhelmed and anxious all the time just because you are a mom. Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness. Talking to your doctor about your sense of overwhelm is a great place to start. Accepting medical intervention (meds) and therapy are an important part of my parenting journey; they do not make you a weak or bad mother in any way. Rather it makes you a braver, better parent!
Motherhood is not always glorious and rosy as most of us have been made to believe. Like any other relationship, it will also have its ebb and flow. It will sometimes be chaotic, messy and hard and that is ok!
They say, it takes a village to raise a child and that is so true! In case of immigrant families, a lot of times their village is far across the oceans so what do you do. You mindfully try seeking out a village of like-minded families/people that share similar values and beliefs as your own. And then you help each other out. In other words, when offered, graciously accept help from that elderly neighbour, a family friend or a distant relative. They probably have gone through this busy season themselves and realize how exhausting and isolating it sometimes can be.
In today’s world, many of our decisions are driven by our favourite influencers, mom bloggers and social media personalities. Majority of them curate content that just spells perfection and beauty! From a beautifully arranged, tidy house, to an impeccably put together, happy mama serving fresh, organic meals in her tastefully-decorated, minimalistic kitchen; we know very well that social media can be unrealistic and shows only the beautiful parts of the journey. Yet most of us feel this immense pressure to be perfect and be the providers of the absolute best for our children. Honestly, in my experience, motherhood became so much easier, smoother and calmer once I let go of my exhausting efforts to be the perfect mother! Once I accepted that there is no such thing as a perfect mother — only a mama who loves her children like crazy — I felt at peace and became way less anxious.
Most South Asian cultures measure the worth of a woman by her marital status and later by the success of her children. In the first few years of being a mom, I enrolled my tiny humans in as many different activities as I could in dreams of future success in education and careers. I was always running around planning things for them to do. The result was an extremely burnt-out mama with overwhelmed kids in tow. It has been quite a journey to learn that children will be at their happiest with simple routines and happy experiences. You DO NOT need to lug your family to fancy, expensive activities in order to prove your worth as a good parent! Children will remember simple, happy experiences where they can connect and spend time with their loved ones. A simple picnic in the park on a beautiful day, feeding the ducks at the local pond, visiting the farmers’ market, going to the beach on a hot day, camping trips with other families, these are some things my kids consistently recall happily from their tiny human days.
Connecting with other moms going through a similar situation will make your journey less isolating, less intimidating and so much calmer. Culture tells mothers to be resilient and unwavering, and not share their vulnerability with others. That can be very isolating! After a rough night with a teething baby and a clingy toddler, nothing feels better than having a quick cup of chai over a phone call with another sleep-deprived, tired mama!
Mamas, you are being so generous and giving to everyone around you. Be kind to yourself too! Indulge in self care and take out time to do little things that bring you peace and joy. It could be a lunch date with a friend, getting nails done, doing a yoga class, taking a walk by yourself, listening to a podcast or going out for a movie. Remember your children are observing you all the time and will learn emotional regulation and self care by watching you do it.
Mom guilt is real and can be devastating for one’s mental health. Know that you are only human and the only way to learn about motherhood is by actually going through it. You will make mistakes and it is okay! Give yourself extra love and grace on those hard days. As long as our children see us apologizing, being respectful and loving and trying to be a better parent, it’s all good.
Taking care of one’s physical health will always help in achieving better mental health. Eating well, staying hydrated, learning some breathing techniques, moving one’s body, all these help so much when the days seem long and never-ending.
Motherhood, specially in the initial years will be physically exhausting. If you are like me, maybe you have also thrown your babies at your spouse as soon as he walks into the house and escaped to the washroom for a mommy time out! It is probably the busiest season of life for both you and your spouse and might leave both of you angry with and snapping at each other. Try to find little pockets of time when you and your partner can reconnect, away from the beautiful chaos of the tiny people you have created together. Something as simple as having a takeout meal together after kids’ bedtime can feel heavenly and therapeutic and recharge both of you for the day ahead.
So moms, I urge you to let go of overthinking, enjoy the present moment, go with the flow and savour the messy as well as the beautiful, uplifting parts of your journey. Cherish and protect your own mental health, reach out for help and support if the journey gets too isolating and overwhelming. For your children, will grow up seeing the beauty and wonder around them through the eyes of the most important person in their lives — their mom.
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.