Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to another episode of Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda, and my aim with this podcast is to help you lead a healthier, happier, more hopeful life. This season, we’re focusing on social well-being, and today’s episode is about overcoming bias, where we will be exploring the challenges of prejudice and embracing diversity. Now, this episode is very, very dear to my heart because I was brought up in a very inclusive family and it still rattles me when someone is excluded. And that’s what today is about, trying to promote inclusion. We’re joined today by two very inspiring activists who’ve turned their personal experience into dynamic forces for social change. We have with us today Shweta Aggarwal, who was spearheading a successful Bollywood dance company in London. She made waves on Britain’s Got Talent, and she’s done a bunch of other interesting things in her life with events. And now she’s turned her talents to a very profound cause, advocating against colourism. And it stems from her personal experiences. With us today is also Rudrani Chhetri. She’s a pioneering transgender rights activist from Delhi, and she’s the founder of Mitr Trust and India’s first transgender modelling agency. Isn’t that fabulous? Rudrani is a paragon of hope and resilience, and she advocates for LGBTQ rights and social inclusion. Welcome to the chat, both of you. Thank you for doing this. I’m very grateful.
Rudrani Chhetri: Thank you, Anshu. Thank you for having us.
AB: Thank you so much. Thank you both again. So, Shweta, I’m going to start with you now. You have this really interesting journey where you started with a Bollywood dance company and now you’re doing anti-colourism activism, you’ve written a book. Tell me, what was it that triggered you into starting? Was there a point where you thought, okay, right, this is it, I’ve got to do something about it
Shweta Aggarwal: It’s been a massive shift, right, when you are kind of deep into your Bollywood dance career, sadly, because you grow so immune to all the colourism around you, and you don’t even realise that a lot of the Bollywood songs have the word ‘Goriya’ in it, because colourism is so normalised, that actually, that was one of the things that made me feel really guilty. About my journey, when I started to unlearn colourism and when I started to really kind of reflect on my own experiences, the one thing I guess that I would call became the catalyst for me to kind of start writing my story is the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. As you know, in London, there were lots and lots of protests around the world. It became quite a movement, and rightly so. There was a lot of talk amongst South Asians on social media about how we are very anti-black and we are actually pretty racist ourselves and we need to start looking within. And that really hit me hard because I remember attending a protest myself and I asked my children to make banners and I was there very passionately wanting to support the community, the black community. And I was talking to this black man at the end of the protest, commending him for sharing his personal experiences, some of which included physical violence. And I remember wearing this red cap because I didn’t want to catch the sun. It was in a park. It was a beautiful day in June. And that was the specific moment where guilt hit me really hard because I couldn’t look him in the eye. I realised that I’m standing for a community, but I’m not appreciating that community fully because I don’t want to be as dark as them. I shifted my cap because I didn’t want to catch the sun. And that was a very specific moment where I felt such tremendous guilt and the hypocrisy within. I came home and after that it was just sleepless nights, really, to be honest. And I started to really kind of delve deep into my own kind of personal experiences and how I got here, how I got to this point where I became so blinded, immune to colourism, that it became such a blind spot, despite having been through pretty traumatic experiences myself. And that’s when I decided to write my story, when I told myself, enough is enough, and I need to call myself out, and I need to call out colourism. And the only way that I can do that is by sharing my story. Very raw and honest.
AB: So, Shweta, clearly your career, your dance, your art had an effect because you were picking up something, in the words, which were triggering something. Do you remember the first trigger point as a child when you felt like this is not right?
SA: Very vividly so. I was six years old. Just to give everybody a bit of context in a couple of sentences. I was six years old. My parents decided to move to Japan from India to start a new life. Because I was in school, they didn’t want to interrupt my education. Japanese schools by, I guess, you know, in terms of their rules, they only took Japanese children by race in their schools. They did not even take mixed race children, and private schools were out of question. So they enrolled me in a boarding school. I was in India as a six year old in a boarding school for two and a half years when my parents were all the way in Japan in the 1980s. At that time, I only visited my extended family, my nanny’s house every fortnight. And I was dancing on this coffee table, because dance is something that I’ve always loved and been passionate about. And I was dancing on this coffee table, not a care in the world. It was like my moment, my thing. And my aunt yanked at me, she pulled me down and she said, “Look at you. You’ve turned…” There’s a phrase in Hindi— ‘Kaali Kaluti Baingan Looti.’ And another aunt said to her, “Well, she’s enjoying it so much. Let her enjoy it. Let her be.” And she said, “Well, what good is she going to get out of this? It’s not like she can become a Bollywood actress. Have you not seen her colour?” I thought that as a child, as a six year old, you’ve got dreams. And that dream was shattered very early on because I was told that I’m too dark to be a Bollywood actress by an aunt.
AB: That’s heartbreaking. I can just imagine what you went through as a child. Rudrani, coming to you now. You’re an inspiration to a lot of people, including me. You’ve significantly impacted the LGBTQ community through the Mitr trust. Now, tell me, what was your trigger to start this? And what challenges did you face along the way through your advocacy?
RC: Thank you for your question. What I’m doing right now was never planned. It was not something I really wanted to do. But from a very young age, because of my femininity, I faced a lot of rejection. Rejection where kind of nobody supported me at that time. Nobody was there. There was no such organisation who could help other people like me. So when you feel rejected from your family, when you feel rejected from your friends, you feel rejected from, so called, your social environment, it hurts a lot. I mean, for a transgender person like me, I believe for anyone in this world, you find one safest place, which is your home. And when you start getting this rejection from your home, not necessarily your parents, but there are other people… Because living in Delhi, living in India, we do have big families, joint families, where everybody has some kind of opinion and something according to them, which does not fit, they are always bullied, they’re always the target. And at a very young age, I also face lot of sexual harassment from one of my close, older, family members. And these all things remain in my heart, emotionally. It was kind of breaking me every day, breaking me down every day. And at that point, my mother said, “If you want to live your life as you want for yourself, then get your education. That’s the best thing you can do.” And after getting my education, I realised, if not for people like us, who are slightly privileged, in the sense of being able to finish their education, because a lot of transgender people, they aren’t even able to make it to 10th grade. They drop out because of harassment and other things. And this is where they don’t understand anything about themselves. They just live in a life thinking that they have done something really bad in their past life and they’re just suffering for it, it’s just like God has punished them. And I was aware of things. I was educated and I thought, if not me or people like me, then who else? So I think this was the point. And one of the organisations, at a very young age, that I visited, who were working with the LGBT community, said something to me, that “If you want to visit again, you have to behave normal, you have to act normal.” And I was so shocked to hear it from an organisation who was running a project for the community. And that was the time when I stepped out.
AB: What did they mean when they said to you, sorry to interrupt, Rudrani, what did they mean when they said— you have to act normal?
RC: So at that time, I was young, going to school, but of course 18+. So I wanted to understand myself. I’m ‘78 born. Imagine for somebody who’s 10— you don’t have enough information. At that time, there was no Internet, there was no Google and there was no literature, there was no civil society organisation working for the community openly because of the IP— Indian Penal Code, section 377. So according to them, as per my appearance, I was not acting the same. So what they meant, if you are coming in this avatar, then you have to behave masculine. I mean, you cannot show signs of your femininity because people will mock you, the neighbours where the office, the organisation was located— will mock you. But it was a problem for me because this is how I wanted to express myself. This is what I believe, this is who I was. And I was never apologetic about who I am, but I just wanted the correct resources for myself. And these all are the points. It’s coming from the family, coming from organisations who claim to work for the community, and other different places. It was never one single thing for me. It’s not like one day that happened to me and next day I was, no, I want to fight and get something. Each and every step— from growing up, going to school, meeting your neighbours, your extended family, to other spaces, wherever I was there, I was mocked, I was made to feel guilty about myself. At least what I was going through. If we start something, at least we’ll start from scratch. Maybe there will be a day where we will be seen. This is very vague and people still say, you people are also human. So it makes me feel, at the same time it is like trans people are seen as demigods or somebody who is evil and kidnaps children. So I wanted to change the whole idea. I wanted to change… It’s also Bollywood. They have created a lot of nonsense representing LGBT people. So everything, every little thing which happened, which was for me as a human being, as a transgender person, was not right, I think this all triggered me.
AB: What were the primary challenges that you faced?
RC: Of course, I mean for everything, you need some kind of support, at least you need human resource people who are well informed, who can do things for you, we all can come together. So when I started, there were very few people from the community who were educated, who were literate. So community mobilisation was very difficult because the community lived in their own world, thinking, we don’t deserve anything and this is okay, and this is what our life is. People at that time used to go for sex work and not use protection, thinking even if we get HIV infection and AIDS, we’ll die, it is okay because we deserve to die. So it took a lot of time. It took a lot of time to make them believe that, no, it’s not okay. You need to love yourself, you need to respect yourself. You don’t have to always think that you are not a nice person. And that whatever happens to you, it should not bother you. So it was crazy. It was something. Sometimes girls from my community who were living with their partners used to get beaten up so badly that most of them I’ve seen dying, most of them. And nobody was there to go and find out the next day where she went. All of a sudden she disappeared. And everybody was aware that the partner, the boyfriend, killed her.
In the beginning, when we wanted to fight for all this, get justice, there was no support. At least now there is a lot of support structure. First of all, I feel that I’m a labelled activist. I don’t even identify myself as an activist. I believe what I’m doing is my responsibility and I should be doing this. So when we started, I started fighting for people like me who were thinking the same way. I saw myself as somebody who should be respected, who should be treated equally. So finding people who think exactly like you is very difficult. We are still struggling. Laws have changed, certainly laws have changed, but the mindset is still the same. So I think that is what it is. And when we started, we all thought, one day everything will change before we die. But everything is not done yet. I mean, there’s a lot of work.
AB: Thank you for that, Rudrani. Shweta, I want to talk to you about something that Rudrani has mentioned. And you mentioned, you both brought up Bollywood, right? So, I mean, you talked about how they talk about, you know, being fair in the songs. And there’s a lot of the songs that include this. Rudrani talked about how transgender people are treated by Bollywood or portrayed in Bollywood films. And that creates a perception. Now, when you look at what Bollywood does, there are people who are trying to make a difference. Like, I remember a film that was written by a friend. It was called Monsoon Wedding a long time ago. And they brought up some issues, and one of them was sexual assault. And how that was dealt with, [sexual assault] by a family member and how they dealt with it. And at that point, that was a shock. This was years ago. It was a shock to a lot of systems. Do you think Bollywood can do more? Because for every one story like a Monsoon Wedding or a Thappad, you know, films like that, you also have five stories that are catering to the masses and saying something very different. So how do we change that? What can be done? What should be done?
SA: So, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think the entire industry has a lot of work to do because I think they perpetuate so many toxic narratives that unfortunately shouldn’t be preached anymore. It’s 2023, right? We’re almost in 2024. So whether it’s patriarchy or it’s misogyny or it’s colourism, racism, transphobia, there’s so many issues that Bollywood needs to tackle very urgently. I know that there are movies that I appreciate now that are coming out. I really like the actor Ayushmann Khurrana, who does amazing work with his movies that touch upon a variety of social injustices. But the problem with mainstream Bollywood, I would say, and the kind of the pop stars that you have, for example, and I know I’m going to get a lot of, I might get some backlash from your supporters and viewers on this and mine, which I have, by the way.
AB: No, you won’t. You know why? Because we’re educating people.
SA: Rocky aur Rani, right? Biggest blockbuster of this year. Absolutely love the movie. I love it. I mean, it’s been a while since an entertaining Bollywood movie like that came out with a generally overall positive message. Tackling social injustices, right. Body shaming, colour shaming, patriarchy, you name it, it’s all in there. I did not like the way they tackled colourism because there’s a scene in the movie… Well, firstly, the movie starts off with Ranveer singing and dancing to a song and calling himself Gurgaon something something. Handsome boy, Gora Chitta. Right? Okay, this is the beginning of the movie and he’s learning a lot of things and he’s been brought up a certain way. Then he talks about… There’s a specific scene about him being offered tea and he says, “Oh, I don’t drink tea. Chai Peene se kalee hojate ho, you turn dark by drinking tea.” The future mother-in-law calls him out on that, saying, “What’s wrong with being dark?” His response to that is, “Oh, I don’t have a problem with that at all. Black lives matter. I love Beyonce and Rihanna. And when I go on my long drive, cruising around I listen to Kanye and Drake.” That was handled so badly, I thought in that scene, because you don’t want to be dark, because you’ve been told by your grandparents and your community that dark is not beautiful, dark is not handsome, but you claim to listen to black music and appreciate black people. But if you don’t want to be dark i.e. you don’t want to be their colour, where, how are you colourist? Right? Actually, I really disagreed with the way that was called out. And then the third and final scene was him talking about how he wasn’t aware that body shaming is bad and it hurts other people’s feelings. If you call a dark person ‘Kali’, and if you call a fat person ‘Golu’ and blah, blah, blah, blah, and then he basically talks about himself— he’s like, do you realise how much you hurt me? When I know what you think of me, you all laugh at me because I don’t speak English and I’m not educated. But the thing is, empathy is an innate human emotion. If you feel hurt, and I really believe in this strongly, if you feel hurt by somebody’s words, how can you not know or see that you’ve just hurt someone else with your words?
AB: Rudrani, I want to ask you about something that you’ve mentioned as well in your last remarks and that you talk about in Mitr Trust as well, and that is inclusive education. I mean, I think education is so important because there are certain areas which are just left out. So people are clueless. From their textbooks, when people pick up a textbook, they’re clueless about so much out there. Do you think if a lot of the issues we’re talking about today were included in textbooks, were taught to children, were told as storytelling, would that make a difference?
RC: I think the solution is for sure that everybody needs to get this education because you cannot keep it away from them for a very long time. There is a lot to know, especially if we speak of Chattisgarh. Chattisgarh is doing a new thing where they do have a transgender person story in their textbook for the school children, which is a very good beginning. And very recently NCERT also did the same thing. They do have a story of a trans person in their literature books. So there is a change. I won’t say everything is the same that I went through and what I experienced 10-15 years ago, but now there is a slow change and I’m sure it is not something which will change in one snap. It is of course going to take time. We have been very patient and we have been doing this. Whenever we get time pushing the envelope, we do it every time. Whenever we meet stakeholders, gatekeepers and other influential people who can change the system, we have been doing that and slowly we are getting this result. We are seeing people talking about communities and they are different… Especially in offices, now they have a diversity and inclusion thing and they are also supporting other smaller organisations who can go different places and educate people. Recently I went to Tagore International Public School. They have their entire group of children who organise sessions around LGBT community. And it was such a beautiful thing to see and feel that kids of younger age, with all consent of their parents in school, do want to understand the community and they are not at all afraid or fear of this other human being who may be different, who may be not like all of them, but they’re not scared of them. I think I am witnessing this change, so I’m happy about this.
AB: Yes, there seems to be movement and that’s what’s important. And a lot of the sort of strong beliefs that I had were told to me as stories by my great grandmother when I was really small. So, Shweta, I know you did a book for children, or you did this series for children called Dev and Ollie, where you were introducing children to global festivals through this storytelling technique. Tell us a little bit about that, because that was quite a unique way of influencing a child’s mind.
SA: Yeah. So Dev and Ollie basically came about again because of something very simple right. That we all very often, whether it’s a business or activism, stems from our own personal experiences. And Dev and Ollie, in this case, was from my experience of having two young children and realising that they don’t have books that I can bring to them where they see themselves. Where’s the representation, right? There was hardly any back then. This is 2015. I’m talking about picture books. Either had animals or they had white characters. So I decided that I want to, obviously, have a British Asian boy represent, be represented, rather, in the book series, and write the book series in such a way that it doesn’t have much religious material. It’s more about the tradition and the festival, so that any child can pick up that book. Enjoy learning about a festival with Dev and Ollie, Ollie being his magical bedtime owl that comes alive at night and takes them to these festivals. They have an experience, and then they come back in the morning and they’ve learned something. Usually starts off with a problem. For example, the book Kite Crazy! starts off with Dev receiving a kite for his birthday, but he doesn’t know what to do with it. He doesn’t know how to fly it. So off Ollie goes with him to the biggest kite festival in the world, in Gujarat, and they enjoy a kite festival and he learns how to fly a kite. And he’s back. So the series… In fact, Camel Caper, based on Pushkar. Camel fair in Rajasthan, based on holi. And then I’m writing the next one, which is going to be based on Onam. And then after that, I’ll go to global festivals, international festivals. So the idea behind the series was to basically educate children from any background. And a festival is like a window right into the world of a specific culture. You get to learn so much through just one festival, and that promotes inclusion because you understand somebody else’s culture, their language, their music, their art, their food. A festival encapsulates everything. The book series, for that reason, I think, has been popular because a lot of children from other backgrounds, not just Indian children, are enjoying learning about these festivals. And their favourite, of course, is the kite flying one, where when I visit schools, they want to learn how to make a kite or actually fly a kite. It’s been wonderful to actually promote inclusion at such a young age.
AB: Thank you. And Rudrani, your work with fashion has been really groundbreaking, because in this world of Internet fashion, a lot of young people look at fashion to set their standards in a lot of things. So tell me, how do you hope your modelling agency will help with diversity and inclusion? How has it already helped the fashion industry with these?
RC: The only reason why I started India’s first transgender modelling agency is because of, again, a rejection. I believe it was the end of September when I wanted to go to this shopping mall to book a small place to eat and invite my friends. But I was not allowed to go inside. I mean, they blocked me and they said one thing, in Hindi they said “Aap jaise logo ke liye yaha kuch nahi milta,” so that means there is nothing available for people like you. Though I stood there and I tried to convince this guy that I’m no threat, I’m no harm, I’ll just go inside, I’ll do my business and I’ll peacefully come out. But he kept on repeating that there is nothing available here for people like you. And the idea of this shopping mall or any place, it’s about a good place, good places where you can eat. Or maybe fashion, these big posters of models and your fancy articles, brands… And this is when I realised that generally people see us as somebody who begs, who sells themselves for money as a sex worker and there is no other image of us. And if you go to any layman and say, just close your eyes and think of a transgender person, they can only visualise of somebody who’s begging and doing sex work. So I thought, there’s no point fighting with this gentleman because he’s just doing what he’s asked to do. He also said, my manager told me that people like you cannot come in. And this is when I decided that we’re going to start India’s first transgender modelling agency. Because all these… When you want to create awareness, you cannot sit inside your office and just speak to your people and go to some government place. Still, there are a lot of challenges like people who also give us jobs, they believe that they’re doing us a big favour, so they’d like to use us, our time and everything, but they don’t want to pay us. So challenges are still there. But I believe the milestone is there now. I mean, there is a journey, of course there is a journey. I’m sure one day one of our models will be getting the same amount of work, same amount of money, same amount of respect and everything. So I think we have just started. There’s a long way to go, but I think we’ll reach there. But this rejection made me do so.
AB: And I saw this series called Made in Heaven, I mean, that was so good that they’re able to pick up issues like that and tackle it. They talked about transgender issues as well and I was really happy to see that. And they talked about colourism issues as well, Shweta. And a lot of other issues.
SA: I really like the way that Made in Heaven did that.
AB: The second series picked up a lot of issues which are so common, people don’t even realise, like we said, that those are issues and they were dealt with. So, Shweta, tell me, over the next decade, what changes are you hoping to see regarding colourism and representation in society and in the media?
SA: What I would like to see is, number one, most importantly, more and more people feeling confident in their own skin, celebrating their colour and sharing their stories, talking to people about their experiences, because I really believe that once we start to have this uncomfortable conversation, whether it’s to do with colourism or any other form of bias, just to touch upon what Rudrani said earlier about the journey and how it’s… And you mentioned education. I feel like alongside education, what we need to start doing is also having these conversations openly, whether it’s within our great circle or whether it’s actually coming back home and educating our parents. Yes, they’re of a different generation, even our grandparents. Once you start talking about your experiences and how it makes you feel, chances are that your mother will have gone through colourism. Chances are your grandmother will have gone through colourism and you’re opening up a pandora’s box, right? And once they start to share their experiences, they’ll start empathising with yours. The one thing that I’m really proud of doing, and I feel that I would really like more and more of people to do in the next ten years, is when I started writing my book and I called my mum and I told her, I want to write about my experiences, my story. And we’d never spoken about this, by the way. Like all my childhood trauma about the boarding school and everything was locked up in a box. And I buried it somewhere. When I started talking to her about it, I said, I want to write about colourism. The first thing that she said to me was, what difference is it going to make? This is how it is in India and will be for a very long time. It won’t make any difference. These were her exact words. Two years later, basically, I persevered and two years later, I kept educating her. Kept educating her. Two years later, she was the biggest champion. She flew all the way from India to London for my book launch and she actually said, amazing. And she said that she wishes that she had understood how much of an impact colourism has on a child’s self-esteem. And instead of brushing it off…
AB: Both your stories are making me cry by the way. This has never happened before in a podcast. Amazing.
SA: I’m so proud of her. I cried at my own book launch. So did she. And she’s 67 years old. She’s set in her own ways. She’s obviously of that generation where she’s grown up in a very patriarchal family and that her opinion doesn’t matter. And she was my biggest champion and she unlearned with me. So for all those people who feel like you’ve lost hope on your parents or your grandparents, please don’t lose hope. Have these conversations with your family because they will come around eventually. They will come around because they love you and they want you to be happy.
AB: What an amazing transformation. What an amazing transformation. I mean, that’s what you’re both setting out to do, right? To transform people’s opinions the way they think. Rudrani, tell me a story like this in your life where it’s been a huge transformation that you’ve seen made because of what you do.
RC: So now I think how I see things have changed. People, they want to come to the centre and get education, they want to learn English, they want to learn their computer class, they want to learn their nail art. So from a point that we are useless and we are nothing, to a point where they feel hope, where they can live their life with respect and dignity, I think this is amazing.
AB: Hope and worth, self-worth— is what you’re telling me.
RC: Self-love, self-worth, yeah. And everything. This is what makes me feel amazing about what we have been able to do and also the kind of change, because all the work now, parents accepting their children and people talking about equal marriage rights, adoption rights. So I think everything has changed. But there cannot be one particular incident where things have totally changed, but of course one, the credit, the entire credit I also give to my mom because when I was very young and she was aware of, she knew who I am and that’s when she said, “Whatever you want to do, but don’t screw up with your education because that’s the only one tool which can take you out of any mess.” Maybe life is not going to be fun for you, everything is not going to be so easy for you, but it will at least make a little bit of things easier for you. So I think that’s the day I decided, whatever it is, I’ll not start my transition till I get my basic education. I finished my school, but I was not able to go to regular college, but I was doing distance learning. But of course the point when I realised how important education is— going to school and finishing your studies, I think that is what makes me Rudrani today. Otherwise I would have been the same person begging or selling my body to survive.
AB: Amazing, amazing! And amazing to your mum for understanding and supporting you. The other thing I want to ask you is that, you know how sometimes someone, we were talking a lot about education, right? My generation had zero education on a lot of issues. I’ve learned a lot from my 25 year old, 26 year old. She’s the one who’s taught me a lot about issues, about bias. She went to the Black Lives Matter march, she goes to a lot of the LGBTQ marches. She goes and she supports a lot of places where people are not included. Tell me, Shweta, how have your experiences in India and the UK influenced your perspectives on your colourism issue? Because you’ve now lived in two very different countries.
SA: So I was in India from the age of six to eight. Then after that, I did move.
AB: And Japan. You lived in Japan. So three countries?
SA: Three countries. I was in Japan for, say, eleven months. And then about, well, ten and a half months. Six weeks, every summer vacation, we would only go back to India. And then I moved to the UK in 2000 after I got married. So, in India, colourism is rife. It’s in your face, it’s everywhere. Talking about Bollywood again, at that time, you saw Bollywood film stars endorsing skin whitening creams. We didn’t have Google back then, so we didn’t even check whether these ingredients in the skin whitening products are actually harmful for you or not. At that time, at that age, I thought, oh, well, they’re endorsing it, must be good, must be, right? Because we saw Bollywood actresses like these… [we would] idealise them. So as a teenager especially, that’s how I grew up. And because I was constantly taunted for my colour. being the black sheep, quote unquote, in the family. My father’s family, by the way, is very fair. I mean, they didn’t even look Indian. They were that fair and my mother’s very fair. My perspective of colourism was essentially that it’s everywhere and that I can’t do anything about it and that I have no choice but to give in. And then guess what I did. I ended up using skin whitening creams myself for a very long time. In Japan, colourism was rife there as well because I was predominantly in a south asian community and I was bullied for my colour amongst, again, my peers, my schoolmates, being called the ugly duckling. When you grow up in a place like Japan, and you look like this darker skin, curly hair, not straight hair, and you’re slightly taller, you’re slightly bigger. Everything was different in comparison to petite, dainty Japanese girls, right? And fair skinned, dead straight hair and petite, dainty Japanese girls. So I stuck out like a sore thumb and I felt it from very indiscreet stares on a daily basis, on the train journey, every single day, to school and back. Coming to the UK, ironically, was the first time that I was complimented for my colour. Not by South Asians. It’s in the mind. It’s in the mindset. But it was English people who would compliment me for my colour. And, I mean, that’s the biggest irony of it all, isn’t it? That they think that you have this beautiful skin tone and the western world has moved on to a different narrative, which is tanning. Whereas in India, people are still obsessed with the fairest, beautiful narrative and how the skin whitening industry there is growing at a phenomenal rate. Ironically, there are three very different perspectives, I guess. But what I’ve also learned throughout the 23 years of living in the UK and having travelled the world a lot more since I moved to the UK, and not just India. Japan, India, Japan. I’ve seen that colourism is rife, essentially, in the entire non-white world. Entire non white. Everywhere. In Thailand, I saw skin whitening products where my daughter caught me red handed buying a cream. I just visited Vietnam recently. I’ve seen them in Turkey, I’ve seen them in Egypt. I’ve seen skin whitening products everywhere. And to think the skin whitening industry is growing even today. So, coming back to your question earlier, where I got carried away with sharing the story about my mum. So I couldn’t tell you about the representation in the media world in ten years from now. Well, sadly, the skin whitening industry is growing at a phenomenal rate, even though there is so much work that is being done with regards to activists like myself and there’s quite a few others now, and I’m so happy to see that. And we’re starting to see more representation in the media world. We’re starting to see beautiful, gorgeous, melanated beauties, as I call them. Whether it’s Never Have I Ever or it’s Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder. Bollywood has a long way to go. We still need to see that sort of representation. But, yeah, we are starting to see it. But this is why it’s still such a big problem. And this is why we need to keep working towards fighting colourism. In 2020, the skin whitening industry was valued at $8 billion. 8 billion! That’s a huge number already. By 2026, it will have reached $12 billion.
AB: Interesting. Wow. And Rudrani, tell me, just like Shweta is hoping something happens about this. As someone who’s at the forefront of the work being done for the LGBTQ community in India, what are your hopes and predictions for the future in India and globally?
RC: As with all I have lived and what all changes I have seen, I’m very positive, very optimistic. But I always say, whenever somebody asks me, what do you want for yourself and the community? I said, what you’re getting, I should be getting the same. So I believe this is what I want to see real soon. Equality is very important and same equality and equal opportunity, same respect. Even if we speak of wages, people, how it is seen that all of a sudden, men one day realise that we need to be liberated, we need to do something for women. And they all started taking workplaces. But I always feel as men one day realise that women are cheaper labour, so let’s bring them. So I don’t want to experience the same. Just because in the hierarchy of gender, if you see us at the bottom, it doesn’t mean you have to treat us that way. It’s just your way of thinking. I can be anyone. I can be the prime minister of this country if I’m given equal opportunities. So that’s what I want to see. Same for all.
AB: Absolutely, yes. Inclusion, equality, equal opportunities, equal respect. Absolutely. Now, finally, I want to ask both of you, what advice do you have for young people who want to help, who want to make a difference, but they don’t know where to start. Shweta, you first.
SA: So I would say, talking from my own personal experience, start with yourself. Start with talking about your own experiences. And if you find that that’s difficult for you, then start with writing about your own experiences. Write it in a journal to begin with. Get it out. Work on your own healing first. Because I feel like when you want to make a difference, you need to start on that journey, that fighting journey, with your cup full. So start with your own healing. Look within. Change begins with us. I really believe in that, and that’s how I started. So I would suggest doing the same. If you want to make a difference, and once you start to share your story and your experiences, you will be surprised at how many people resonate with it. Because one of the things that we fear most is what will people think? Well, guess what? Most likely, they’re thinking the same thing. They’re just too afraid to say. Agreed?
AB: Agreed. And Rudrani, what about you? What would you advise them for those younger?
RC: I think now I believe they’re already aware of things. It’s just not like my time. Whatever mummy papa says is first and last. I mean, there is no in between, there is no scope. Whatever she said is the correct thing. But now today’s kids do have a lot of resources. I think the best thing they can do is not wait for other people to educate themselves. Start from yourself, break this communication gap. Just don’t sit inside your car and think about the other person. It’s nicer to know somebody instead of just having your own imagination about someone. So I think I’m already seeing this change. But I hope… There are other people who still do have a lot of transphobia, a lot of different negative things about different communities without even interacting with them. So start doing that, then you can have your opinion. I don’t want, especially young ones or anyone to everybody, to love us. What you can do is— if you cannot love us, if you don’t appreciate us, just don’t hate us. I mean,
AB: Absolutely. And you know what I tell people all the time, if you don’t understand something, ask. So I’m sure, Rudrani or Shweta, if someone came up to you and asked questions about what you do, you would happily answer them. And that’s what our session today is about, trying to make people understand. At the end of every session, we do a quick, rapid fire round to summarise the session. So, Shweta, I’ll start with you first. A book or film that deeply influenced your view on biases.
SA: So one movie that comes to mind straight away is Damini. It was a movie, I think, at least 20 years old, based on sexual assault of labour class, a maid in a rich household. And how this actress, she stood up for it and she wanted to speak the truth, but she was silenced by her family and the bias that you have for the labour class because their lives are basically insignificant. And how the movie progressed and how she fought against all odds, including her own family, to fight for the truth and get this maid in the house justice. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
AB: Lovely. Thank you. The most unexpected place you found inspiration for your activism?
SA: Well, I mean, it’s unexpected in a way because my daughter was only nine years old when she caught me buying that cream in Thailand. So I would say she has been my inspiration.
AB: Lovely, lovely. That’s wonderful actually.
SA: You know our children these days, they know so much more and they teach us. But yeah, she has been one of my biggest inspirations and she’s my role model.
AB: If you could broadcast one message about biases on a global billboard, what would it be?
SA: We all bleed the same.
AB: Lovely. Absolutely wonderful. Thank you. Rudrani— One stereotype about the transgender community you wish to debunk.
RC: There are many, but one of them is like, we kidnap children. No, we don’t do that.
AB: A word that perfectly describes your journey as an activist,
AB: Wonderful. Your biggest inspiration in the LGBTQ rights movement?
RC: My guru. Her name is Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. She herself is an activist and I really admire her work. She’s very bold. So yeah.
AB: Thank you. Thank you both, you beautiful people for this lovely chat, for your powerful insights. I’m very grateful. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here with us today. I hope you learned something new. I learned a lot today, and I hope we brought you a little closer to leading a healthier, happier, more hopeful, more inclusive life. If you have any questions or any topic suggestions, please get in touch with me at Anshu@wellnesscurated.life. As you know, I love to hear from you and please do subscribe to our channel, Wellness Curated on the podcast and Wellness Curated by Anshu Bahanda on YouTube. It just enables us to get you more speakers and provide you this service for free. Thank you so much.