I started using fairness creams around the age of 13 after my return to India from the US. Until then, I’d been such a tomboy, so it hit me hard when people commented on my colour here,” says Rasil Ahuja, on her new fiction book, Unfair, which looks at how societal prejudice towards skin tone impacts the young. Edited excerpts:
What led you to write this book?
Unfair is the unfortunate story of many women of my generation, which has passed down to the next generation. And while colourism is losing its gender bias, I’m not sure we can call that a positive!
I was eight when I left India and moved to a very multicultural part of Northern Virginia. I was surrounded by kids and adults of so many different ethnicities that I fit right in, and colour was just not part of our conversation.
But in college, many South Asian friends would apply foundation that was one to two shades lighter than their skin tone, to look fairer. I did it too. That tube of fairness cream promised a fairer, prettier, and more likable me. Fast forward to 2015, as a parent of a toddler I noticed my cohort layer SPF 100 on other people’s kids not so that they would not burn in the sun, but not get dark in the sun.
Unfair is for all of us to question and reflect on our colour biases.
What are the challenges in writing for children on such themes?
The real challenge was to foster empathy without pointing blame. It’s so easy to say #EmbraceYourColour, but kids won’t necessarily buy into that. Bringing in the science of skin colour felt like the right thing to do. We know white was the colour of power for centuries, and we have seen the ramifications of this the world over. But we are getting better at accepting ourselves. There should be no reverse colourism as that would defeat the whole point of the story.
How did the main characters, Lina and Meher, evolve?
Twelve is a very interesting age. You teeter between being a child and a young adult. You are both and yet neither.
Lina and Meher popped up in my head when I started thinking about the story. As a Sikh, it’s important to me to have a strong Sikh protagonist because I feel that Sikhs are underrepresented in children’s literature. That said, I wanted the characters to be real and relatable, not just props for the plot. So, I spent a lot of time sketching out a detailed character study. Who is Meher? What are her insecurities? What motivates her to achieve her goals? These questions didn’t need to be answered in the book, but they helped me understand how Meher would react to situations that presented themselves in the book.
Lina presented herself with a dreamy quality when I started sketching her. She is sensitive, eager, full of zest, and walks on air until pulled down. She breaks, but doesn’t shatter, and instead finds a stronger version of herself without losing her sensitive core.
How much time did you take with the number of drafts and revisions, if any?
The idea for the book came to me in 2015. I played with it in my head for three-four months before committing myself to it. I started with a character study that delved into each character’s traits — their favourite colour, life dream, likes, dislikes, the length of their hair, feet, nose, the music they listen to, etc. Once I knew my characters I wrote a detailed chapter outline. I finished it in 2015, and in 2017 I finally mustered the courage to propose it to Sohini Mitra at Penguin after my first book was released. Writing it took about a year, thanks to the outline I knew the direction of the story.
I was (and am) heavily critical of my word choice, sentence structure, even the tense and point of view. Nearly half way through Unfair, I changed tense and POV that forced re-writing of whole chapters! The song though proved to be my nemesis — getting the meter correct, setting a tempo, finding rhyme that made sense. When I sang it for my son, he groaned at the tune.
Tell us about including references to William Shakespeare's works in the book.
I am a fan of Shakespeare because his plays are packed with action and drama, and humanity and inhumanity. Romeo and Juliet is the perfect play for Unfair in that it makes a bonfire of idealism and naiveté, and from it emerges maturity and insight. I specifically drew references from Shakespeare’s other works that would foreshadow Lina’s state of mind. I looked for lines that readers may be familiar with (no Cliff Notes required!) and would also connect with the chapters thematically. Those lines are my favourite parts of the book.
Unfair by Rasil Kaur Ahuja
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 225