~ By Sonali Dev
Like so many of you who are reading this, I inhaled books as a child. And I don’t mean that just in terms of volume but in terms of depth. I didn’t just read the books, I crawled inside them. I burrowed inside the characters like an insidious, hungry thing and flailed out my limbs to don their very essence like one pushes into a greatcoat with a broken zipper and breaks through the arm and neck holes in full ownership. I ate these stories up from the inside out.
My little whitewashed room in our hundred-year old Mumbai apartment took turns transforming into everything from the halls of Pemberly to the turreted common rooms of Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and St. Claires. I loved Oliver Barrett and Father Ralph de Bricassart long before my love found a flesh and blood boy to inhabit.
In other words, before I was in college, I, a bonafide brown-skinned Indian girl growing up in urban India thinking in English, had been a lot of white people. And then one day I picked up M.M. Kaye’s Far Pavillions. Until then the people I became in books had names like Jane and Maggie and Cathy. To find a heroine who was called Anjulie, even though she thought of herself mostly as ‘Julie’ was an event so significant, it might have altered the course of my life. Now, Julie was a princess and she was half white so I was grasping at straws really, but she lived in towns and villages I recognized and wore silks and chiffons. And even though my wardrobe was mostly denim, Julie was unarguably Indian and she was in a book and somewhere in my head, an impossible thing became possible.
Then came Vikram Seth and his Suitable Boy. And there was Lata, who was not a princess but just your regular Indian girl with a crazy, overbearing, close-knit family, and she fell for a brown-eyed boy while browsing poetry in a Delhi bookstore (sigh), and the way I had fit into characters before that shifted and became not about travelling to lands far far away but about exploring where I came from and what that made me. The possibilities multiplied in my heart. The stories that I had spun for as long as I could remember became things that might find their way onto the pages of books that might actually make their way onto bookshelves. Somehow in finding myself in a book, I found the knowledge that what I had to say might interest someone other than me. It made me matter.
There’s been a lot of talk lately on social media about wanting diverse books. #WeNeedDiverseBooks is a call to arms that is long overdue. And even though discovering characters with my skin color empowered me to pick up the pen, that isn’t the real reason why I’m so overjoyed that this hashtag has coalesced its way into existence. The real reason for me jumping on this particular soapbox is what reading books from cultures different from mine did for me by letting me crawl into bodies and minds that should have seemed foreign but never did. That’s the thing about books, they are the only painless method of stripping away our skin and unifying us at a level where all we are is human.
Unfortunately, this is possibly also the reason why even today when our world is a swirl of color our books are still overwhelmingly white. Because white has come to signify a blanket of uniformity and relateability in our books. And it is unfair to a point of being almost tragic because that moment of “OMG, that is exactly how I feel!” is not a feeling that should be restricted only to a colored person upon experiencing the travails of white characters, but it is a feeling all races should be able to feel about other races without making it about the race. And not just race, but sexual orientation, heck, even religion and every other label we humans use to differentiate ourselves from each other while continuing to live lives populated by the exact same emotions.
But no matter how much we tweet about it, no one is going to give us more diverse books unless we buy the diverse books already out there. It’s called supply and demand –yet another glorious aspect of the human condition. The reason there is so little diversity in books is that it is so easy and enjoyable to read within the comfort zone created by the un-diverse books so plentifully available to us. And until we read outside our comfort zone, we will never grow the confines of that comfort zone, and the powers that be will have no market to feed. So go out and buy a few diverse books, read them, maybe you’ll travel to fantastic and heartbreaking places. Or maybe you’ll find that hearts break in much the same way no matter who you are. And just to know that, to feel that, it might be worth it.