When my nephew was five, he started going to an international school in Dubai. He came home one day to look at each family member carefully, and very matter-of-factly graded us, according to our skin tone. From creamy white to coffee brown, we could have easily been an advertisement for the Asian Paints shade card. Being surrounded by children from different parts of the world, he was hyper-aware of skin colour, something that he had not thought of before.
Children today are surrounded by a host of media – from picture books to games and toys – with light-skinned characters. As The Guardian points out, “decades of research show that children notice ethnic differences surprisingly early and may start to ascribe values to them”. Growing up in a society where the idea of fair and lovely is thrust down your throat all the time is not easy. Our obsession with fair skin is entrenched deeply, reinforced by corporate brands and constantly upheld by certain sections of the media.
FunOKPlease’s latest picture book, Brown like Dosas, Samosas and Sticky Chikki, attempts to kick-start a discussion around this critical subject. The book tells the story of Samaira, who is faced with a conundrum when Anahi the purple lady offers to turn her “into a shade of white”. Samaira politely refuses, remembering how her mother always said that there are many colours – some like sweet, earthy potatoes, others like sand and cinnamon – and that the world be a dull place if everyone was the same colour. As Anahi comes up with more silly requests and absurd ideas, Samaira resolutely reminds her that she is comfortable in her own skin, thank you very much.
Illustrator Heetal Dattani Joshi gives the characters an Indian-Disneyfied look – Samaira has huge, melting brown eyes, while Anahi could give any Disney princess a run for her crown. The book comes with a pull-out picture frame with the message, “Whatever be your special shade; Unique and perfect you’ve been made!” Rebecca Manari’s storyline is charming, brimming with some fun local food metaphors, such as skin “the delicious colour of black forest cake” and “brown like dosas, samosas and sticky chikki”. However, her verse often feels forced, making the picture book a stilted read.
However, the ethos behind the book, about how everyone is unique and perfect the way they are, is certainly admirable. And, in many ways, it is an important message, given the issues that young adults and children face with body image as they grow up in a world obsessed with perfection. As is the fact that proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the Apne Aap Women’s Collective, an anti-trafficking organisation.
By Bijal Vachharajani
Author: Rebecca Manari
Illustrator: Heetal Dattani Joshi
Funokplease Publishing, 2014
Subject category: Contemporary/Picture Book