Sharan Dhaliwal clearly states in the preface of her book, Burning My Roti – Breaking Barriers as a Queer Indian Woman that it, “isn’t a self-help book. It won’t tell you how to improve your life in ‘just three easy steps!’”. It is, “a collection of [Dhaliwal’s] stories and experiences and noticed behaviors”. It is also a refreshingly no-holds-barred honest account of Dhaliwal’s life from which she pulls to question and disrupt “uncomfortable” truths. Truths about privilege, body image/shaming, sexual identities, the pressures of fitting into the perfect-good-Punjabi-girl box, and the choke hold of patriarchy as seen through a South-Asian (Indian) lens.
The title is an appropriate metaphor for Dhaliwal’s relentless activism in disrupting the normativity of the onerous familial expectations that so many Indian girls are forced to bear. On a side note, Dhaliwal is also the founder of Burnt Roti, UK’s leading South Asian culture magazine. Dhaliwal talks about her own experience as a young girl being taught by her mother to make the perfect roti for her potential future husband. Especially when she had absolutely no interest in cooking! It is a scathing affirmation in calling out the blatant patriarchal patterns in South Asian communities.
Burning My Roti’s six chapters are divided into themes around identity, body image/racial stigmatization of hair, colorism/light skin privilege, racialized beauty standards, and whiteness as an ideology. Each chapter features interviews, conversations, and stories of other South Asians like artists (Zarina Muhammed, Soofiya, Marissa Malik), actor (Priyanka Bose), and organizers (Belle, Alia), while also including her parents in conversations with her father on his immigrant experience and with her mother on caste privilege.
Dhaliwal bares her vulnerability as she speaks about her own issues with self-esteem, being bullied mercilessly for her large nose, crooked teeth, and hirsute body whilst growing up Punjabi in the UK. It is perhaps not surprising that a lot of her insecurities with her body was perpetuated by the aunties and friends of her parents. At the same time, she is also brutally honest in acknowledging and owning her light skin privilege and how she gets treated differently compared to other POC with darker skin tones.
The pages are steeped in a deliberate (and necessary?) discomfort, “the uncomfortableness is theirs, not yours” where Dhaliwal talks about gendered violence, racism, anti-blackness and white privilege, and her personal journey of understanding and accepting her sexuality. By weaving in personal anecdotes to illustrate her viewpoints, the book eludes the trap of being pedantic and preachy. Instead, it reads as a journal and a deeply personal manifesto of Dhaliwal questioning and rebelling as she navigates the complexities of life as a Brown woman growing up in the West. The reader is invited to sit within this space of discomfort and reflect on what it brings up for them, especially if you are POC and can directly relate to and empathize with the similarities of your own life experiences.
Illustrations by Aleesha Nandhra and Lisa Rahman are interspersed alongside the text throughout the book, and they are contrastingly intricate and minimalist. There are colorful ones that embrace the whole page, small black and white ones that sometimes dance on the edges, and others that straddle pages along the spine of the book. The drawings collectively braid the writing and anchor Dhaliwal’s incisive words beautifully.
Burning My Roti would have benefitted from another round of proofreading as the printer’s devil makes its unfortunate appearance on more than one page.
The book concludes with a very useful list of resources for further reading and tips on actionable items, what each one of us can do to shift the narrative. How not to be silent, to rage and resist, to continue learning (and unlearning) and then educate, and most importantly to question. Again and again and again!
Burning My Roti is a courageous, provocative, and thought-provoking memoir that goads the reader into looking within, to critique our own biases and conditioning, and how we can work together to recalibrate the status quo.