Author Shweta Aggarwal on fighting colourism and swimming against the tide

Author Shweta Aggarwal on fighting colourism and swimming against the tide

Reena Ranger, Chair of Women Empowered, is In Conversation with Shweta Aggarwal for her regular series for ‘iGlobal’ to explore some inspirational facets from the life and achievements of prominent Global Indians.

Shweta Aggarwal is a computer science engineer by background, with her true calling being the arts. When she moved to London in 2000, she started running a Bollywood dance company called Threebee – Bold, Beautiful and very Bollywood, alongside working at UBS in their IT department. Shweta felt a new passion emerge a few years ago when she noticed the lack of South Asian representation in children’s books. This drove her to launch the ‘Dev and Ollie’ series of picture books, now well received in schools and libraries around the world. Among her many accolades include being invited by Her Majesty the Queen to Buckingham Palace for the UK-India Year of Culture in 2017.


What was the inspiration behind your children’s book series ‘Dev and Ollie’, a departure from your IT career?


My inspiration was two-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, I noticed a lack of Asian representation in children’s books. Characters like Dev were difficult to come by, and I believe it’s paramount for children to be able to see themselves in books.

I will never forget the day my daughter was given her first writing assignment at the age of seven. Her character names were Zara, Evie and Catherine. When I asked her why she hadn’t picked any South Asian names, her response was ‘it doesn’t sound right’. It was because she had never seen Asian names and characters in books.

Secondly, there was a lack of resources to acquaint my children with their culture in a modern, fun and engaging manner. Personally, I felt that festival experiences are the best medium for that as they evoke the best of any culture. Hence, the series is based on festival adventures.

So, amalgamating the two reasons, I came up with the ‘Dev and Ollie’ series, acting as a window to our wonderful world of festivals. I believe cultural learning through festival experiences implicitly promotes inclusion and helps raise global citizens.

Currently, the series focuses on Indian festivals but I intend to add international festivals adventures to the collection soon, such as the Tomatina festival in Spain.


You have a history of creativity, from having a dance company to becoming author; what’s next?


I allow life to carve my path for me. I am still writing at the moment but something different and dark (no pun intended!).

Last year, triggered by the BLM movement and widespread discussions on social media on prejudice within the Asian community, I started penning my memoir, ‘The Black Rose’. It is based on my journey through colourism from the age of six. I have just completed the first draft and am now immersed in the laborious task of editing. In spite of the risk of exposing my personal life story to the world, I am on a mission to instigate change.

Colourism is a deep rooted, omnipresent notion in the South Asian community that needs addressing on a mass scale.


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What has been the lesson you have learned during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown?


To slow down. And to look up. Being chained to our desks, stuck to our phone or laptop had become the norm. I found my life flying by whilst I was too busy looking down. I’ve learned the value of looking up.

Watching the birds fly home, gazing at a sunset, listening to gentle waves ripple in a nearby lake, losing myself in a book (although that is looking down), hearing my children giggle in the back garden – I underestimated how much value these little experiences add to my life. I’ve also had the pleasure of enjoying these little moments with my family and friends (when allowed), helping me make deeper connections.

I realised that going back to the basics can actually make my life more wholesome. There’s another benefit. It helps the greater community as slowing down yields better health, which then releases pressure on our health system. For all these reasons, I see even my local park with a different lens now.


What is the one lesson or words of wisdom that you try to live your life by that you would recommend to the next generation?


I live by one motto: “There are two choices in life, sink or swim. And sinking is not an option.” I learnt this from the age of six when I was enrolled in a boarding school. My parents made a courageous move and shifted to Kobe, Japan, to start a business back in the 1980s.

Unfortunately, this meant disrupting my education. But Japanese government schools had a Japanese curriculum and the only two international schools in Kobe were simply unaffordable. So, I spent nearly three years in a boarding school in India before I moved to Japan. Separation from my parents at that age is the hardest thing I have ever experienced. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for my parents’ sacrifices (and mine). But that meant I had to learn how to fend for myself at a very young age and understand the importance of ‘swimming’.

Now I’m 43 and as you can imagine, I’ve had my fair share of highs and lows in life. But no matter how low I feel, I tell myself to ‘just keep swimming’. And soon enough I can see the shore.

I don’t wish this lesson on children aged six! But it’s never too early to learn how to swim.

Reena Ranger is the Chair and Co-Founder of Women Empowered. In this exclusive “In Conversation” series for ‘iGlobal’, the dynamic entrepreneur-philanthropist catches up with high-achieving Global Indians across different fields to spotlight some insightful life lessons.

*The views expressed in the answers are of the interviewees.

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