Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Why I used to dread World Book Day

My book seems to have become a little bit about race. I’m not sure how it happened, I certainly didn’t mean for it to happen, but happened it has. Eight-year-old me would have cringed.

When I was a kid, I was the only person in my class with brown skin. No one ever made a fuss about it. Instead whenever my classmates and I discussed why I was different it would be because I’d got my ears pierced when I was a baby and one of their mums still wouldn’t let them, or because my family celebrated Diwali as well as Christmas. The only time I can remember my skin colour ever being commented on is when a girl who was a couple of years younger than me came over to my usual bench and asked me why I wasn’t white. She wasn’t being horrible, she just wanted to know. What bothers me sometimes when I think of that time, though, is my reply. I said: ‘I was born like this’, an answer demonstrating how aware I was about being different to what I thought was normal.

When I pretended, I was always a Katie, or an Emma – I was even a George during my Blyton phase, and I was always, always white. And when World Book Day rolled around, as much as I loved getting a free book token, I would panic about the fancy-dress part. Because this time, I wasn’t just playing with my sisters. This time everyone else would see who I was pretending to be, and what if they called me a fake?

It’s the year-four World Book Day that I remember in particular, possibly because it was the first time I really thought about my costume instead of wearing whatever my mum suggested. I wasn’t imaginative enough to go as an animal or an object (my sister once dressed up as a tree house, it was amazing), and I spent hours and hours trying to think of someone to be. My options were narrow. Back then I had a book by Jamila Gavin called Grandpa Chatterji, which features two Indian children who live in England. The book is about them being English, as well as about them being Indian. But no one in my class except me had heard of it, and I didn’t want to spend all day explaining who I was.  Looking back, I wonder if my mum specifically sought it out so that I could see characters like myself in books. I wouldn’t be surprised.

And then, of course, there was Parvati Patil. The Patil twins make me smile every time I think about them - well except when I think about the outfits they wore to the Yule Ball in the film version, because they are like me: Indian with a British upbringing. And the fact that they are Indian has absolutely nothing to do with their purpose in the books. It’s just not a big deal. If I dressed up as her, though, it would only have been because of her skin colour, and certainly not because she was a cool dressing up option. When there’s Hermione, who would want to dress up as Parvati?

In the end I went self-consciously as Princess Jasmine, because I had no other ideas and I already had the clothes, but I took my jeans and a jumper with me in my schoolbag. About half an hour into the day I asked my teacher if I could change. She said I could, but I saw the disappointment in her face when she asked ‘But who will you be dressed up as?’ I shrugged and mumbled ‘myself’, whilst thinking that if she kicked up a fuss I’d fold a couple of sheets of paper into a booklet and write a few sentences about myself in them so that I could say that, technically, I was in a book. She didn’t object, but later that year she bound one of my creative pieces so that it looked like a real book and presented it to me in a ceremony that my parents were invited to watch. I still have it and now, all this time later, I seem to have written a book about someone that actually is a little bit like me.

Oh and I’m pleased to say that my youngest sister was nowhere near as crazy as I was. A few years ago she and her friends dressed up as the Weasleys, and guess what? Nobody cared. 

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