An Indian girl studies in a rural school. Photo: iStock
An Indian girl studies in a rural school. Photo: iStock

I remember that as a child I would pull my dad’s cheeks simply because I marveled at his complexion, and wondered why I didn’t share the tone of his skin (he was Indian, and my mother German). Because of the systemic privileges that fair skin has always consciously or subconsciously had, it is certain that at times it also attracts biases.

I soon realized this as a child and wondered why the color of one’s skin got in the way of forging a friendship. What has the color of my skin got to do with relationships? I remembered Michael Jackson’s song “Black or White,” and it found deep resonance with me. This same feeling stirred inside me when I met “Jafta.” 

Authored by Hugh Lewin and illustrated by Lisa Kopper, and published originally in the early 1980s, Jafta is the journey of a child long before he becomes subject to the barriers of life. The book is about the sheer innocence that children are known for, and the journey of a strong, dark-skinned protagonist.

The fact that an adult penned this book still amazes me. Perhaps that is because Lewin’s journey was pained by barriers too; he was jailed by South Africa’s apartheid state for seven years. After serving a full term, he left South Africa on a “permanent departure permit” in December 1971.

Ten years in exile in London were followed by 10 years in Zimbabwe. During his time in exile, he wrote and published the “Jafta Series” so that he could share the beauty of his homeland with his children. In 1992, he returned to South Africa. 

Jafta talks about a child’s desire to be one with nature that is home to him, irrespective of the size and color of those whom he loves unconditionally and who love him unconditionally. Isn’t this what love, in its purest form, must look like? Then what happens when we step into adulthood? In fact, in the book Jafta, I recall a page that caught my attention – the little boy almost bowing to his friend, the Rhino.

Being brought up in a multicultural background myself, I kept searching for my roots: Whom do I belong to? Until I realized that it doesn’t really matter, as long as I belong to the world that is my home.

Honestly, now I don’t really care about those who differentiate on the basis of my color, mother tongue, gender, background or anything else; for I know that those who love me do so unconditionally, or else it would not be called love. Jafta celebrates diversity, and that’s what I celebrate too. 

In India, the book is available from Katha, a globally recognized non-profit organization that promotes the joy of reading and the love of books, especially among children living in entrenched poverty.

Founded in 1989 by Geeta Dharmarajan, Katha is built on the vision that children can be agents of positive socio-cultural change. Katha’s mission is to empower socio-economically disadvantaged children as they read for joy and meaning.

Children, via Katha’s StoryPedagogy, engage with “big ideas” through high-quality reading content that fosters their critical thinking and problem-solving skills so that they can go on to create a kinder, more equitable, and sustainable world for all. 

This article is a part of Katha’s “Write to Equality” segment, a medium to use Katha books to question various spectra of inequality in India.

Sarah Berry is head of communications, Centre for The Digital Future, based in Haryana, India. She is also outreach adviser for the organization.