Life Stories: Sharan Dhaliwal - Founder, Burnt Roti
I became aware of Burnt Roti after reading this post which was funny, poigant yet uncomfortably true about the way Bollywood sensationalises alpha male portrayals (and by virtue presents women as passive). I hadn’t looked at the world in this way before, and so I was instantly curious as to who was the brains behind this amazing magazine. Cue, Editor-in-Chief, Sharan Dhaliwal, who like me also grew up in West London.
A vocal campaigner for South Asian women’s rights and identities, bold in her approach and unflinchingly honest, Sharan herself has been through an interesting journey this past year, coming out as bisexual and moved from ally to advocate of queer people of colour.
34, female, bisexual, British-Indian (Punjabi)
Life Right Now
Burnt Roti is my focus right now with 3 main pillars for discussion in the magazine: mental health, sexual health and the LGBTQ community. Each of these pillars is something I’ve had personal experience with and want to talk about openly. It’s been really busy recently, as we just held the Let’s Talk About Sex workshop at Rich Mix, which was aimed to help us understand all things wonderful (and essential) about condoms. You don’t get taught this stuff but it’s very important! The South Asian community can demonise people who are sexually active when actually we need to open up these conversations to educate people and ensure they are safe and managing risks. Aside from that, there are other projects in the pipeline too.
When I was younger, I wasn’t aware of the concept of being bisexual. There were stereotypes aplenty from saying that it was en route to being gay to ‘they are just greedy’. Growing up, I was ‘allowed’ to have girl crushes and be a tomboy, so I played with my gender identity and hid my sexuality. But I remember watching certain films and being turned on, for example the sex scene in Bound (crime noir) which had two leads who are female – and the sex was just a part of the story. That made me associate with my desire in a different way. I had some more interactions with women when I went to college, as well as relationships with men, but it was this year that I came out as bisexual.
My Family & Culture
My connection to my culture is mainly through my work, Burnt Roti, although my work is based on the immigrant experience rather than the South Asian experience. I’m not ashamed of being Indian and my hope is that by working within the South Asian community, we become more visible, acknowledged and marketable. I have my critics, but I want to be authentic about what Burnt Roti is there for and what we cover. If you’re asking me do I sit around in a sari everyday, no! I sit in a world where I’m both Indian and British, I don’t need to be a certain way, I am British-Indian regardless of how I dress or act. It’s the duality of these identities that I find fascinating and want to continue conversations on, rather than talking about Bollywood and weddings.
My Dad is a supporter of Burnt Roti, he will show up at events and is great about it. My brother and his wife have also been supportive of my work and who I am. With my Mum, it’s been trickier but we still have a relationship which is important to me.
I’d drunk whispered I was bisexual to some of friends in the past, but I came out this year and did it by writing an article. I hadn’t even told my parents! It was quite strange, as I wrote it in just 20 minutes. It was pure, from the heart and I just published it! Straight after, I felt really vulnerable. I started to overthink how people would react, would people treat me the same? What would life be like? Bisexuality isn’t something we talk about enough, and so I was worried how I’d be perceived as a fake.
Overall, my concerns were unfounded and my people have continued to love and accept me for who I am. I remember finally leaving the house; people were so cool that my fear started to dissipate very quickly. People who know you will continue to love you. I did spend time exploring that fear, to understand where it came from and work through it as it helped me become stronger today. Beyond the fear, it was great to just say it loud and accept myself for who I am – I think we harm our mental health by not doing so and the reactions were affirming and helped the self-doubt disappear.
With my family, I was scared of facing Mum. A couple of days after the article, she phoned me to ask if I was going to my nephew’s birthday and then mentioned that some of her friends had told her about the article and that it had said I was ‘gay’. We talked a bit about it at the time, but I don’t think she quite understood. Since then, we haven’t really spoken about it.
My brother had recently had baby, so he had other priorities on his mind! But he was great and supported me. As I mentioned, my Dad is a supporter and said that he understood the concept. He considered sexuality could be fluid especially growing up in the Western world. We would often go to the pub and have these amazing chats. He doesn’t mention it much, but when he does, it’s never in a negative light.
I’ve talked about how Burnt Roti is my expression of my identity and so it has had a big impact on my career. Specifically, sexuality has become an important pillar as that wasn’t the case before. Because I didn’t speak about my sexuality before, it didn’t need to come into my work space. However, now it’s about reflecting all aspects of my life, being open and creating a safe space for such conversations. I can use this as a platform to raise awareness.
It’s meant that you share experiences and as a result conversations, friendships and relationships blossom. I’ve also become more vocal about LGBTQ issues and want to use my energy to support the community. I’m more willing to step into that space, especially when I come across inspiring people or causes. The community is one of love, and so it’s natural I want to support allowing people to have that love and happiness.
Love, Dating & Relationships
So, I’ve never had a relationship with a woman, and all of my previous relationships were with men who were not South Asian. I’ve found heterosexual brown boys to be the worst* – I’m not a replacement for your Mum! My family (Mum in particular) have found that difficult. In some ways, my choices are activism for myself and who I am, to spite that generational view of love and relationships.
*Sharan caveats that there are some amazing South Asian guys out there!
I broke off my engagement in the last year, and it was after that I decided to be fully open and honest about myself. I decided then that I didn’t want to be in another relationship and work on myself. But after coming out, I felt this intense pressure to prove I was a bisexual and begin a relationship with a woman if I wanted to be accepted by the LGBTQ community. So I became consumed with women, flipping my position on relationships and wanting to date all of them. Last month, I reminded myself of what I wanted and came back to myself.
At this time, I’m not looking for a relationship, I’m spending time with myself and my work. My emotional needs are met by my friends and my sexual needs are met by the beautiful people I meet when I want to, be they regular buddies or not. I’m glad I remembered that I’m not ready for this in this exact moment, as I want to examine the cycle of the relationships I have. Sometimes I think I don’t know how to ‘do’ relationships. I’m back in a comfortable space and having a great time seeing friends, meeting new people, being sexual and working hard too!
I was actually immersed in it more before I came out. It was my way of connecting to that world, engaging in it and meeting some wonderful people. I realised after that I went there because I wanted to be them. After coming out, I realised I didn’t need to go to all the parties or force myself to always be within the community.
I still spend time on the scene, predominantly in queer spaces for people of colour (POC). And I feel they are very open and always welcoming in the spaces I choose to be in. There are people I know and feel connected to. I feel that less so in white, queer spaces and have felt unwelcome. You’re ostracised for being different, and so I tend to avoid those spaces as I find them problematic. In queer POC spaces, I don’t feel like my sexuality is questioned.
As a community we can be stronger by having more conversations. Allowing queer POC to have conversations, speak up and give them their safe spaces to do so. These conversations allow people to share experiences, share trauma and ultimately build confidence before presenting it to the wider world. We have to strengthen ourselves because speaking to people outside the community can put you in a vulnerable. And it works, as you can see when collective thoughts and a shared belief emerges, you build a movement – which in turn creates positive change.
Organisations like Gaysians and the charity Imaan ( for LGBTQ Muslims) stand out. I’m a big fan of Lady Phyll (Exec Director, UK Black Pride). There are other talented people like Asad Dhunna (Founder, The Unmistakables and Director of Comms, Pride) who are doing great things for visibility of our community.
Words of Wisdom
Be honest with yourself – have a conversation with yourself, spend time on yourself and nurture your identity. Think about what you want, need and what’s important to you. Being able to listen to yourself will help you work through any anxiety or fear.
Confide in someone you trust – by moving the conversation from yourself to someone else, it will help dissipate the fear. Having an open conversation with someone about their journey can also help and build hope.
Find spaces within the community – When you’re ready, make those steps and connect with other like minded people. You will be welcomed, so immerse yourself.
With that, our conversation came to a close. I found Sharan’s candidness and courage to reflect the values of colourfull 🌈 and am excited to see what happens next with Burnt Roti. Aside from the website, you can also follow them on Twitter and Instagram. Watch out for Issue 3!
Sharan recently published a post on the impact of misconceptions around bisexuality. Have a read here.