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“I am looking pretty, aren’t I? Please ward off the evil eyes away from me too, Maasi”. But all my maasi did was smile and cup my face before waving at someone to initiate a conversation with them instead of warding any evil eye off me!
I am a dusky girl born in India. This single sentence in itself conveys a lot about how my life had been.
To elaborate further I was the only dusky child of my generation while my other cousins and siblings were “the fairest of them all” from Indian standards. It was not that I was the ugly duckling that was mistakenly included in this North-Indian Brahmin family while sharing no genes with them.
My maternal and paternal grandfathers, both, were brown skinned in the typical sense of the word. And perhaps I was the only carrier of their recessive genes in my generation.
However, this didn’t make me a special child in my family rather the unwanted one. I was the highest achieving child of my generation but it was not enough to white wash the perception of my dark-skin.
My parents were consoled that she is dark but she has ‘sharp and better features than her female cousins’. They were made to believe that it would be most difficult to find a match for me that would require them to give a huge dowry.
I was advised to not wear bright colours as it will make my face look dull. But my parents brought me all shades of reds, oranges, blues and gold. Despite the mocking of my relatives, I used to feel pretty as I watched my parents’ eyes light up in glee— pretty but sad.
At one point, I was told that it would have been better if I had died instead of my fair-skinned siblings. I was a rainbow child born to my parents after the death of my 6 month older sister.
My school teachers refused to give me first row! Whenever I did participate in a dance or any other cultural event; the lead role was never offered to me!
And when as a young child of 7 or 8 years of age I asked for the lead role, I was turned down by my teachers, who clearly told me that my skin tone was not charming enough to be presented as the lead.
Perhaps, the Fair and Lovely had taken its regressive advertising strategy from such instances.
When role-playing with the neighbourhood kids, I was told that a dark-skinned child cannot be the princess but only her hand-maiden.
There came a time when I was afraid of reproducing another dark-skinned girl because I felt there can be no misfortune greater because of the amount of insults that were hurled on me wrapped up in the shiny gift paper of humour because sophisticated elites don’t insult they just snide.
However, I refused to take the insults to my skin tone and thus I was excluded from participating in school functions and neighbourhood playgroups.
It was not until I was in Class 12th that a teacher showed confidence in me and offered me the lead role of a white skinned professor from England in the school play that someone saw something in me beyond my skin colour.
Before that, even after trying to participate in many elocutions and debate competitions, I was not selected. And in that play, I left everyone spellbound with my rendition. I even won the best performer award for that role.
And this instance, proved to be a turning point in my life. My cousins remark that a drastic change in my personality came when I reached the college. However, it was with this participation that I had regained my lost confidence. But even then the taunts on my complexion didn’t end rather they became even more nasty.
At the age of 20 years, a cousin of mine who was of the same age as mine told me that I should be happy about being a dark skinned girl because it can gain me the status of a person coming from scheduled tribe and indigenous dwellers and thereby the benefit of reservation.
The irony of his statement was lost on him. On confronting him for his problematic statement, he laughed it off as a joke. However, this statement did hurt me because I realised I was an outcast for both these castes because of my colour — for Brahmins I was too dark-skinned; For non-brahmins I was a Savarna.
I, at the age of 28, was told by one of the older cousins who was of 38 years then that our grandmother used to tell that only fair skinned individuals are proof of superior race and dark skin is the product of impure ancestry.
This was shockingly untrue because my grandmother was one of the family members who had never discriminated me for my skin colour and was so progressive that she preferably chose dusky daughter in laws and sister in law for their other qualities.
And soon after my grandmother’s death, this cousin thought it would be appropriate to use her name to shame me to bring some weight in her argument. She didn’t even think that bringing the name of our grandmother into this false statement would malign her love for our grandfather who too was dark skinned.
These hurting statements forced me to do research on Indian skin colour and I found that even the religious texts mention Indian lineage to be dark-skinned. The only fair God in Indian Devotional institution is Maha-Gauri, the wife of God Mahadev.
However, she has a dark-skinned split form in Goddess Kali.
Sita, Draupadi, Kunti, Satyavati, Subhadra, God Vishnu, Ram and Krishna all were dark-skinned. Even Brahma had a glowing face and not a fair one. But the translators often confused and misinterpreted glowing as fair. The white-washing of the idols of these Gods have rendered our perception of them as fair-skinned which was not true.
When I confronted my cousins with these proofs stating that do they believe that our Gods were also of inferior lineage to them because of their dark skin, they accused me of having an inferiority complex that has nothing to do with how they treated me.
I probed deeper, it had everything to do with how I was treated. I was born with a dark-brown skin tone. However, within, 5 months of my birth, my complexion became several shades lighter equally to a wheatish shade yet I was stereotyped as “the dark one”, “the ugly duckling” because of my skin-tone at the time of birth.
It is now that I know that the true colour of a new born’s skin is formed few months after their birth. But that older cousin of mine, who made that statement, was already a mother of two teenage children when she spoke about the inferiority of my skin-tone.
When I found the right person to marry and settled in a love marriage, without any help from my relatives and without impoverishing my widowed mother for dowry, it came as a shock to most of my relatives who saw this turn of events as a stroke of luck and nothing remotely concerned with my qualities.
Instead I was shamed for being a feminist and for not letting my husband accept dowry. During the wedding rituals, I saw one of my colour-conscious aunts trying to ward off the evil-eye from one of my fair cousins as she was dancing in my sangeet function.
So, when I came dressed as a bride, after finally white-washing my wheatish complexion into a shade equal to theirs by spending a fortune on air-brushed dewy makeup, I had expected them to finally show some appreciation and approval. However, No one was trying to ward off the evil eye away from the bride that was me.
Again, that aunt was repeating the gesture for my cousin so I went to her and jokingly said that “I am looking pretty, aren’t I? Please ward off the evil eyes away from me too, Maasi”.
But all my maasi did was smile and cup my face before waving at someone to initiate a conversation with them instead of warding any evil eye off me. Supposedly, I wasn’t someone on whom evil eye could have caused any effect because I was already of the darker skin-tone.
The same older cousin, who bragged about having her makeup done by a movie makeup artist at her wedding, declared that she is a natural beauty and need no makeup while a dark-skinned bride needed much.
At my in-laws place there were certain attempts to shame me for my skin tone but my husband’s firm stand on this issue silenced everyone once and for all. However, the prejudice against my dark skin didn’t end here.
Shaming of dark skin is the most sustained colonial practice of the recent times.
Unfortunately, I did my PhD in English Literature, another instrument of our colonial past and am pursuing my career options as an Assistant Professor in English. However, in one of the interviews that I appeared for the post of Assistant Professor, a very reputed professor and expert of English subtly told me that there is an unofficial prerequisite for a teacher of English in any institution because the department of English is in fact the face of any institution and that face must be presentable.
Obviously, I wasn’t selected despite my academic credentials from the National and International fronts.
Ironically, the institution to which the professor belonged wasn’t even able to secure a NAAC ‘A’ grading even after appointing fair skinned people. But this again shows even in the institutions of Higher Education, the people seated in the highest positions haven’t broadened their minds against the colonial slavery of Colourism so even the saying “Education opens the minds of people” falls flat on the floor.
My struggle with my skin tone was never one of self pity but of understanding why all my accomplishments fall short in front of my face colour. Nandita Das has once rightly put forward the verdict of a dark skinned Indian girl: “For them, dark is dirty”.
At times, I had been told to wash my face for hygiene and people were disappointed to see it of the same colour as before because for them dark in unhygienic. I have been told to wash my face with so many agents and remedies that I had felt a ray of hope at getting de-tanned only which made my skin a shade fairer.
I liberated myself only when I saw myself through the eyes of my teacher who saw my talent and not my skin colour and had let a brown girl play the role of a white man; I liberated myself when I heard my husband tell me that he adores how my skin glows when I talk about my research findings and the things I am interested in; I liberated myself when my students told me that I have made them fall in love with literature by the sheer passion with which I teach.
I realised that only a petty person could sensationalise someone’s skin colour to the extent of breaking their spirits. That filth of heart cannot be brightened by “Glow and Lovely” nor cannot be white washed by ivory skin-tone. The only thing that matters regarding the skin is to “seep under someone’s skin” for bringing about a positive change in their perspective of life.
In my heart of hearts I was still afraid when I was pregnant and I felt my baby communicating with me that she will be happy in her rose-gold cheeks as long as I love them over the pale and ivory. This realisation brought a whole-hearted acceptance of my skin-colour in this society.
I accepted the embrace of my skin-tone happily and I know it because I felt very confident and sexiest while posting a picture of my face tanned on a beach to the exact colour of a bronzed green.
Image source: still from DARK SKIN a short film by Content Ka Keeda, edited on CanvaPro
Dr. Nishtha Mishra is an internationally published author. She is a Doctorate in English Literature from one of the reputed Central Universities. She has been an all round topper and has 5 gold medals to read more...
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