It was a beautiful evening during the summer holidays. That time of the day when the sun’s heat is just wearing off and the cool breeze wants to push its way in. Summer was always her favorite time of the year because she got to spend time in her grandparent’s village. The countryside, its lush green fields, her darling grandmother and most importantly, her cousins who played silly, childish games with her, all this made her summers beautiful. She was like any regular 5 year old. She played running and catching and house-house, lazied around the wooden swing in her backyard. She usually never carried her toys to the village. So this warm evening, she and her cousins decided to play house-house while all the elders went to the temple except for one of her aunts who stayed back to baby sit the kids.
House-house was a game that had a teeny tiny kitchen set. The kitchen set had all the utensils right from a cooking stove to spoons and ladles. She and her cousin sisters would pose to cook food, tiny amounts of rice, daal and chai and pretend to eat a sumptuously satisfying meal. But the game only started when the roles of mom, dad, and two children were assigned. She and her three cousin sisters played a random version of rock-paper-scissors and she was chosen to play the mom. She was excited because playing the mom was always the most important part. It was like the role Chiranjeevi played in the movie, Gang Leader, extremely important. She set her tiny pots and pans in a row, ready to start her cooking ordeal when her aunt who wasn’t paying attention until then suddenly intervened.
“Oh! wait. Are you playing the mother?”, her aunt asked looking surprised.
“Yes”, she chirped happily.
“No. Wait, you cannot. Switch places with Kavya. You play the father.”
“Why? I just don’t want to bring the groceries. I want to play the main role.”, she said, her eyes almost brimming with tears.
“You are dark skinned. You cannot play the wife or the mother. You should play the father. Girls who are fair skinned are always beautiful, so let Kavya take your place.” She heard her aunt say.
She looked at her olive skinned hands and wondered why she was that way. When her mother came back from the temple, she ran to her, and asked, “Why did you give me this dark color. Did you not like me? I want to be fair skinned too.”
Her mother, rather surprised, said, “What nonsense! Who is feeding such crap into your head. You are beautiful and you are important. Don’t let your skin color, caste or religion ever be something that defines your personality.”
She wasn’t convinced. She felt that it was her fault she was born dark skinned. She wanted a lighter skin tone and was willing to do anything for it.
Every year, the 11th grade students would throw a farewell party to both, the 10th and 12th grade students. It was a painstakingly huge yet a rewarding affair. It was a month of fun that included outdoor spot inspections, speaking with caterers, figuring out a theme for the party, arranging a student fashion show, some dance performances and a skit. All preparations were done during regular class hours. This meant she could officially bunk classes and not be punished for it. She had always been good at organizing and at writing plays. She scripted the play and pretty much had everything organized, and her team voted for her to compere for the event. She was excited and glad to be the show host. She and her team practiced hard. Two days before the event, as they were rehearsing, her Class Teacher walked in. The teacher silently watched the entire show and called the team together afterward to give her input.
“Everything looks good.”, she said, “Great work. One suggestion though, if you want my frank opinion.”
The team continued to listen eagerly.
“I think your current event host isn’t doing a great job. I would recommend Preeti to host the show.”
She was upset. Nobody had told her to this day that she was a bad host. She had compered at several occasions and knew she always did a fantastic job. She went into the nearest washroom, locked herself up in the toilet and started to cry.
About 10 minutes later, she heard voices in the washroom and it took her an instant to recognize it was her Class Teacher and Preeti. She wiped her tears and moved up closer to the door to eavesdrop.
Preeti said, “Ma’am, are you sure about me hosting the event. I’ve never done it before, and I’m not very confident about it. I think she was doing a fine job. Besides, she has the experience. Why did you have to replace her with me?”
“You will be fine, don’t worry. I agree she was doing an okay job but you know what? You are more appealing. More presentable, you know what I mean! The audience always likes a pretty and fair-skinned face. And come on, nobody will even pay attention to what you are saying if you throw out your flashing smile when you are on stage. So fear, not. You’ll do great.”
She cried a little more and came out of the toilet after she was sure Preeti and her Class Teacher had left.
She went home really, really upset. Her Class Teacher reminded her of her aunt. This was just so unfair, literally. Thinking thus, she turned on the T.V and flopped herself onto the couch. That was when she truly paid attention to the fairness cream ad for the very first time. The ones where a dark skinned woman with the aspiration to make it big in the professional world is always rejected. And how eventually she would get her dream job after she applied tons of fairness cream and became light skinned.
She was in 11th grade. She thanked God that there was still time and hope for her to change. For the better.
The next day, she purchased her very first tube of Fair & Lovely. She rushed home to try it out on her face. The ad said it would take her just 7 days to loose her olive colored skin to a wonderful, wheatish complexion. Her mother was at home that evening, watching this famous movie, Krantiveer. She stood for a second next to her mother before she went to her room to apply the cream.
The scene in the film showed Nana Patekar slitting the wrists of a Muslim and a Hindu, hastily mixing the blood from either of them and saying, “This is Muslim’s blood and this is Hindu’s blood. Can you tell me the difference in both?”
Her mother turned to her and said, “What a beautiful way to say that all human beings are the same and that there should be no differentiating factor amongst us. Anyway, why are you back so late. Go and get ready fast, we need to go to Sheela Aunty’s baby shower.”
She walked into her room dazed. She looked at the tube in her hand and threw it into the bin with disgust. What was she even doing, she wondered. She had to love herself for what she is. She wasn’t defective as people pointed out to her. Everyone has red blood flowing beneath their skin, irrespective of what color the skin is.
Adarsh had said he would meet her at the regular place at 7 pm. She drove to Mylapore and parked her Scooty at the Karukudi complex. She looked up and the restaurant’s sign, The Dhaba. She took a deep breath and walked in. The waiter smiled and came forward, “The usual table, Ma’am?”, he asked.
She nodded and walked towards the table on the extreme left. That had been their favorite table for four years now. Adarsh and she had agreed that it was the perfect table for two. It wasn’t too close to the kitchen or the washroom or the front door. And, the Zanjeer poster was visible to both of them. She sat down and looked at Amitabh Bachchan on the poster. She smiled to herself, nervously, and thought, “Four long years.”
She had first met Adarsh when she was pursuing her Bachelors in Biology. Adarsh was her senior and from the Electronics and Communications Engineering department. They met on the college bus, became fast friends and fell in love almost immediately. The Dhaba in Mylapore was their favorite in Chennai since they believed it was the only restaurant that carried authentic Punjabi food. This restaurant and Mr. Bachchan on its wall had seen them through a lot over the last four years. Right from the days when they lived on limited pocket money from their parents and shared one Rumali roti to when they got their own jobs and could afford a full fledged three course meal that started with Babycorn Munchurain, followed by Rumali roti with Paneer Butter Masala, and ended with Rasmalai.
Today was an important day for her and Adarsh. She had met his parents for the first time that afternoon and Adarsh was going to meet her at The Dhaba to tell her what his parents thought of their prospective daughter-in-law. She saw him walk into the restaurant and her heart skipped a beat as she waved him to their table.
“They love you. Dad absolutely thinks you are a darling. I would have never imagined that Amma and Appa will be so cool about accepting a non-Tamilian girl for a daughter-in-law. I am so happy, baby. This is it”, Adarsh said, all under one breath.
“Wow! That’s great news and a relief. So, what else did they say after I was gone. I though my kurti was extremely bright colored. I should’ve worn a lighter shade, maybe? Did they think I should have worn a saree instead of jeans?”
Adarsh scoffed. “Not a word about that. You were simply awesome.”
She persistently asked, “Give me more details. What else did you talk about after I left? Anything that I should be aware of?”
“Well”, Adarsh began, “Amma did mention that she is concerned our relatives might say that you are on the darker skin tone. Not that she would hold you responsible for it and not to mention, it isn’t bothering her in any way. But she said it may bother the relatives. She said she would feel relived if she threw it out in the open lest one of my aunt says it to your face.”
She became very, very quiet and said after a long pause, “What did you have to say to that?”
“Nothing. I just brushed it off. I told Amma that although you are dark, you have a charming face. You know, what people call kala. You are beautiful cause you have striking features and are a wonderful human being and it’s difficult for people not to like you.”
“So, you think so too?”
“Think what, baby”, Adarsh asked distractedly looking for the waiter.
“Think that I am dark skinned.”
He looked at her lovingly, took her hand in his, “But you a have really, really charming face”, he repeated.
She did not speak another word during dinner. When she got home, she called Adarsh and told him that she didn’t want to marry him anymore. She explained that it wasn’t because she failed to acknowledge that she was dark but that she was ashamed that her skin color had to become a topic of discussion in the first place. She said that it made her feel that he thought of her like a defective shirt you would buy at an outlet store. A shirt that had a few threads hanging loose but was intact anyway. A defective shirt that you would buy at an outlet store only because it was on sale. She told him that she wasn’t defective to begin with. Being dark skinned was normal.
“You do not tell a really fair looking person that they are fair, do you? Why then, is my complexion a topic of discussion and you tell me that you backed me up with the “kala” argument. That is the worst justification ever! If you were a true gentleman, you would’ve argued that my complexion doesn’t concern you. I am afraid, Adarsh. I shudder to think that I have to spend the rest of my life with you, with someone who may look at our child in the future, and if he or she is dark skinned too, you may not blame me directly, but you sure may have it in the back of your head that I am responsible for it. Like being dark is horrifying or like it is leprosy.”
He tried to convince her but she wasn’t willing to hear him out. She lay in bed thinking why women had to face the trauma of worrying about their skin. It wasn’t fair. Men could be dark and that was normal.
“Are you asleep?”, her mom knocked on her door and asked. She quickly switched on the T.V to pretend like nothing had happened and said, “No, come on in.”
“Adarsh just called me. Is this really happening? Have you made up your mind? I’m asking because I sincerely know how you have always felt about the issue.”, her mom said supportively.
Ding! Her phone notified that she had an e-mail from Adarsh. She opened it. It consisted of three lines.
Hello…. What the fuck are you thinking? This is hurting me. Good luck with all the rejection you will get when you go the arranged marriage route, you know why, because you are dark and you look like a servant maid.
She moved and lay her head on her mom’s lap as tears flowed down her eyes and said, “Yes, mom. I have made up my mind. It is not a hasty decision I have taken. I think this is what I want. I also think I want to get a Masters’ degree. I will leave Chennai for a while to think about what I want to do.”
“Sure, darling. You should get some rest now. You have had a long day. Good night”, her mother kissed her on her forehead, “Do you want me to turn off the T.V.”
“Leave it on.” She said, and sat up on her bed to watch something. Then, she saw Shah Rukh Khan mumble random horseshit about a new fairness cream for men.
What the hell is wrong with the world. Why does everything revolve around the freaking skin color, she thought and stuck her head into the pillow and let out a muffled yet very frustrated aaarrrgghhhh before she calmed down and went to bed.
Jake was probably one of the laziest and uninterested interns she had seen in the Cancer Biology lab at Cleveland Clinic. He was just different. She had been working at the Cancer Biology department as a Senior Research Associate for five years now, and somehow all the interns or co-ops she had worked with during that time were extremely passionate to learn. Jake was totally something else. That is why when she excitedly walked into the lab that morning with the ‘Blood Donation and Organ Donation Event at Cleveland Clinic’ brochure, and Jake was the only person in the lab, she did not want to discuss the event with him.
An hour later, when she realized that none of her associates had turned up to work due to the freezing rain, she decided to make small talk with Jake.
“So Jake, have you seen this brochure? Cleveland Clinic is teaming up with some Tissue Bank to organize an educative program on blood and organ donation. It should be interesting, don’t you think?”, she started.
Jake looked up from his petri-dishes with his sleepy eyes and said, “Yes, I did see it. Are you going to attend it?”
“Yes, Have you ever donated your blood, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Yeah, two to three times.”
“Oh! Lucky you. I would love to do it too. Although I cannot donate blood at this time. You know, because as per the rules, people who have gotten a tattoo in the last 12 months are not eligible to donate blood.”, she said, biting her tongue almost immediately for giving away more information than required.
“Oh, wait! Are you like allowed to donate blood here?”
“Yes, why do you ask?”
“You know, ’cause you are like an Indian.”
“Jake Phil Baker, I am shocked that you can say such a thing. That is outrageous. Are you even seriously pursuing a degree in Biology? Do you even have common sense? Go and look up the blood donation guidelines in your country. The factors that go into deciding if you can be a blood donor is your weight, heme level, age, etc. There is no rule that blood donation is based on ethnicity. Of course, if you have traveled to a country that has its population prone to Malaria, which India is, you will have to wait for 12 months before you can donate. And you very well know that I have been here for four freaking years now. You asked me the other day. Also for your kind information, before you interject with a stupid argument about organ donation, I understand that the nearest of kin and/or people of the same ethnicity are a better match, that is because it is a completely different issue which is gene dependent. Blood and organs work differently in terms of donation and I won’t get into that, although people from different cultures and countries can be a match, sometimes. Like I said, I won’t get into that. What a nut head! Why am I even explaining all this to you. You should already know this stuff. You have been a donor yourself and your textbooks should’ve taught you this stuff. I wish you all the very best in trying to complete your undergrad in Biology with that pea-sized brain and the Goliath sized ignorance of yours.”
She stormed out of the lab.
The next week, she did attend the event and was very inspired. She decided she would be an donor and got hold of the form to be filled out.
Heart – She checked Yes
Liver – She checked Yes
Kidneys – She checked Yes
Lungs – She checked Yes
Eyes – She checked Yes
Bone – She checked Yes
SKIN – She checked YES!