Growing up in a middle-class Indian family as a dark-skinned woman, my story wasn’t much different from that of other women, especially those who were brought up in rural areas. We were made to believe that the amount of melanin in our skin determines our worth. People would ask, “Are you drinking too much black coffee?” or “Are you spending a lot of time in the sun?” The answers wouldn’t have mattered anyway. They were just rhetorical questions to re-emphasize the idea that our complexion was the result of our actions. The deep-rooted prejudice about skin colour is ingrained from a younger age — in fact, it begins when the girl is in the mother’s womb itself. The elders in the family would make the expectant moms drink saffron-laced milk hoping it would change the destiny of the offspring.
When I was born, my paternal grandmother refused to hold me because I looked as black as a crow according to her. It hurt my mom a lot and she didn’t speak to my grandmother for so many years. My mom was always so quick to defend me when anyone commented about my colour, “ Misha is not dark, she is just wheatish.” What the hell does ‘wheatish’ mean anyway? Even though she always defended me publicly, secretly she was worried about how I would be accepted in a society where the women are judged by how they look. I would hear her telling my dad, “It won’t be easy for Misha to get a husband. Let’s at least give her a good education.” She had me follow a beauty regime for years, with long turmeric baths, Multani mitti (fullers earth clay) face packs and skin lightening creams. Every now and then, someone would tell my mom, “Seema, why don’t you try giving this to Misha?” and she would run to the store.
I wasn’t allowed to go out in the sun without an umbrella because my mom didn’t want my complexion turning darker than how it was (as if it was even possible). My favourite colour was dark blue, but my mom insisted I only wear white or other lighter colours all the time. By the time I turned 12, I had reached the conclusion that I was born with something demeaning that ran deeper than superficial appearances. I had a curse and I would be scrutinized forever for that. The school I went to didn’t help much with my self-esteem either. How was it possible when we had an English textbook with pictures of two women where the fair-skinned happy looking woman was termed beautiful and the dark-skinned one who looked dull was termed ugly! For something as simple as teaching the kids antonyms with pictorial representation, they obviously chose a negative stereotype. When any of the teachers didn’t remember my name, they would simply refer to me as ‘the black girl with long hair’. It didn’t matter that I was smart, hard-working and well behaved. I still got bullied for how I looked. Bullying isn’t an uncommon occurrence in the schools, but in my case, it was as if I just gave them the perfect excuse. I felt hopeless and stuck. I felt it was my fault. If I think back, I am not sure how I survived. Somehow, I did.
The college I went to was comparatively better because it was in the city and I was fortunate to be around positive and forward-minded people. Still, I faced some thinly-veiled insults that my friends would easily pass as jokes like, “Hey Misha, don’t go and stand in the dark corner. You will be invisible.”
“Misha, your parents might need to make a trip all the way to Africa to find someone as black as you.”
I would laugh along with them, not wanting to show that their words have affected me.
After I finished my degree, I started working in a bank and I made clear to my parents that my decision to work didn’t have anything to do with making up for what they think I may lack in terms of beauty. It was solely out of necessity — to stand on my own feet, to build an identity for myself. Being an unmarried woman, my parents weren’t happy about me living alone in the city. Soon enough they found a solution for that also. One day, I got a call from my mom asking me to come home soon. I was worried if something happened to her or my dad. But it turned out she just asked me to come home to let me know that they fixed my marriage with a distant relative of one of my aunties. He saw my photo and he liked me it seems. As far as arranged marriages are concerned, he seemed like someone I could see spending my life with — educated, employed and mild-mannered. Sad, but true. Everyone in the family thought I was lucky to get a good man despite my colour (the guy’s colour was insignificant by the way).
Then came the twist, in the form of his mom, my future mother-in-law. She demanded that my parents pay more dowry because her son should be ‘compensated’ for marrying an ugly girl when he could have a fair bride instead. What shocked me the most was the silence of the man whom I was going to marry in less than a month. After telling him on the face that I deserved someone with a backbone, not him, I broke off the engagement. Everyone expected me to be devastated about my broken engagement and to some extent, I thought the same too. But surprisingly, all I felt was a relief— that I just saved myself from not having to go through years and years of misery and disappointment. It was as if the events transpired on that day opened the inner eye in me which had been shut for so long. It urged me to see things from a different perspective. I was no longer the girl who lived a life full of doubts and insecurities. I was no longer the girl who tried hard to get accepted by the society and its false ideals. I was a successful, independent woman, as equal as everyone else, irrespective of my caste, religion and colour.
Today, I am married to a wonderful man who adores me for what I am— not because I am dark, yet pretty.
Today, I am the mother of two little children whom I will never deny sunshine and rainbows.
Today, I refuse to speak to a salesgirl when she tries to sell a cream to remove tan lines.
Today, I laugh at the hypocrisy of the men and women around me when they express their concerns over the racial attacks.
I believe they are a part of the problem —because they advise a dark-skinned woman to use fairness creams. Because their matrimonial advertisements start with the line ‘looking for a fair boy/girl’.
Today, I refuse to retweet the hashtag posts of my favourite celebs about racist attacks across the globe. I believe that they are a part of the problem — because they were brand ambassadors of fairness creams. Because they kept quiet when the minorities in their own country were killed in the name of caste and religion.
In February 2020, the Government of India decided to make massive changes to the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act, 1954 that will now include fairness cream advertisements as well. According to the new proposals, any party found promoting or advertising fairness creams will be faced with penalty and jail term.
Introducing a legal punishment is definitely a step in the right direction. But is that enough to cure the well-known ‘social disease’ in India i.e. Obsession with fair skin? The real cure lies in changing the prevailing mindset about millennia-old preferences. To reach there, we have a long journey ahead, on a road with way too many bumps.
The revolution we all have been waiting for — let it begin at our doorsteps.
The fire that will lighten the darkness of hatred and cruelty — let the spark come from within us.