The day I realized I was brown

 

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She was a brown skinned girl. She has always been one. But she had never really looked at herself and told herself that till that day. She was happy as a lark that day. She was sitting in the hospital room next to her baby brother’s crib, looking at his tiny, pink toes and cute button nose in wonder. He was flitting in and out of sleep, gracing her with a half-smile once in a while. The room was packed with the relatives who had come to see the new-born. But she had eyes only for this tiny bundle of joy. It was then that her grandmother told the whole room something that still rings in her ears. She told everyone, “Look how fair the baby is.” And then turned to her and sneered, “Not dark like her.” The raucous banter which had filled the room earlier was replaced with an eerie silence. Everyone was looking at her now. And she felt humiliated. She felt like she was on the stand and the jury had given their verdict. Guilty…of being dark.

There I was, all of eight years old, without a care in the world, ecstatic at the birth of my baby brother and I was told that I was not as good as my fair skinned brother because I was brown. Make no mistake about it. That was exactly what I was told, though not in as many words. And it didn’t make any sense to me. How could my skin colour be my fault? I didn’t choose my skin colour. I knew instinctively that it was wrong to blame me for something that was beyond my control. I looked around at everyone in the room, hoping that someone would stand up for me. But no one did. Everyone sat there, stewing in awkward silence. Their silence was proof of their complicity. I was furious at everyone. I realized that no knight in shining armour was coming to save me. So I decided to be my own hero. I looked my grandmother in the eye and told her with all the defiance an eight year old could muster, “Look who’s speaking. You are also brown like me.” And then I ran out of the room. My eyes were brimming with tears. I went out into the corridor, held on to the railing and looked down at the courtyard, trying to control the sobs racking my little body. I looked down at my little hands and “saw” my brown skin for the first time.

I had never really given much thought to my skin colour till then. I never saw a brown skinned girl in the mirror till that day. I just saw a little girl. But that day, at the age of eight, I was made to realize that I was brown and somehow that was a bad thing. I would go on to realize that that incident was just one in the series of many that were to follow. And every time it happened, I was back in that hospital room. When I was told not to play in the sun by random people. When I was given unsolicited home remedies to whiten my skin by all and sundry. When the sales girl at the beauty store expounded on the wondrous properties of a whitening cream without my even asking for the product. When the beautician tsked looking at my face and tried to badger me into getting a whitening facial. (For the nth time, it’s not a tan! It’s my natural skin tone.) When I was told not so subtly not to wear certain colours. (I didn’t know that colours were racist too.) When I was asked to drink fruit juice and get regular facials when I was getting married. (How dare the bride be dark skinned!!! We will whitewash her skin if need be.) When I was told how lucky I was to get a fair skinned husband. (I thought love, friendship, trust and compatibility were far more important in a marriage than your partner’s skin colour. But then, what do I know?) When people told my friend that she would look pretty if only she were fair. When a relative of mine wanted a fair bride for her son because she wanted her grandkids to be fair. When a six year old relative of mine called the house help a derogatory name used for dark skinned people and her parents and grandparents laughed it off as a joke. When a friend lamented on the bad luck that had befallen her family because her sister had a dark skinned child. These are just a few of the countless such instances; some first-hand experiences and some second-hand. With age, I learned which ones I should react to and which ones I should ignore. With age came the wisdom that the society that values your skin colour more than what you are inside was wrong, not you. What I never got used to was the anger I felt whenever I heard people throw these comments around with impunity.

I don’t think my grandmother realized the gravity of her words. Her words could have turned my joy at the arrival of my baby brother into bitter jealousy. Thankfully, it didn’t. But I guess it must have happened in many families. I wish people realized the far-reaching consequences their careless words could have on others. It chips away at a person’s self-esteem to hear such comments over and over again. We are basically trying to shame a person for something they were born with, collectively as a society. We are telling a person that you are nothing more than the colour of your skin. It doesn’t matter what your achievements are, it doesn’t matter how good a person you are.

Why are we so scared of being dark skinned?! We are a nation of brown skinned people. Most of us are varying shades of brown. Yet, we still manage to effectively shame each other for our skin colour. In fact, we are so scared of dark skin that we even paint our dark skinned Gods blue. If, even Gods aren’t allowed to be dark skinned, what chance did we, mere mortals ever stand! Continue reading “The day I realized I was brown”

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My Sailor

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I came home one evening and rang the bell to our apartment. Sudhi opened the door and smiled at me. Even before he could ask me how my day was, I told him, “I don’t want to be the one to go first.” He just stood there shocked out of his wits, not knowing what had hit him.

It was a very busy day in office, as usual. I was buried nose deep in work. It was only Wednesday and the weekend was nowhere in sight. I heard someone come into my cubicle. I didn’t want to deal with yet another cranky customer. I looked up with a tad bit of irritation. I saw an old man in his late sixties, standing before me. He was at least 6 feet tall. He was dressed in a light blue, long sleeved shirt and dark brown slacks. He had a full head of salt and pepper hair which was neatly combed back. He was slightly hunched over, possibly from old age. His light brown eyes held a twinkle in them when he smiled. I could see that he must have been a very good looking man in his youth. He smiled at me and wished me good morning. He had a very charming smile and I found myself smiling back at him despite all my previous irritation. He sat down in front of me and started talking to me in perfect English. He told me that he had been doing a quite few rounds of our office to get a small work done. I got the details from him and told him that I would get it done.

While I was pulling up the data to see what had gone wrong, he asked me, “I have never you seen you here before. Did you get transferred to this branch recently?” I told him, “I just got transferred to this office a few months back. Are you working, sir?” He told me, “I used to work in the Navy. I have retired now and moved back here.” I asked him, “You must have been to a lot of places then as part of your work.” With a rueful smile on his lips, he said, “Oh yes! I have travelled the world along with my wife. I used to be away at the sea for the most part of my career and she used to join me at times.” I found myself smiling at that and thinking how wonderful that must have been. By then, I had figured out what had gone wrong with his account. I told him that he just needed to sign a form and I would get it rectified in a day. He took the form from me and I went back to fixing the issue with his account. I looked up a little while later and saw that he was struggling to sign the form. His fingers were badly shaking. He was not even able to hold the pen properly. He looked at me with this helpless smile on his face and said, “I take these medicines in the morning. This is one of the side effects. It goes away after some time.” I told him gently, “I’ll keep these forms aside. You can sign it when you come in the next time. I’ll get your work done in the meanwhile.” He gave me a thankful look and said, “I would come back in a few days to get the passbook updated. I will sign this form then for sure.” I told him, “You can sign it any time you come to the branch. No hurry at all. Why don’t you take internet banking? Then you don’t have to come down to the branch to access your account statement.” He looked at me with sad smile and said, “My wife used to look after all these things. I used to be away most of the time. She took care of everything. I never had to bother about bank accounts or paying the bills or filing the tax return or managing our finances. She did all of that. She passed away a year back. I’m still learning how to do these things. I’m taking things one at a time. I just use the internet to check my mail. Maybe I can take the internet banking later. Is that ok?”

I didn’t know what to say. I just sat there and watched this wonderful, charming old man come apart in front of my eyes. His eyes didn’t have that twinkle now. He was looking at something in the distance and his eyes had this sad, wistful look in them. I didn’t trust myself to speak then. I had this huge lump in my throat. My vision was getting blurry with the tears welling up in them. I looked at the proud man sitting in front of me and I realized that I didn’t want him to see my tears. He would mistake it to be pity. So I blinked back my tears, put on my brightest smile and nodded. He smiled back at me, shook my hands and went away.

I couldn’t take him out of my head all day. My thoughts went back to him even while coming back home. I didn’t even open my book in the local that day. There was only one thing going on in my head. When the door opened, it stumbled off my lips, “I don’t want to be the one to go first.”

To Believe Or Not To Believe

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It was a regular Saturday evening. I was curled up on the couch with a Wodehouse, cackling away like a hyena at the antics of Uncle Fred. I need my dose of Wodehouse on Saturdays to lure me out of the blues of having to work on a Saturday. And, then out of nowhere came that wonderful scent. The wonderful, wonderful scent of the first rain soaking the parched earth. I rushed to the window and it was indeed raining. Mumbai monsoons had officially arrived. My heart leapt up seeing this. I could finally clean my kitchen balcony now. Now you might be thinking, “What has rains got to do with the cleaning of her balcony?” Let me give you a small flashback. The last time I cleaned my balcony, the lady from the flat downstairs had rushed up to our flat and informed me in a lot of anguish, “I have an eighteen month old at home. You can’t clean the balcony and pour the water down the drain.” I wanted to tell her, “Gee. I’m so sorry, lady. I didn’t know that your eighteen month old kid hangs out under the balcony drain.” I tamped down on that retort and gave her a tight-lipped smile and told her that I would take care next time.

So, I put down my Wodehouse reluctantly and decide to make good use of the rain. Armed with a brush and bucket of soapy water, I venture out into the balcony. The sun had already gone down and it was getting dark outside. I start cleaning the balcony, all the while cursing those damned pigeons who have made a Sulabh Shauchalay out of my only balcony. You might be thinking, “What’s with this female and the balcony?” You see, we Mumbaikars set great store by the balcony. A balcony is like an unattainable luxury here. That is, if you can call that sorry excuse of tiny space outside my kitchen, a balcony!!! All of a sudden, I hear a cooing sound out of no where. They must have heard my mumbled curses. I look around to find the source of all the cooing. Sitting on a ledge above me, I spot one of those Satan’s spawns, looking down at me menacingly. You see, our enmity goes way back. I may have accidentally knocked over one of their nests, smashing an egg or two while trying to clean up the balcony earlier this year and I may have been stalked by one particularly angry mother pigeon for a week or two. Anyway, this pigeon didn’t look like that one. So I control my urge to throw soapy water at it and continue with my cleaning.

Once I go on a cleaning spree, it is very difficult to rein me in. I go into OCD mode and clean every nook and cranny, otherwise inaccessible to human hands. I thank my lucky stars that Sudhi is away in Indonesia, probably tucking into Nasi Goreng while watching TV. If he was around, he would have come in by now and told me, “Whatever is wrong with you? Please don’t do a Monica now.” I chuckle at that thought and carry on with my cleaning, humming a tune in my head. The next thing I know, I have slid the sliding door shut in my over enthusiasm to make the glass door shine like the bottom of a new-born. And I hear the ominous sound of the door clicking shut, confirming my worst nightmare. I’ve been shut out in the teeny-weeny balcony of my kitchen on a rainy night in Mumbai with nothing but a bucket and a brush and Sudhi would be home only after two days. I have this uncontrollable urge to scream. But surprisingly, I don’t. I tell myself, “Anyway, you are out in the balcony cleaning and it’s only half done. So get on with the work and we will find a way out of this fix.” And I get back to work. My legs are trembling like twigs caught up in a storm. But I continue to clean the balcony. (Now when I look back at that situation, I’m pretty sure that I need serious help with my OCD. Who else in their right minds would go on cleaning after being locked out?) Once I’m done with the cleaning, I look around at the other apartments to see if anyone is looking in my direction. I have been outside for the past one hour and not even a single person has even noticed this strange female scrubbing away like a woman possessed. I sigh inwardly thinking that this is one trait that I love in my Mumbai neighbours. They are less nosey compared to my Trivandrum ones. But today I wish I had my Trivandrum neighbours around. They would have made sure that even my relatives in “Gelf” got to know of my little situation.

I tell myself that I have to keep my cool and think logically. I think of shouting out to the neighbours and the security guards. But it’s raining so heavily that I doubt they would even hear my voice. Then I contemplate climbing over the balcony rail and walking on the ledge to reach the living room window. I dismiss that as well, taking into consideration the fact that I’ve always been a klutz. Finally, I decide to try my hand at prying the door open with the cleaning brush. The atheist in me sends a silent prayer up to the heavens, hoping that tonight I would find a reason to turn into a believer. I put all my might into forcing the door open. But try as I might, the door wouldn’t even budge an inch. I try again and this time, the upper part of the door cracks open. But I still can’t force it open fully. I try again a few more times to no avail. After 20 minutes of wrestling with the door, I realise that I would have to yell out to my neighbours and the security guards for help. I hear that irritating cooing sound again. I look up and see that the infernal creature is sitting there with a smug look on its face. If I understood pigeon language, I’m pretty sure that cooing would have meant, “What goes around comes around, you mean lady.” As I am about to turn around to shout to the neighbours, I notice something. At first, I feel that all the stress has gone directly to my head and I have started seeing things. The right side of the door looks like it’s open. I can see the light inside the kitchen through the small crack. I gingerly reach out to touch the right side of the door and slide it open. And it slides wide open to my utter surprise.

I quickly climb inside the kitchen and close the door. I’m baffled. I have absolutely no clue how this came about. I had almost given up. I had resigned myself to the fact that I may have to spend the night in the balcony with that vicious pigeon for company. I sit down and try to make sense of what just happened. I’m very sure that both sides of the door were shut. I had opened the left side of the door to go out into the balcony and I am pretty sure the right side of the door was closed then. All this while, I had been trying to open the left side of the door. So, who opened the right side of the door for me when I was trying to wedge open the left side of the door? Did God open it for me? I had prayed after all. Is God giving a sign to the atheist in me? Or is there a plain, simple, logical explanation to what has happened? Maybe, while I was trying to push the left side of the door open, the right side must have cracked open and I saw it only later. I don’t know which explanation to take. The logical and rational part of me is urging to go for the latter. But somehow, I want to go with the former for that night. The atheist in me wants to believe that God indeed opened the door for her that rainy night in Mumbai.