A decade ago, a friend’s very fair mother-in-law told me in all earnestness, “Har din dudh mein haldi daal ke piya karo. Gori ho jaogi (Every day, drink milk with a little turmeric in it. You’ll become fair).” My skin tone is what is referred to in matrimonial ads as “wheatish complexioned”. In a world without euphemisms, I am “dark” or as I call it, “light brown”. I was quite moved by both her concern for my skin tone, as well as her total lack of knowledge that drinking turmeric-flavoured milk would have no effect on skin tone. But would help immunize me against bacterial infections.
Of course, in the eyes of fair people, darkness is a kind of bacteria, I suppose.
My friend’s mother-in-law was simply expressing a vein of the same school of thought that Tarun Vijay, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP, shared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream. Vijay was on the show to discuss the decidedly racist attacks on African students in Greater Noida. While explaining that Indians weren’t racist at all, Vijay said, “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south—you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka—why do we live with them? We have blacks…black people around us.” As a kaalo Bangaali from the East, I just want to tell my similarly shaded brethren from the South, that you are not alone.
We’ve all heard the same thing for ages. “Acchi hai, par thodi si kaali hai (She’s nice, but a little dark).”
India is one of the many places in the world where your pigmentation can often determine your character. You could cure cancer and be as kind as Mother Teresa and as eloquent as Evelyn Waugh and as beautiful as Tyra Banks—but if you’re a shade browner than Aishwarya Rai, you simply won’t cut it.
Vijay is only saying what most of us hear murmured around us, and often told to us directly. Not that that makes what he says right. But it’s why creams like U-B Fair exist. Which has an advertisement which promises that even if “the world isn’t fair, U-B fair”. A study in dodgy copywriting which matches the dodgy product promise. U-B Fair, if you will, “brings out natural glowing skin” and “is an ideal remedy for men”. Who said it was an unfair world for women? Even men aspire to be the fairer sex. Ironically, this was a front-page ad in one of India’s leading publications and was placed right under the news report on the racist attacks on African students in Greater Noida. The newspaper isn’t alone. Just yesterday, I was reading that great feminist magazine, Femina. Its cover had Sonam Kapoor showing us how women should not be discriminated against for the length of our skirts. Inside, there was a paid booklet by Ponds White Beauty cream. Around a year back, NDTV 24x7 had announced that it would not carry any advertisements from fairness creams. I was watching their sister channel at the same time, only to see a brand new show called Get The Look, sponsored by—wait for it—Ponds White Beauty cream. After I wrote about it, the programme was pulled off the air.
A year back, I had commented in Mint on how our matrimonial columns provided a snapshot into how casteist and racist we were as Indians and how obsessed we were with fair grooms and brides. Nothing has changed.
The rot runs deep. Vijay is saying what the very people who criticize him, practice. I personally know at least five to six news anchors. a.k.a. journalists, who willingly make themselves many shades fairer on camera than they are in real life. Why? They seem to have misread the memo asking for fair journalism as a memo for fair journalists. For them to question or mock Vijay is ironic.
And this quest for fairness can be seen everywhere. Not just in the spurt of fairness creams—which are tapping into the demand by people—and by matrimonials and people’s mothers-in-law. Can you name even one mainline commercial superstar actress who does not have a skin tone similar to Gwyneth Paltrow’s? Kajol was the last of the Mohicans, and even she has become as white as driven snow. The male actors are no better. The only dark horse being Ajay Devgn. Let’s take the fashion industry. You can count the “dusky” models on one finger—Lisa Haydon. Before her, when we were young, there was Sheetal Mallar, Madhu Sapre and Noyonika Chatterjee.
Imagine that? Four dark supermodels in as many decades of modelling.
Pop culture is the biggest reflection and propagator of what is considered beautiful and acceptable in a culture. Some film stars may refuse to endorse fairness creams, and kudos to them for doing so, but turn on a news channel, watch a fashion show or a commercial, or a film—and you would think that we were a country of really fair people.
I’m lucky that I come from a family where our parents or grandparents never discussed or encouraged us to discuss our skin colour or looks or weight. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked when I met people who felt your complexion was a personality attribute. But most people aren’t that lucky. And Tarun Vijay and his ilk—Shaina NC was on an NDTV panel on Thursday defending Vijay by saying Americans have no culture (!) – seem to think nothing of random racism, because it’s so ingrained in us.
In Vijay’s defence, I think he simply got so excited at being on The Stream, which is quite a fun programme to be on, that he was struck by a bout of verbal diarrhoea. The good thing about our politicians is that they are quick to apologise and backtrack, going by how often they put their foot in it. What Vijay has done is yet again bring into focus our everyday racism, telling an international audience what most people say in their drawing rooms and deny in public. He may be racist, but at least he’s not a hypocrite. A silver lining to clutch on to. What one can only hope is that pop culture and public figures will stop propagating racism in their own little ways. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for that to happen.
Which is why I shall now go and sip yet another glass of haldi-doodh and check whether my complexion lightens while my prejudices deepen.