When you see a beautiful woman in the street, don’t look at her hatefully as if you’re about to kill her and don’t exhibit excessive longing either, just give her a little smile, avert your eyes and walk on (Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk)

 

Naina had wondered about beauty each time she looked at herself in the mirror. This was a question that came to her at least once every day. In school, she was not made the fairy ever as the teacher very carefully picked the ‘pretty’ girls for the Christmas celebrations. Pointing her finger one by one at the milky white girls of her class, the teacher would collect the fairies from among the children. “You, you, you, and you.” Ms. David had made her selection and left Naina’s hand raised. How she had pretended to not have noticed the tiny brown hand! Or was it the Black Hand?  The joke continues till date whenever the girls, now ladies, get together, at least one points out; Naina was never the fairy, followed by jokes about Ms. David’s spinsterhood, explicit drawings on the science block toilet walls, bunking school, and the whole hoard of memories.

It’s now seventeen years since she finished school and the faces of her class mates, smell of the canteen samosa, the blue lenses that Ms. Bernard wore, the cat fight for a boy named N, the attendance register, the games field, the huts with exchange program foreign teachers, the green room of the auditorium; all are still very stark in her mind. There was a conflict that Naina had not been able to resolve in all these years. Her mirror had always reflected a beautiful Naina. The big eyes and an undying admiration for her own image under the yellow bulb light. The bulb light made her look golden and every day she fell in love with that colour.

The non-fairy Naina had been told by Gautam how he had a foreign student in his class on their first official date after engagement. Gautam was bragging. How he was the only student whose colour of eyes had matched Adalene’s. Their class had declared them a couple.  Imagine, the French girl had fallen into his kitty and he had felt a strange sense of accomplishment. Naina remained quiet as Gautam continued down his memory lane. She had known that very moment that her world was again going to be mapped by black and white lines. Yes, again!

“Okay Maa, I’m going to the college.” At this she had known the string of questions and concerns that would pop. “Go, but come back soon. Have you applied your sunscreen? Did you use the chandan pack in the morning? Have you kept your umbrella? Have you wrapped your dupatta? Cover your face properly. How about your arms and feet? See, you are wearing chappals again!”

She had walked out with these instructions and questions echoing in the entire staircase. Chhotu used to call her ‘daku didi’ whenever he crossed her way. She actually looked like a bandit in that avatar and was a vision of any bandit-villain from the hindi films of the eighties. Her friends in college had better names for her ranging from Bandit Queen to daku Hasina. The pungent laughter still sounds in her ears sometimes. In that instant, she had remembered how once a teacher had told her that ‘black’ women in India are lucky as they study more. He had laughed it off and the thought had lingered in her mind. The darker you are, the less in demand you are in the marriage market and therefore more education. The logic proved itself in no time and also disproved. Naina was married off to Gautam as if he was the last man alive. The proposal couldn’t be turned down as ‘they’ had asked for her hand in marriage. Money was the big lure and Naina became the sacrificial beast. She had to like the light eyed, light skinned Gautam as she was only lucky to get a milky white husband. Gautam was no match for the golden Naina and she had known it.

…The next station is Chandni Chowk. Please mind the gap…

Naina sat squished and struggled to maintain half her hip on the seat when two women entered the ladies coach with heavy bags in their hands. They had probably spent the entire day shopping and were now returning home. Yes, it was the wedding trousseau. Chandani chowk is famous for a collection of sarees, suits, lehengas, dupattas, sherwanis, and the whole hog.

The mother and daughter entered the coach with their conversation which they would have started maybe on the platform.

“you know mom, some girls look very beautiful despite being black. Do you know that Priyanka Chopra is black, even Deepika Padukone is black and Kajol recently got herself whitened.

Really, they don’t look so on the screen.

Oh, that is the game of lights and make-up. These days anyone can look white.”

Black being the literal translation of kali/kala which in India refers to the colour of the skin ranging from wheatish –dusky to black, or let’s say anything non milky white.  The statement caught her attention. Now this girl right in front of her had not only seen but was also discussing a measure of beauty. It was a strange display of modernity, she had known that beauty is abstract and not absolute and yet her statement had betrayed her bias for the milky white.

Naina could put the conversation in context. A girl of about twenty three or two, about to get married, with patchy foundation on her was obsessing about her colour of skin as she feared being judged. The mother and daughter had an uncanny resemblance, as if out from the same mold but for the colour of the skin. The mother was white and the daughter black, I mean the Indian black.

Soon they were discussing all the women and girls in their family. Reena is beautiful. She doesn’t even go to the parlour and her skin is like white butter. Her aunt, father’s brother’s wife, how she had suffered an inferiority complex all her life. Poor thing had to lie low.

No, Naina was not thinking of racial mixing. She was thinking about the fair and lovelies and the white-o-mania. The many facial packs, parlour routines, bleaching and whitening creams, and pubescent girls. From beautifying apps on phones to editing photographs before posting them online, from the real to the virtual, young, very young girls got inflicted with whit-o-mania. Yes , she was thinking. How could she, being a house wife? Her teacher in school had ridiculed her friend’s mother for being a house wife. “How crude was Mrs. Singh, couldn’t even put together two sentences coherently. The quintessential mohalla wali.” But Naina was thinking. How restless she had felt . Seventeen years; and the mother and daughter were out there charting lives across lines black and white.

Naina pulled out her mirror.  The yellow light inside the metro reflected the golden.

She ‘minded the gap’ and got off at her station.

 

Namrata Jain

Namrata Jain

Namrata Jain has taught literature in English for a decade at the University of Delhi. She earned her M.A. in English from the University of Delhi and her doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her area of interest/research has been feminism, literary theory, European drama, post-colonial studies, and Contemporary Indian Theatre. She has been actively engaged in theatre since 2002.

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