I was born only a couple of days back and resting in her arms. My dusky mother planted a soft kiss on my forehead the day she first met my baby skin, brown, drooling, eager to be one with her. Her offspring breathed close to her, a far cry away from the plastic perfection of fairness that was everywhere around her. She looked at me, a pre-term baby in skin and bones, at my chiseled nose and pouted lips. “You are beautiful, my baby girl, and you are just what I had imagined you to be”, she whispered to me, while my tall, fair and handsome father roamed around us, held me sometimes, fragile and wailing.
“Babar moton rong pelo na, Ma-er motoi kalo” (She is not fair like her father, went after her mother). Voices hovered around her, hushed tones of human speech spilling over her kitchen chores, the mundane sameness of the days when she was busy watching over me, the sprinkling pearls of my baby teeth, the tapestry of my first uttered words. In the winged world of her dreams, I was snugly fit. She started painting it like a canvas, far away from the maddening voices that talked or cared about whiteness.
My mother’s coral lips danced in love. Her tanned skin had been coyly wrapped in a bottle-green Benarasi sari the day she entered our ancestral house, following her wedding night. “The color of your sari suits you, makes you look two shades fairer”, women surrounding her giggled. My mother, with her brown skin, her bottle-green Benarasi, the raging river of her unsung songs, the sun of her presence, had been greeted that day into the house with the austerity of rituals, and the baggage of being the plain, charmless wife of a fair, charming husband.
Together, in our brown skins, we found ourselves, filling up with colors and scent, shadows and cool light, in the splattered splashes of colors, of love, of poetry. Blackness had been our stained glass window that sparkled and shined with our inner lights. As I was growing up, my mother would sew dresses for me in frills and laces, flowing frocks, skirts and ghagras in the most resplendent of colors. We never bothered to discuss skin tones. She never implored on me not to ‘burn’ my skin in the sun, to apply home-made fairness remedies or even fairness creams that grimaced at us from the TV screens, allured the ladies in every other household. Our lives were too full of her dreams about me, her incandescent light, brimming with home-made food and the everyday paraphernalia.
I grew up, comfortable, pure and true in the skin tone I inherited from my mother. Her brothers were dark-skinned, but whosoever bothered about the skin tone, or the physical beauty of men? Her only sister was light-skinned than her, and me, and our pictures together in family albums sang a delightful symphony of colors, shades and the various manifestations of all our genetic combinations.
In our science class, I learnt how melanin, a pigment that is controlled by at least 6 different genes, seeps into our skin, thereby playing an instrumental role in our skin colors. The two forms of melanin produced in our skins, pheomelanin and eumelanin, the numbers and sizes of the melanin particles and the bizarre biological details of their ratios, their queer, mind numbing permutations and combinations filled up my biology note-books. In my growing body, melanin held me tight, as it expanded and multiplied in the epidermis of my skin. I didn’t know back then, and I do not know even today, whose genes it were that gave my mother her dark brown skin. It could be my grandparents, or even their predecessors. But I loved the dusk, the shadowy light that engulfed our beings when I hugged her, when darkness ran in our genes, solidifying our likeness, our bond even more. I began to love the overwhelming presence of melanin, the way it defined our textures, our bodies and our love.
……….I clenched my fists, my teeth biting my lips and unspoken words as I paced up and down the stairs in a heavy, dark red Benarasi saree. “Kemon gayer rong meyer (How is the complexion of the girl)? … “Ujjwol shyamborno” (a brighter shade of dark), my mother had replied to the steady influx of queries of my mother-in-law, regarding my appearance. Darkness, that seemed an unacceptable stain in marriage alliances, was again, the color of Lord Krishna, the color of the fluted lover Shyam, which was perhaps made to sound soft, magical, to camouflage its unacceptability. Under my brown skin, my soul glittered like an evening raaga on the night of my wedding reception, the soul that was pent up with silence and anguish as the ladies in my in-laws’ house irked at my skin tone. The make-up lady at the salon strived to whitewash me with layers of foundation and ivory face powder. “Meyer gayer rong dekhe sari kenen ni (Couldn’t you choose a sari keeping in mind her complexion)”? She queried, nonchalantly. I was seated in a chair, silenced, stoned. Between my ardent lips, straining to assert my love and the voice of unacceptability that failed to embrace me for who I was, something went dying that day. And in the days that followed.
A girl with dusky skin was obviously not on the list for my mother-in-law, but her son had chosen me, in the days leading up to our courtship and marriage, celebrating the essence of both our unique identities. We had come together in the white light and poetry of love, a mutual admiration that originated from the uniqueness with which we both had written our profile descriptions in a matchmaking website. We trudged the road together on our own terms without parental interference, defying horoscope matching, defying all the primitive traditional trappings that would have defined our coming together. We both are dark, and white, in our own sweet little ways. With him, I string together the scattered pearls of my blackness and wear it like an adorning necklace.
Our two daughters glitter in the brown skin they have inherited from us both, their little bodies radiating with their own unique auras, while they are surrounded by Caucasian white skins everywhere, in the school, in our neighborhood, in their swimming and ballet classes, where I see them assimilating with the overwhelming whiteness all around. One summer day, while in her shower, my little girl of four asked me: “Mommy, my friend at school told me I have brown skin. Do I have light brown skin, or dark brown skin?” In the pale yellow light of the bathroom, her tanned skin looked numinous and utterly loveable. “You have a beautiful skin, my baby!” I pecked her on her cheek, and added: “Doesn’t matter if it is light brown or dark brown.” I want her to take pride in and cherish her own skin, in the beauty of her own unique persona, and take the world in her stride, gleefully, victoriously.