I am my parents’ only child and this has been a matter of concern amongst my paternal family for as long as I can remember. Whether it would be random aunties telling me that I should ‘ask’ my parents for a brother, or my grandmother hinting, in rather subtle ways, how disappointed she was in my parents for not having a second child – being a girl child in a remote village in Odisha was a tedious task.
As a child, I remember that the villagers were rather intrigued by this biannual presence of a plump little girl, trotting around the streets, in a pair of pyjamas and a candy in hand. They used to compliment how huge my eyes were and how cute my smile was.
But there was always a thought at the back of their minds, and the tip of their tongues, “Had she been fair, she would have been so pretty”. It was almost as if my beauty was defined by the colour of my skin. As a six or seven year old, I did not quite understand what was going on.
My days were full and nights were fun for a girl brought up in a town. The occasional sightings of a garden snake or frogs was a delight. Running after goats and chicken, visiting the fields for an afternoon of raw mangoes and a bath in the pond – the first ten years visiting my village were endearing.
My melanin became the topic of discussion around my home.
I used to run around in the village lanes and fields whenever we visited the village. But I remember hurrying back to the house at the sound of one particular motorbike, belonging to one of my many uncles who used to live in the joint family. Kaka’s command over the family’s children was ineffable.
With just one glare, he could bring the kids to their knees, which was fine, until suddenly, this command of his was restricted to the women in the family. My older female cousins still rush inside the house at the sound of his arrival, while the only boy of the household is free to roam around at whatever time he pleases. These tenuous signs of patriarchy went unnoticed for years until I was old enough to understand that something was not right.
This happened sometime when puberty had just started to make its presence felt, in the form of incredibly tight and ill-fitting bras and stubborn acne. My melanin became the topic of discussion around my home.
The women who loved to see me run after their pet chickens now started to say things like, “Go inside beta, the sun will make you dark”. A decade ago, I would laugh at this statement, but today, as an almost 21-year-old individual, who spent her adolescence feeling ugly and left out because of her dark skin, I realize that had I not been subject to hearing things like that, understanding my own strengths would have been a feat more accessible.
During my school years, someone or the other was always prettier, more popular and more approachable. Polycystic ovarian syndrome didn’t help either. It went undiagnosed for years given my very regular menstrual cycles, and I wish I had gone to the gynaecologist the one time I missed my period in the eighth standard.
I went through unimaginable weight gain, acne and really low self-esteem. In a situation like this, I could not help but put on a face of a bold approach towards life, the mask of self-reliance and independence, which made me appear as if I was a confident and emotionally strong kid. Deep down, the scars were prominent and the hurt persistent. Every year, during the summers or the winters, I was subjected to a fortnight of continuous shaming of the very person I was and their voices echoed in my mind for weeks.
Bits and pieces of information reached my ears over the next couple of years. My paternal grandparents never saw my face until I was one because I was born a girl and they never visited my mother in the hospital. How the villagers saw my father as a failure because he never begot a son to carry on his name. How my grandmother was worried I will never get married, due to my skin colour. Through the years, my father kept saying one thing, “You study whatever you want to study, and that will ensure you fend for yourself at all times”.
My mother, an educated woman herself, was and continues to be an epitome of endurance, made me apply crushed almonds mixed with milk fats, tomato and cucumber juice, and all sorts of household ‘remedies’ for acne and dark skin. “You are beautiful” – was a statement that used to lighten up my day, because the importance of beauty was penetrated deep in my mind.
I realised that I ought to be comfortable in my own skin, to love myself, to embrace my colour, my body and my qualities. I don’t require anyone to validate my existence – which I learnt quite late in my life, when I was already in college, freshly out of the trauma of school and the perpetual shaming that was associated with it.
Whether it was peers casually joking that I will become darker after Diwali because of the smoke from the crackers, or a tuition teacher telling us that she was glad she didn’t give birth to a girl because a dusky boy is okay, a dusky girl cannot be married off. Little things that were said constantly intimated to me that fair is beautiful.
During my school years, someone or the other was always prettier, more popular and more approachable.
In the summer of 2016, Delhi University happened. A short, dark and fat girl came to the capital on a path of self-discovery. Delhi helped me a lot. Not that Delhi is not filled with people who made me question my worth again, but I was lucky enough to find the treasure of self-love.
I found friends who embraced me for who I was, people who appreciated my boldness – a quality I had developed as a coping mechanism. I found humility ranging as far as giving up everything just to help people. Delhi has been a panorama of experiences much harder than mine and empathy far beyond I could imagine.
Something shifted at the end of my first year. I understood that people who shamed my dark skin were also the people who were so unsure of their own mettle, unaware of their own prowess. Peers who casually made fun of my skin tone did not ever understand that they could have made someone feel so much better about themselves. My mother, who tried to make me fairer, never saw the fact that I admired her for juggling a career and a home and not because of her beauty or the alleged lack of it.
Last summer, my grandmother saw me after two years and said that I’d turned darker. I smiled and said, “If you are worried nobody will marry me, do not, because my tan reminds me of what I have achieved; and not whom I can or cannot marry”. My father, sitting right across, a man born and brought up in a very patriarchal village, smiled. His daughter had grown. For her, fierce was the new fair.