By Sunil Sharma
Her voice was excited.
“Hey, Nina Davuluri has won! The dark-skinned girl has won the Miss America crown for 2014! Great! Is it not?”
“Wow! If she had been in India, she would have been rejected!”
“How can you say that?” asked my friend who gave me this piece of information on her cell phone.
“Simple. Indians hate dark skin! And the most hated one is a dark girl!”
There was a pause…longer one.
Then: “Yes. You are right.”
I could hear the pain in the voice.
“We are the most hated girls in our society.” She said and did not wait for my response before hanging up on me suddenly.
Certain facts do not need to be confirmed.
I understand Rima. Both of us know the pain of rejection and taunts. I am called a Kali, a black bitch or a Dark Barbie by my classmates.
How I hate myself for being dark-skinned!
Rima and I form a strange sisterhood. A sisterhood of pain. We often chat in the evenings. Exchange tidbits. We are the discarded ones. Such sessions are a therapy. They are healing.
“My dad hates me!” She shared one night.
“He says I am a dark … and dark girls are not lucky!”
Her voice breaks and she starts sobbing.
I, too, become emotional. In life, we often mirror close friends.
“How will they find a suitable boy for you! Nobody wants to marry a dark girl. He always laments. This is how God has created me. How am I at fault?” asks she, broken.
I have no answer.
Every morning, the mirror screams: Ugly! Ugly!
I hate mirrors! Remarks by the louts, family elders, females. Words as cannon balls, designed to demolish you.
Nobody wants me except an old lady ejected from her son’s family and living off the temple premises. She often smiles kindly at me during my daily visit to the temple and says, “Dear, you are so beautiful! Like my own daughter…”
On the other hand, fair girls are idolised.
My cousin, fair, gets all the attention and love. She was gifted Blondie dolls and is affectionately called our White Barbie!
Together, we draw wolf whistles and — “Here comes the ebony and cream-white pair!” exclamations, things that please her and devastate me completely. I now avoid going out with her. Who wants to be jeered at and insulted by the boorish boys?
Rita, my cousin, has all the boys and even men swooning for her delicate skin and hair dyed blonde. On special occasions, she wears blue contact lenses and at parties, men take her to be a Westerner.
“Are you an American?” They invariably ask Rita dressed in a snug black T-shirt and slim jeans, impressed by her American English—-she had worked earlier in a call center where they coached her to use an American accent. She drawls and leaves the desi* audience completely overawed!
And all the young men — overbearing MBAs, engineers, doctors or businessmen –would get floored by the sight of this sexy foreigner chic and quietly follow her everywhere, eager to win her hand. Her slim figure, fluent English and smiling blue eyes would convert men into permanent slaves ready to climb the Everest or dive from a helicopter into the Bermuda Triangle. Just for her yes! She would enjoy the cult status among the males. Even Uncles — the neighbourhood ageing males called Uncle-ji by the younger ones — would try to detain her with inane conversations, measuring her full figure through their lusty eyes.
“Bastards!” Rita would say disgustedly.
We would be s-o envious! In a room full of admiring Romeos and a stately Rita conversing on Hollywood or Desperate Housewives, other females would be invisible. Only she existed. Males could murder for her!
“What do you do?” asked a dashing man once in another south Delhi party where Rita was an anglicized Indian babe.
“I am a writer.” This time she was truthful. She did write and write well.
“What?” his mouth was about to fall off.
“Why? Can women not be writers?” she asked, eyes fluttering.
The man went limp. “N-o…Y-e-s, ye-s, I mea-n…” he stammered hopelessly under the chandeliers in that big hall, while other waiting suitors smiled.
“You write!” he managed to ask, going red and pink and white at the same time.
Rita, already headed in the opposite direction, spun around on her red high heels and glared for long and then spat out a loud exclamation, “In Hindi!!!” It sounded like an obscenity hurled at some defenseless figure. The voice echoed in the hall and a hush fell. The guests stopped immediately and stared at the insulted lady who repeated, “In Hindi!!! My Gawd!!!”
The man was killed — almost by the loud sarcasm and dripping hatred.
“Do not folks write in Hindi? Or, in any other language of India?” he blurted, unwilling to give up easily before a hostile audience of the socialites wearing leading western brands of the designer suits and gowns and loudly conversing in English only.
“Let them. I will NEVER write in Hindi or any other vernacular. I WRITE IN ENGLISH,” Rita screamed. “That is the future.”
A female got interested. “A vernacular? Hindi?”
“Yes,” Rita asserted, “For me, English is the language. Others are the vernaculars.”
“Is it?” asked her interrogator, tone mocking now, eyes rolling.
“Yes. English is the center. Rest is periphery. I live and breathe Beautiful English.”
“So, the vernacular is ugly!”
“Yes. It is,” announced Rita. “After sixty-six years of independence, middle-class India reveres English. Is it not beautiful for us then?”
The female smiled and then asked, “Fine. What do you write on? Your basic themes? Concerns?”
“Who are you?” Rita was haughty memsaab by now; livid, impatient, ready to spar in a room suddenly gone hushed.
“I am a journalist working for a top English daily,” she said, unperturbed. This mollified Rita. She knew the value of the quick media- promotion.
“Oh! S-o n-i-c-e! I write on slums, poverty, rapes, violence, cows in the street, bride burning—Impossible India! Yes, that is my theme. Capturing India, a nation impossible to live,” she said, assuming a neo-colonial tone of complete dejection and implied evangelism.
The fat, bespectacled woman with tousled hair and a cigarette in mouth, smiled and said, “Okay. An area of darkness. Perpetual darkness. An impossible nation. A despotic oriental country refusing to be civilized. Then you can expect at least a Booker and a Hollywood contract soon for your notion of India as a barbaric country of one billion plus people!”
They both laughed.
“Who knows?” said Rita, pleased. “But what I see, I paint. Shouldn’t we give realities through fictions?”
“Only one-sided realities? Pandering to certain preconceived ideas about India in the West?” Asked the journalist, eyes twinkling, tone somber.
“Well, that is what India is basically. Writers give unvarnished versions.” Rita answered calmly.
“Perhaps India is more than that. It is not about the gutters only.”
Rita smiled more broadly. “Sorry. I see only the gutters, despite its long post-colonial history. It is rotten!”
The journalist smiled. “Expect a Nobel also at the end of your career.”
They both laughed — neither serious about India.
I felt repelled by her outrageousness and stifled in that artificial place! Fakes!
Rita was like that — dominating, self-opinionated, brazen and very calculating. Some six years my senior, she lived in a bungalow maintained by servants. My uncle was a rich exporter of the ethnic wear and other apparel. In their comparison, we were very poor. My father was a lowly government clerk.
Rita had once confessed, “I am obsessed with the West. I was born in India but will not die in India.”
And she proved it—by seducing an American assistant director of a visiting movie crew that had auditioned her, among others, for a role of an Indian bride. During their stay on location, Rita got hired for the role, stole the heart of the restless 42-year-old American and left India after two months as Mrs. John Brown to settle in LA!
A writer, a bit actor and settled domesticity in the USA. Fair skin can be made to do so many things in this divided world.
I felt so discriminated and low!
“You also seduce some firangi* and leave this damn country. Some goras* love dark women.” That was her whispered last advice to me. Afterwards, she completely erased me from her memory!
Often, late evenings, alone in my little room in a congested north Delhi colony, I would pray to whosoever was listening up there for a quick end to my existential pain and 24X7-humiliation. One particular December mid-night, unable to forget the insults of the local thugs, I prayed to Him, voice breaking, “God! Why do you make girls in the first place, then make them ugly and dark and then, send them to India?”
A cold wind blew in from the open fourth-floor apartment and I saw a blurred face in the moon.
“God! Please make me beautiful and wanted! I do not want to die ugly and ordinary. Please, God, turn me into a blue-eyed, fair-complexioned slim maiden. Make my life a modern-day fairy tale. I know you can do this.”
And suddenly there was a blinding light and a clear booming voice that shook the earth—or so it seemed to my fevered mind, “Granted! Your foolish wish!”
I leapt out of my small bed, happy to have talked to Him inaccessible to fasting monks and sages and cried, “Thank God for your mercy!”
There was more rolling thunder and lightning in the vast sky and the baritone saying, “I never wanted to make the world monochromatic. I wanted the world to be colourful and diverse.”
“But we worship only the colour white,” I said, almost pleading.
A roll of thunder and a flash that blinded me and then…primeval silence.
The rest happened fast, almost dream-like, as in a Hollywood movie.
Next morning, on the college campus, a film crew was filming a segment of a reality show. They wanted to audition a couple of faces also. Hundreds of wannabes were milling around the crew. A thrilled Rima said we should go watch the shoot. We went. In the amphitheatre milling with students, a shoot was on. It was impossible to enter the crowded area and there was a near stampede. We timidly decided not to venture into such a risky situation where molestation was a reality. We went in the opposite direction, disappointed but safe and sat down on a bench under a Gulmohar tree. Rima said one of the visiting faculties for the mass media course had brought his TV production house team where he worked as an assistant editor and they were filming mass media students for current campus trends.
“We two could have become a TV star!”
My tone was sad.
“Who cares for dusky girls these days? Everybody wants a fair-complexioned girl.” Rima was equally pessimistic.
“I care for dusky beauties!”
The booming voice—so God-like—made us turn around and face a bearded unkempt man, pony-tailed, wearing bifocals, dressed in an electric pink T-shirt and cream Bermudas. The man, in his early forties and smoking, almost popped out from nothing—another heavenly sign!
“I am the director hunting for real faces,” said he, puffing and coughing, while a female religiously followed his bulky figure, “Hunting for faces that are Indian. Authentic faces! Dark. Sensitive. Coy. Both of you have the classic Indian face and you,” pointing towards me, “you have that additional smoldering look!”
He peered closely—into my eyes and winked, “Yes. Perfect!”
I, a typical middle-class domesticated mute, blushed.
“Your name, my beauty?” He was openly flirtatious and I secretly enjoyed the adjectives and scarce male attention.
“Priya.” I said and blushed more.
“Wonderful! You are my heroine!”
He winked again and smiled. I went limp: Heroine!
Next day, in the studio, we both auditioned and were signed on for a contract. The director was helpful. “We are planning a show called Desi Divas. We would feature girls from small towns, suburbs and even villages. Our beauty coaches will train them for the final competition. Priya, you stand a good chance to be a winner with your round face and black eyes.” And he winked! I again went limp! We both returned home excited. Late evening, the call from Rima was heart-breaking, “Papa and elder brother have refused permission.”
“Why?” I was incredulous. “These days every parent wants a celeb status for their children and are crazy for money and fame TV or films can provide!”
“They do not see TV or films. They do not want instant stardom for me. Mum was hysterical. It is a sinful world there, she screamed.”
“Then?” I asked.
“I will forget this also as a dream…” and the poor simple girl cried. I, too, cried with her that night.
“Do you not have a voice?” I demanded.
“No. We, Indian girls, never have a voice.” And she cried more…
My short tryst with TV was eventful…a roller-skater ride.
A few days into production, the reality show Desi Divas, underwent a silent transmutation. One afternoon, a cigar-smoking fat man dropped onto the sets and told the team to change the concept.
“For TRPs, we want Desi Divas must look like an average Indian female. That is wheatish, if not very fair.” His tone was final as the financier.
“But s…ir…” the director was almost stammering.
“You want to continue?” asked the bald guy, more of an underworld don than a financier. The director immediately clammed up.
The concept got changed. Now it was blonde all the way to TRPs and bank but in a subtle way.
In a way I was benefitted indirectly by this change. The major ad sponsor was a Detroit-based MNC (Multi-National Corporation) promoting a special fair-skin facial cream for the Asian countries. Temptingly called Blondie Cream, it promised a magical cream that turned a darkling into a lovely person that is a Blondie. They spotted me on the sets of the Divas and featured me in this costly 30-second prime-time TV commercial. I was shown as ugly and dark, lacking in confidence and after a month’s application of this wonderful concoction, turned into a fair-complexioned Indian girl! I was paid a good amount and the commercial had become a sensational source of revenue.
That commercial announced my arrival on the national scene as a competent actor.
I daily thanked God for this miracle. Of course, my face was airbrushed by the computer professionals in an upscale editing studio of Mumbai.
“These cream-sellers!” the director had exclaimed. “They are running the whole show!”
“Why not? When we are pumping money into it, why should we not control?” the assistant to the financier asked.
After a long and detailed market research of the emerging middle-class market for beauty products in India — a $ 4.6 billion cosmetic industry growing at the annual rate of 15-20 per cent — it was decided to re-name the show as the Glam Divas of India.
“Every second Indian wants a fair-skinned bride or girlfriend for him. Skin is big business. Skin tones bring big bucks!” said the financier gleefully.
“Right Boss! These days even pampered Indian males have become conscious of their appearance. Even they want fair skin. This is a booming business,” said the assistant. “Going by their pace and ad-reach, very soon, there will be no dark-skinned people left on the face of the planet! Ha ha ha!”
“Good! When the Americans can make us eat Big Macs, then these smart guys can convert us for any other cause that brings dollars for them!” predicted the financier. They laughed uproariously, upsetting the director.
Then the preparations for the Glam Divas began in earnest. The grueling sessions left no space for any frolicking by the teen middle-class participants from various regions of the country. Every girl was ambitious and confident of winning. During our stay in a big bungalow, we began as friends but ended up as enemies by the end of the show.
The initial weeks were very tough.
A team of stylists and makeover artists worked on us relentlessly. Henna madam was my mentor. A team of bustling professionals worked on the lights, clothes, accessories, make-up and camera angles. They applied foundations, rouge and lipstick to achieve the desired results. By highlighting certain facial features and skin surfaces and shooting at particular angles under certain lighting conditions, by sticking false eyelashes or darkening them further and pouting red-lips, they kept on creating and innovating the perfect image of a sexy desi diva. Human face became their live canvas. A slim diet and severe exercise regimen were strictly enforced by the production house. We did yoga, meditation, aerobics, speech training sessions. It was hectic and completely draining! During our long stay in the rented bungalow on the beach, family visits were few. It was a totally regimented commune of ruthless and competing models being finally groomed as the mercenary fighters for the coveted crown and the big purse it carried…and the ensuing stardom.
“Billions are riding on this show,” said the grim financier one late evening, “The Glam Divas will be telecast across the world. The UK, USA, Canada and Australia with sizable Indian presence are our favorite targets. More than two billion homes is our mantra!”
After weeks of intensive coaching, we were transmuted into the light-skinned, golden-streaked divas ready for the waiting world. When we arrived on the stage, before the shoot, air crackled with suppressed energy and implicit hostility among the ready-to-kill warriors for the crown and celeb status. The demure middle-class females had been transformed into merciless combat machines. As we entered in our fineries and practiced poise, the audience gasped by the dazzling spectacle. All the select members of the critical jury were equally impressed.
“That is wonderful!” financier exclaimed voice hoarse with anticipation. “Nobody wants a darkie on such costly shows. They want blondes. They are all MJ-clones!”
I did not know.
“It is the lightning of skin by the famous singer Michael Jackson. We call it in fashion industry MJ-syndrome.” Henna Aunty gave me the gyaan*. “The light-skinned beings are dubbed as his clones. Dark-skinned models prefer that look these days to get noticed.”
“We are successful in making these suburban and small-town teens into fair products. Our brand triumphs!” said the financier loudly and his team laughed dutifully.
The final contest was nail-biting. I was pitted against a chirpy thing from Chandigarh. We fenced with each other and the jury. Questions were rapid and tough.
“Your favourite novel?” somebody asked from the jury.
“The Hunger Games.”
“Life is an arena. Tough gladiators survive.”
A loud laughter followed.
“Why not? It is my body. It is a different type of dance that celebrates the female body.”
An audible gasp and some murmurings and smiles.
“The Twilight Saga.”
“Because it talks of the possibility of a workable romance between a human teenager and a vampire. What girl would not swoon on a lover so unusual? Two different species united by love. It deifies love…love in all its manifestations, human and non-human.”
They were impressed. Secretly, I was thanking Henna madam and Rita, my cousin, for coaching me about popular culture. The final question from the Asia Head of the Blondie Cream proved to be the clincher.
“If reincarnation is a choice, where would you like to be re-born?”
There was a hushed silence. Ticking of clock can be heard. Cameras zoomed in on me. I smiled sweetly and said, “Born an Indian, my soul belongs to the West. Dark-brown outside, white inside. I am a dark Barbie doll with golden locks and skin. A perfect resident of a changing borderless world. A truly globalized resident, cosmopolitan, sensitive to both eastern and western cultures that I am proud enough to straddle. A citizen of both the worlds, developing and developed. I am like a classic harlequin moving about on a post-modern stage.”
A post-modern harlequin!
That clinched it!
The auditorium burst into applause. A standing ovation and I was announced as the Glam Diva of India, “a girl who represents emerging India in her originality, boldness, love for good things and appreciation of the global culture. She is the one who is not afraid of raising inconvenient issues and very calm in answering tough questions from a high-profile panel of international judges. PP or Pretty Priya is in fact a typical Indian girl reincarnated!”
That was true!
They placed the crown. I cried, hugged and thanked everybody and especially God. Confetti fell in a constant stream. Lasers beams added glitter. There were huge crackers and loud music. It was a staged fairy land for the TV-hooked audience!
I became an instant national celebrity and icon—thanks to the hungry media and a great reality show!
Katniss Everdeen has finally won!
A few nights later, woken up by lightning and thunder, I heard the famous rich baritone, “Happy?”
“Yes. Thank you, God.”
“You will soon realize the cost you have to pay for this dabbling in my plan,” He said and disappeared behind a white cloud.
Surprisingly, nobody else heard any voice or lighting and thunder that had totally shaken up the foundations of the neighbourhood and convulsed my bedroom.
Was it an illusion?
Too much of the unreality of Reality TV?
A manufactured high-tech fantasy?
Was I real or unreal? Some poor version of TV or B-grade film?
I could not figure out the right answers.
The answer arrived soon. In a non-glam setting, away from the camera lights and staged pomp of a big TV show.
It was a different show, a public spectacle of a different scale and appeal!
It was Ramleela. The open-air nightly public theatre free for all. The grand show! A costume drama where gods come down on the earth for their believers. A colourful show that is extremely popular in the north of India — kind of folk theatre involving loud music, dry humour and loud acting.
I was forced to watch this on a late evening in October in a village some 250-km away from Delhi.
We were returning from a show in a big vanity van along with an entire team of stylists, make-up men and body-guards hired by the Blondie Cream company for the product promotion in smaller cities and villages in malls and multiplexes that had recently mushroomed in the north Indian urban centers and semi-urban villages. Everywhere I was treated as royalty. Teen girls went berserk at every appearance. It meant good business.
Properly rouged, highlighted and enhanced, with large sunglasses and mandatory pouted lips, a black dress, I felt I was a real princess! There were assistants looking after my needs. And the company was paying good money. Two cars followed my van. As we were returning from a successful promotion, one of the senior personal assistants wanted me to visit his village to meet his grandmother and mother who was staying there for a few days. It was on the way. So, we decided to take a break and meet some village women for unscheduled promotion. The road-show manager liked the idea and so we halted at the village, some 10- km away from the national highway.
A different world was waiting for us there…
It was a rural India hardly seen on television. Women roamed in half-veils. The eldest woman was the matriarch. Village elders rarely watched television. We were mere city slickers. I was not a gorgeous cover girl but an ordinary, overdressed female in that simple milieu. As the mother and grandmother had both gone for the local Ramleela and we were in a hurry to leave, we decided to trace them in the venue itself. The maternal family of the assistant seemed to be very important in the village and we were shown full courtesy and respect. With the help of a few volunteers, we could trace the grandmother and mother in the second front row. As the grandmother wanted to see Lord Rama, Sita and Laxmana, she asked us to sit for a while and watch the gods play their roles as human beings. Their avatars were sacred for the audience that sat spellbound by the spectacle being conducted on a well-lit vast stage.
The divines were before them in the human forms!
It was a special moment as women bowed at their appearance on the stage. They were very young actors taking their roles seriously. At one point in my life, I, too, was thrilled by the Ram Leela but this time, I found it primitive. Its earlier appeal was completely lost for me. The whole thing looked quizzically loud, garish and overdone. Actors were overly heavily painted, wore fake jewelry and long costumes. The make-up was too obvious for my refined taste. Phony hair-buns, dresses and arrows and aces looked out of sync. Even the dialogues were archaic for modern theatre. But the live audience loved every minute. The music, songs and long exchanges and monologues were hungrily lapped up. Many members could even recite the couplets from the Ramanaya along with the singers sitting at a corner of the stage.
It seemed that these rustics were producing/creating their individual versions of this popular epic by participating in this public event. The audience as the co-producer/creator of a public text held sacred by the Hindus across the centuries!
Even the brief comic interludes provided insightful commentary on the current political India and people laughed out loud at these crude jokes — as they do in the carnivals. Clowns appeared during the short scenery change and regaled the audience with their hilarious takes on corruption, casteism, communalism and other evils plaguing the nation of more than a billion people. Their buffoonery evoked universal mirth from the large public mainly sitting cross-legged on the green grass of the open ground under twinkling stars.
I was there for more than an hour and became restive. During another brief break, an over-done clown appeared and looked at me sitting on a sofa set in the front row — a few feet away, he shouted loudly, “A FREAK! A stiff FREAK!”
“Where? Who?” asked his fat companion.
“There. Look at that figure. That freakish person.”
The first clown pointed at me. The second looked, confirmed and then shouted over the microphone, “Yes. A freak. Neither black nor brown nor white nor golden! What a freak! A devil in our midst!”
They slapped their hands and heads and laughed uproariously. People started looking at my direction. I stood up angry and hurt. Kids laughed. So did men and women. An old wild woman chased me out of the venue, cursing me loudly.
“You have defiled the show!” she shouted, angrily brandishing her staff, eyes crazed with hatred.
Then many urchins began running after me. I ran for my safety and when finally, I caught up with my driver and settled down in a running car, breathless and scared, I happened to glance at the rear-view mirror.
What I saw in the bumping car shocked me!
A multi-coloured cracked face was staring back at me!
It was like becoming an internal feature/ character part of a surrealistic work…perhaps by Dali!
And then the blackness of a long highway hit us…and a terror of new reality within the enclosed space of a moving car that almost left me nauseated and claustrophobic.
*desi — Local, Indian
*firangi — foreigner
*gora — white
Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html
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