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It's just not fair

The fairness craze is a nationwide disease that cuts across classes and geographical regions, writes C.K. MEENA.

In the marriage market, girls have always borne the brunt of colour obsession

COME HERE, and sit on my knee. Let me tell you a story about a beautiful princess. Her skin was as dark as a new-moon night...

What happened? Did your listener complain, did she correct you, did she laugh outright? She's only four, but she is absolutely sure of one thing: to be beautiful is to be fair. It's a message that has seeped into her unconscious through a thousand pathways; a message that, far from losing potency over the years, has gained in pitch and reach.

If the fairness craze is a nationwide disease that cuts across classes and geographical regions, one of the primary sources of infection is not difficult to pinpoint. White rule produced brown sahibs and their memsahibs who strove to become pale imitations of their masters, and when the Brits left our shores, we continued to take to heart their shining images of blond superiority. We received these images through books, movies, ads, and calendars, and through their very language, in which "dark" carries negative connotations. Swarthy men smeared Afghan Snow on their faces, while women daubed pink Lacto Calamine lotion; both sexes made liberal use of talcum powder. Now, a hangover of history can be forgiven up to a point. Like any headache, one can allow it a decent interval to subside, but 57 years? Can't accept that. And the hangover has got worse, not better.

Come here, beti, and sit by my side. Let me explain what "the fairer sex" means. It doesn't refer to the colour your skin should be, although I don't blame you for thinking that. After all, your brother is at this very moment choosing his bride, shuffling a pack of photographs like playing cards and tossing out all the dark women. Not all who pass muster reveal their true colours, since photo labs in India, as a norm, make faces appear a shade or two lighter.

Just for once, I'd like to see a matrimonial ad that describes a bride with the complexion of ragi, not wheat. Actually, "wheat-complexioned" has gone out of fashion and equally illogical expressions have taken its place: "medium" or "average". Medium on a Caucasian or a Dravidian scale? People use these words either to signify the normal colour of most Indians, or to tactfully describe someone who is, er, on the darker side, not very fair — they hesitate to come out with plain "dark" because they fear it would be construed as an insult.

In the marriage market, the woman has always borne the brunt of colour obsession. She never asks for a fair groom, although I must add that men, too, have begun to advertise themselves as fair. Does this mean that dark "boys" are unpopular? Such a golden opportunity for manufacturers of fairness products to expand their 60 per cent share of the skincare market: start targeting men. We've seen multilingual commercials on fair girls who get film offers from directors (of popular films, of course, for a dark girl would only get roles in art films, and who sees those?). Why not a similar spot about a boy who cannot be a model because of his brown skin? Or about the fair guy getting the girl? Ladies and gentlemen of the advertising world — to the drawing board! Get creative. Let's have some gender equality here.

Women's groups can protest all they want, but the public stolidly retains the same mindset they've had for — how many centuries, now? Our dark heroines of mythology and our beautiful, black stone idols notwithstanding, the overriding impact has perhaps been that of a series of light-skinned conquerors. Is there also a throwback to feudal times where the ruling caste was seen as being predominantly fair? I don't know. Meanwhile, the colonialism theory goes a bit out of kilter when you consider that ancient Ayurveda prescribed methods for producing fair children. Pregnant women drink saffron dissolved in milk in the faint hope that the foetus acquires a creamy hue. Then a recessive gene of an ancestor on the husband's side decides to have some fun, and bam! out comes a dark child. Do they give up? Do they accept the fact that genes work all the magic? No, they desperately feed the baby gold in various forms. This continues into adulthood although metal ingested indiscriminately can cause kidney failure. It would be funny if it weren't so tragic.

True story from the Eighties: a young beautician was persuaded to leave her five-star hotel job because some clients felt "uncomfortable" being touched by a dark-skinned person. This was a woman who had pluckily overcome a lifetime of being compared with her fair sisters, of being the butt of humiliating remarks by sundry aunts and uncles. She thought she was invincible. But she cried when she came back to her room. In the 27th year of her life, she cried for having been born dark. She's doing very well for herself today, thank you. In my idle fancy, she organises a boycott where, like the satyagrahis of yore burning Manchester cotton, mountains of tubes of creams and gels are squeezed out to write slogans such as: "What's in? Melanin." "White? Time to quit". Quit — not India, but our consciousness.

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