Some bleach it; some plaster it with layers of makeup; some render it to the craft of knives and
needles and lasers; some compensate for it; some deny it; some resign to it; some bury it in
shame and wounded self-esteem; and some brown girls—just like me—try a little bit of all. But
the brown persists, like a dragging disease.
“So, for how long has it affected you?” I know you want to ask.
“I was born brown—a birth defect, you see.”
“Treatments? Cures?” You wonder.
“I said I’ve tried it all. Hasn't been cured yet. Pathetic, huh!”
“History? Causes? Do you know?” You are really curious to find out.
"I blame my paternal genes, for the color.”
“So the brown is genetic, you say.” You want to be sure.
“Just the color. Not white, nearly black— the brown I wear on my skin.” I say with
emphasis and discerning conviction.
“There’s another brown, you mean?” You are confused.
“Yes. The real disease. The brown that wears me.”
Five and frail and foolish, I know nothing about my imperfections. My joys and
(occasional) sorrows all whirl around the companionship of my little cousin—my first friend
(and my first rival). We love to dress up like a bride everyday; red chunnis, red bindis, red
bangles, red blush. And how I never notice that hers is a natural flush! We roll and kick our
nimble feet in mud puddles; she cries when her mom scrubs the cracking lumps of dirt off her
snow-white heels. And how I take no heed of the mud crumbs that perch on, and perfectly match,
my dark, ashy knees! She pecks me on my hands a few hundred times a day, like a mechanical
woodpecker. And how I do not see the contrast that is, now, so painfully stark in photographs! I
was five and careless, frail and casual, foolish and colorblind.
But my sister isn’t. She and I are jostling over the role of Radha for a frivolous little
dance performance. What young girl wouldn’t want to be Radha after all? “She was a model of
divine beauty, charm, and grace that won Lord Krishna’s heart,” our grandma had once
described her. Oh, the ring and melody of the words “beauty” and “divine”, how they caress the
fancies of a five-year-old girl!
“You be Krishna, I'll be Radha,” insists my sister; her golden fringes bunched up, hanging
right above her precious honey eyes. A feminine and fragile girl that I am, I cannot envision
myself bare and stiff from waist to top, standing like a picture, while my sister shimmers in a
brand-new, jewels-studded skirt, pirouetting around me, and snatching all the attention. I refuse
to give in, “Why should I be the boy? I will not,” I smugly oppose. She slouches over and grunts
like a mad bull. It doesn’t work. She exaggerates the angry expression, flares her nostrils and
squinches up her eyebrows, looking endearingly funny. Obviously, that doesn’t work. Neither of
us speaks for the next few moments. I mistake her silence for a sign of dutiful and praiseworthy
surrender, until she breaks it, and with words that punch me in the gut.
“You are dark, Nigia. You cannot be Radha.” She speaks in a meandering rhythm,
making sure she pauses between the most “important” and “meaningful” syllables. How
strategically are those syllables arranged and spaced out! They fall on my ears one after another;
each bursts like a bomb, leaving behind echoes and pain, tears and a hollow. My sister's
expressions appear morbidly calm, as if she had been successful in pulling and spitting that one
bloody, loose tooth out of her mouth, with great neatness. Suddenly, I am aware of my
unworthiness; of the natural incompatibility throbbing between my brown and her beauty. My
dark becomes darker and her white even whiter. The contrast looks jarring, almost repulsive. A
miracle has just transpired: My colorblindness is cured.
“She was just a kid, you know"—a part me blithely suggests. “Grow out of it, whiner,”
it adds. I listen, sigh, and answer—“She was just a kid and yet she knew.”Among all the
memories of my childhood, this one refuses to languish: It surrounds me, seduces me, stabs me,
and suffocates me.
“I owe my sister a thank you and she owes me an apology.”
“Because she told you about the brown?” You bend forward to ask.
“No, she planted it, unintentionally” I clarify.
“And that's the whole story of the disease.” You are hoping I would say.
“That sure is the beginning. The disease is borne. It will keep growing and flourishing
and gnawing me inside out. The brown will soon gain full agency and start to wear me.”
Nine and naive and nettled, I zap between TV channels with earnest exasperation. A bevy
of pale beauties tap on the screen. They beckon to me and whisper, teasingly—“Do you know
the secret of our beauty and success?” They wag phony boxes of “Fair and Lovely”, and promise
to bleach the brown off of my skin. I shuffle around my mom like a looming shadow the whole
of next day, restlessly waiting for a chance to lash out on her. “It is not fair that you are lighter
than me,” I say to her in a peevish voice, looking steadfast at her delicate white wrist; and how
thick and loud bangles of gold merrily adorn it. She grins and retorts—“Thank God that you are
not as dark as your dad." In other words, what she means is I could have broken both my legs;
but thankfully, I only broke one. Her words, spun in wit and humor and ignorance, are anything
but comforting or palatable. I travel four years back in time and picture my sister tiptoeing in my
mother's place. The bombs are dropped again, though with less force my mother, on sensing that
I am displeased with her comment, sprinkles a little pinch of sugar on it: “Wheatish. That's what
your complexion is. Not dark,” affirmed she, lovingly. (I need no euphemisms, but an overhaul of
self-perception; a reconciliation with identity, in its entirety. I want no protection from the
stigma, but a complete uprooting of it).
I switch on the TV. The white-skinned phantoms knock on the screen (or in my head, I
am not sure).This time they holler at me, “Do you know the secret of our beauty and success?” I
hear no more, for the message is delivered and has settled deep. Nine and gullible, naive and
goaded, nettled-and groaning, I close my eyes believing that I am a looser for life.
“Oh, the brown-the disease has started to surface.” You observe.
“How pitiful!"You exclaim.
“It gets worse” I stretch the drama.
Twelve and touchy and timid, I am flipping through the newspaper, when my curiosity is
tickled by the Matrimonial Classifieds. “Seeking fair, milky white bride”—the phrase is
boldfaced and grossly ubiquitous; the criteria seem to be universal. I frown and sneer and
smacking the paper on the floor. A few weeks later, my neighbor pays a visit to share her grief
with my mom, and leaves the door aggravating mine. I eavesdrop on the wordy conversation
flowing over cups of hot chai, trying to pick up snatches of phrases and sentences here and there.
“She works hard . . . has a good job . . . cooks too,” my neighbor lights up as she lists her
daughter's solemn accomplishments. But the passion and crispness in her voice dissipate as she
continues—“. . . three families say no . . . two . . . didn’t call after meeting . . . she has pretty
features . . . but . . . dark like me.” I feel the punch in my gut again and almost puke a little. My
ears tune out everything, and contemplatively settle on the word but; and the prickly implications
it bore; and its horrific resonance. The but sustains like a scar that is both, indelible and noxious.
I stare at the mirror: All my features have faded out, and the three-letter curse lingers. Twelve
and haunted, touchy and humiliated, timid and heart-broken, I realize that my dream of a Prince
Charming is rather elusive.
“The brown is all over you.” You mutter, feeling nauseated and appalled.
“The brown is all over me and under me; it covers on the outside and devours on the
inside. I try hard to muffle the insecurities; to tackle the disease; but, they have a temper
of their own. I am so helpless and subdued.”
Sixteen and serious and sick, I dodge the camera, the mirror, and scores of gaping eyes.
My mom affectionately wraps a yellow shirt around my shoulders and cries out—“Oh, how great
it looks on you! The color really pops.” I grab the shirt and toss it away, with disgust; like it was
a nasty cockroach instead. “It pops, huh!”-I snap, and roll off into a mental monologue— “It
pops due the glaring contrast, right? Of light and dark? Of bright and dull? Of the beautiful and
the ugly?” I rub off the brown on a friend who has a nasty birthmark running down her cheeks;
on another whose nose is crooked; and on my soot-faced housemaid. Sixteen and angry, serious
and agonized, sickened and aggrieved, I try it all—the bleach, the mask, the makeup, the lies,
and the denial—but all artifice collapse into shame and self-deprecation.
“The brown really wears you, conspicuously.” You affirm, delirious and saddened.
“A long history of cultural whitewash, mindless perceptions, and social hypocrisy is
taking its toll.”I contemptuously suggest.
You think you can fight it—the hatred; the insecurity; the stigma; the fall; the disease—
the brown brewing inside you?” You are eager to know.
“Haven’t been able to, in twenty years.” I complain in utter desperation.
“The disease is going to kill you.” You gasp.
“The disease won't kill me. I will die with it.”I speak with vapid reassurance.
“Do you wish anything to be different?” You ask rhetorically.
“I wish you and I could be colorblind.” I answer with great vigor and pulsating hope.