As a woman in my late 20s, I tend to look back with the clarity of hindsight into my most intense relationships. One of them for me was and is, with not only my mirror but more prominently, with the colour of my skin. The colour, which I did not ever see in the mirror myself. The colour, which I was forced to see in the mirror, bit by bit.
The first time I realised the uniqueness of my skin colour was when my paternal Uncle nicknamed me "kaali" in the family. Kaali is Hindi for "black". Stark, ugly, unadorned!
It is strange how relationships with people are like that with the mirror. They will always see in you what you want them to see.
Advocates of chauvinism and racism in my father's fair-skinned Brahmin family said it was Uncle's way of showing affection to me. Beauty has a set definition in our society and certainly "kaali" is not beautiful. Brahmins also tend to believe that dark skin colour denotes a lower class in society.
My heart goes out to women who are dealing with the adverse effects of their dark complexion. Sample this one case of a million of them: in June this year, a husband in Ranga Reddy district tried to kill his wife as he was unhappy with her complexion. According to market research firm AC Nielsen, the Indian fairness cream market is worth $432 billion, and growing at a rate of almost 18% year-on-year. The white-skin obsession in the country is contagious and I have been a victim of it too.
At 18, numerous home remedies had made my skin lighter but still I was not fair, and how could I be? No one around me was still at peace with my complexion. I was often questioned, "How did you become fairer? You were so kaali."
But, this is what the world thought. My inner self always found me beautiful. The belief in my beauty, facing the world's bias and reaffirming my faith did not happen overnight.
At the right age, I travelled the world and met evolved people from different cultures and nationalities. The broad lips of Oprah Winfrey, the burnished skin of Naomi Campbell, the body type of Kate Winslet—this was exotic to me. My perception of beauty widened.
In India, we have a warped view of beauty—narrow and rigid. I cherish the memory of a little girl in Cyprus who touched my skin and said in wonder, "You have shining skin."
In college too, I was lucky to find friends who thought my skin colour was a gift and my thick, albeit so pink, lips were attractive.
Acceptance from people did not come easily. I faced years of exclusion before that. Rejection, however, has been my greatest teacher. That was the time I learnt to accept myself and self-love was the only rescue. At 13, when awareness of the opposite sex set in, I found my complexion becoming a surprising hurdle. Remarks like, "Who else is kaali in your family?" hurt deep inside. I stared at the mirror and willed my colour to get lighter. Paler, characterless! The cruel words were etched like a relentless refrain. An anger burnt within me as I looked at myself and imagined what others saw in my skin that I could not.
Today, I dare anyone to call me kaali. You talk about complexion and I will tell you what the colour of your heart is.
I decided to fight it and face it. I wore a bright yellow top to a party even though the salesgirl looked at me disapprovingly when I picked it up. When I grew up, I chose a bright colour to highlight my lips instead of making them slimmer with concealer and yes, I did smile brighter. The compliments started coming simply because I wore my skin with confidence.
The truth is that you will always find husbands, boyfriends, mothers-in-law, close relatives who will taunt you on your complexion. You might never fall in their definition of "beauty". I insist that do not let that little girl in you, who finds herself beautiful, die. Please.
The struggle is not easy, but the fight is necessary. The fortunate part is that you are fighting with yourself here. Win the fight, and others will follow.
Because you are dark, you would want to be slim. As Indian women we are made to believe that we need to be at least one of the two to be attractive—fair or slim? It was only after I loved my skin that I longed to be slim to be fit, and not because I had to compensate for my skin colour.
After tough 27 years and heartbreaking rejection, I accepted my skin colour. It is strange how relationships with people are like that with the mirror. They will always see in you what you want them to see.
Today, I dare anyone to call me kaali. You talk about complexion and I will tell you what the colour of your heart is. I will reject you, before you try to assess my skin colour. I will judge you before you ask me whether smoking has made my lips dark or thick. I will tell you about the fake layers you wear, if you ask me to put on make-up to hide my real skin colour.
I'm still the little girl who found herself beautiful. The mirror and I are inseparable friends.
You Can Call Me 'Kaali', But The Mirror Says I'm The Fairest Of Them All