I am my parents’ only child and this has been a matter of concern among my paternal family for as long as I can remember. Whether it would be random middle-aged 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 of 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, pompous in a pair of pajamas and a candy in hand. They were awed by the fact that I was the first daughter to move to a different state, viz West Bengal, for post-graduation, and was intelligent enough to bag a Government job. 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 being 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.
I used to rush around in the village lanes and fields whenever we visited the countryside from Ranchi, where we had settled for the sake of my parents’ jobs; 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 down all the kids to their knees, which was fine, until suddenly, this command of his, was restricted to the females of 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 in my 10thyear when puberty had just started to make its presence felt, in the form of incredibly tight and ill-fitting bras and really stubborn acne. My melanin became the topic of discussion around home, my paternal home, that is. The ladies 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. Today, as an almost 21-year-old individual who spent her adolescence feeling ugly and left out because of her colour, I realise that had the villagers not said things like that, had my aunts not told me that I had turned darker in the past year every time I met them, I would have probably had an easier life. Understanding my own strengths would have been a feat more accessible.
During my school years, someone was always prettier, more popular and more approachable. Poly-cystic ovarian syndrome didn’t help either. It went undiagnosed for years, given my very irregular menstrual cycles; and I wish I had gone to the gynaecologist the one time I missed my period in 8th standard. Not doing so gave me unimaginable weight gain, acne and a really low self-esteem. In a situation like this, I could not help but put on a face of bold approach towards life, the mask of self-reliance and independence made me appear as if I was a confident and mentally 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 for the very person I was; and their voices echoed in my brain for weeks.
Bits and pieces of information reached my ears over the next couple of years; how my paternal grandparents never saw my face until I was one, because I was born a female, 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 and intelligence, and how my grandmother was worried I will never get married, due to my colour. Through these 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, who 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 household ‘remedies’ for acne and a dark skin tone. “You are beautiful” was a statement that used to lighten up my day, because the importance of beauty was penetrated deep in my mind, more than the importance of an education.
For me, being a girl in India was never about fighting for the right to education, or equality; it was about the realization 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 is a fact that I learnt quite late in my life, when I was already in college, freshly out of the trauma of school and the perpetual shaming. 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 in 9th standard 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; the little things that were said, intricate ways in which I was constantly told that fair is beautiful, made me, and probably hundreds of other Indian girls, wary of their bodies.
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 has helped me a lot; not that it is not filled with people who made me question my worth yet again, but I was lucky enough to find the treasure of self-love. Places where I found friends, who embraced me for who I was, people who appreciated my boldness, a quality I had developed as a coping mechanism, 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 colour, were also the people who were so unsure of their own mettle, unaware of their own prowess. Aunties who asked me to stay indoors never realised that they work for 14 hours a day, without any help from their male counterparts and don’t receive any pay for the same; 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 lack of it.
So when last summer my grandmother saw me after two years and said that I’d turned darker during my stay in Delhi, which was because of a tan obtained due to hours of travelling for work, 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 village, yet progressive and open minded enough to have never been a patriarch or sexist, who had told me that I am my own hero, smiled. His daughter had grown; for her, fierce was the new fair.