April 2, 2001
US city pages

- Atlanta
- Boston
- Chicago
- DC Area
- Houston
- Jersey Area
- Los Angeles
- New York
- SF Bay Area


- Astrology
- Broadband
- Cricket New!
- Immigration
- Indian Auctions
- Lifestyle New!
- Money
- Movies
- New To US New!
- Radio
- Wedding
- Women
- India News
- US News

- Airline Info
- Calendar New!
- E-Cards
- Free Homepages
- Mobile New
- Shopping New
- Weather

communication hub

- Rediff Chat
- Rediff Bol
- Rediff Mail
- Home Pages

Stay Updated
Subscribe to Rediff Roundup

 Search the Internet
E-Mail this report to a friend
Print this page
Recent Specials
The Harsh Days
     of Their Lives
'Clinton says the
     people of India are
     very special to him'
A Doctor Sans
Bombay's Gateway
Stanford Holi
Real Mystic Masseur
Place Your Bets
Funniest South Asian
     in the Nation
Advocate for Aliens
Fund Drive Attracts
     Hate Mail
Recognizing Campus
'We'll be Forced to
The Elephant is Still
Julie Taught Others
     To Live
The Parallel Lives of
     Shashi Tharoor

The Rediff US Special/ Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Wheat Complexions and Pink Cheeks

Best-selling novelist Divakaruni's newest book, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, a collection of stories, will be published in mid-April

In the Calcutta of the fifties, when I was born, the family didn't say, "Not another girl. How will we ever find the money for the dowry?" Those were enlightened times. They knew girls were important and worth loving. They would educate me, and that would be better than any dowry.

But they did say, "Too bad she's so dark." Because that was what separated Premium Quality from Econo-Pack. Fair skin.

As I grew older they said, "Rub turmeric and milk cream on your skin and every day after school. Try not to go outside so much, and make sure you carry a parasol. Take swimming lessons? Never! You'll turn your skin black as coal." They said, "Dear, not that bright red color. That only looks good on fair girls."

I fumed, I wept, I said wicked things. They said, "We're telling you this for your own good. Otherwise no one will marry you, not even if you have a PhD and a job in a big office."

They were right. The matrimonial ads in the newspapers wanted only "wheat complexioned" girls. Movie posters showed heroines with impossibly pink cheeks. On the radio, we heard commercial after commercial for Lakme whitening cream.

Where did this obsession come from? Was it part of a leftover colonial mentality? Was it because historically the wives of the rich, who never had to work in the fields, were light-skinned? Was it because fair skin was a rarity?

By my senior year of high school, I stopped speaking up in class. I stopped going to all girls table tennis (one of the few sports I was allowed because it was played indoors). I started eating too much and put on weight.

Then, Miss Bose, my social studies teacher, called me to her office. She asked me why my grades were going down and which colleges I was applying to. I told her I wasn't interested in college. "What's wrong with you?" she said angrily. "A smart girl like you, throwing your chances away?"

I don't know what made me tell her. Perhaps because she was dark herself and unmarried (though she didn't seem unhappy about that fact as she rode up to school each day on a jaunty yellow scooter). "What's the use," I remember ending.

If I'd expected sympathy from her, I didn't get any. She stared at me for a moment, then told me I was to write my term paper on the Miss World Beauty Pageant.

Sadist, I thought as I stomped away.

But as I looked up articles and photos in the library, something started happening. I saw many good-looking women -- and they were all different: sharp-featured, snub-nosed, tall and willowy, short and curvy. And several were dark -- much darker than me.

It would take me years to throw away my tubes of whitening cream to enjoy walking bareheaded in the sun. But that afternoon in the library I took the first step. I photocopied the picture of Miss Nigeria, whom I thought particularly attractive, and hid it in my underwear drawer. Whenever I felt ugly I looked at her, and she reminded me that there are many ways of being beautiful. Instead of hankering after something unattainable and unnatural, I needed to appreciate what I had and make the best of it.

Before graduating, I gave Miss Bose a red scarf as a thank-you gift. I think she got the message. She wore it at our graduation ceremony, and when she clapped for me, she was dazzling.

Illustration: Lynette Menezes

Back to top

Tell us what you think of this feature