By Manik Sharma Jan. 18, 2019
Living as a fair-skinned man in India is bit of a head-start, but can lead to some pretty awkward moments. As a child, I was repeatedly cast as the only girl in a play at a boy’s school, and in Hyderabad, a man who wanted to take a picture with me, asked me, “Which country?”
I’m at the Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, regrettably on a hot summer’s day. I carry a camera because I like to think of myself as a serious photographer. While looking for a quiet corner from which to capture the historic architecture, I am approached by a man with a camera in his hand as well, his two friends behind him. He wants a photograph. “Yes, sure,” I tell him and reach for his camera. He, though, hands it to his friends and puts his arm around my shoulder. A second later we have a portrait together. “Which country?” he asks. I first think of saying Israel, because I don’t want to disappoint him, but stick to the truth instead.
“India,” I say.
“Shit.” He turns around in disgust, looks into the screen of his camera, deletes the photograph, and walks away without saying a word. Being fair in India has its privileges, but it also comes with the peculiarity of experiencing its people outside of their social element.
I’ve lived in Himachal for the majority of my life, where whiteness of the skin isn’t as fascinating as it is common. Even then, the sincerest I have heard my relatives appraise me is when they empirically classify its tone. “Bohat gora hai” stands for affection, “Hayyee kitna gora hai” possibly translates to denial, whereas when prefixed by “awwwww” the statement stands for envy, perhaps even anger. Cousins looked at me like I was an extraterrestrial, while everyone else wanted to get touchy-feely, or thereabouts. Unfortunately, whatever misconceptions I had about the sombreness of a young adult life balancing out the attention my Simi Garewal’s saree-toned skin attracted proved to be wrong.
It becomes especially difficult when the personality you have at your disposal is not as loud as the first impression of your shade.
I knew in my teens that the first card I would ever play in a social scenario was the one I couldn’t really hide. Why is it a card? Well, I’m treated better by waiters in restaurants, addressed politely by stewards and guards, by conductors in buses. I was once offered the kitchen’s freedom in a Rajdhani between Delhi and Mumbai without asking. A policeman in Chennai was extra courteous when I asked him for direction. A mall in Bhubaneswar re-opened their registers to accommodate me, after they denied the same opportunity to other people. I bring out the best in people, however deceitful.
As incredibly pompous as that may sound, the colour of my skin has on more than one occasion acted as an expedient for a higher generality – the race of white men. Half of the time, I know, it is the fact that most people assume I am a firang which ticks me for cultural ascendancy of sorts. It doesn’t help that “firang” is also a nickname my friends call me. So I play along. Then there have been the women, a significant bulk of whom I risk upsetting when I say that fair skin has worked better than the best jokes, ideas, or even behaviour. It becomes especially difficult when the personality you have at your disposal is not as loud as the first impression of your shade. Needless to say, after a point I gave up trying to be heard.
There are tiny irritants as well. Aunties eye you for marriages from the moment they hear other aunties say, “Arré, yeh toh dulhan se bhi gora lag raha hai!” These women have a mutation that enables them to visualise future children better than sonograms and deem them all winners as long as they are fair. At the same marriage, by the way, someone mistakes me for the token white guy and asks for selfies, like my friend from Golconda Fort. Autowallahs take me for dumb and every man south of gentle takes me for weak. I struggle to hide in rooms I’d rather not enter, because people ask questions like “Kaunse doodh se nahate ho?” Oh and as a child, I was repeatedly cast as the only girl in a play at a boy’s school.
Even so, living as a fair-skinned man in India is a bit of a head-start. I’m not superior, but I’ve been made to feel that way all my life to the point that I have made peace with it. So when two men wanted to take a photograph with me in Pondicherry, I obliged. In Puri, I even pulled in my dumbfounded parents for it. In Delhi, I declared I was Russian, and they loved it.
It is complicated to disown one’s gorapan and too convenient – according to everyone else – to deny its benefits. “Tumko isliye farak nahi padta kyunki tum ho,” I’ve been told. Maybe it is true. But this category of vanilla has been fleshed out by those who have looked at me like I was a mirror. That said, it does get dark on this side as well, like being called “White bhaiyya” at a football game. Now that is dark. And we don’t like that, do we.