By Tia Basu Sep. 30, 2016
I was a dark baby, born to a mother and two grandmothers with pearly, translucent skin. And I grew up believing I was dirty.
Iwonder if Tannishtha Chatterjee, a Bengali girl born in Pune, has ever heard the word “moyla”? Moyla literally translates to dirt or dirty, and it is what loving grandmothers and great-aunts in Bengal use to describe a dark skin tone. There’s a facial expression that goes with it – a crease in the forehead, a scrunched-up nose, and a delicate downward turn to the mouth. A fitting facial complement to the implication: dark skin = dirty. It is also an expression almost never used for the menfolk.
I was a dark baby, born to a mother and two grandmothers with pearly, translucent skin. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my skin tone was the centre point of all conversations in my growing up years. We could begin talking about rohu, but it would end up at my skin. We could be discussing Didi and still it would somehow turn to my skin. Relatives flowing in and out of my life thought nothing of repeatedly remarking, “Or rong ta ektu moyla (Her colour is rather dirty).” It was the rallying cry of my childhood.
I thought of these women in my life when outrage over Tannishtha Chatterjee began. Viciously pissed off at Comedy Nights Bachao, at Indian television, and at Indians at large, I contributed to the furore. It was only after I was spent by the force of my anger that I realised how utterly misplaced it was. How could I yell at complete strangers, when I hadn’t been able to say a word to my loved ones? Why was outrage so much easier when there’s distance between prejudice and us?
I grew up believing I was dirty.
By the age of 12, I was secretly buying whitening creams and rubbing them on my face, hoping they might somehow “clean” me up. They never did. A whitish, mask-like film would form over my face, only to wash off later, reminding me that it wasn’t real. I lived with that mask for many months, believing it would hide me, at least temporarily, from well-meant remarks. I never spoke of it, never said anything back to them. Occasionally, my eyes would fill up and I’d dash the tears away because they said salt water was bad for the skin. And skin was all I was.
Every dark-skinned girl in India knows it starts from home. From the grandmother who makes the best Kashmiri mutton curry in the world and the grand-aunt who tells dirty jokes.
I don’t remember when it was that I stopped using fairness creams, but somewhere along the line, the terms “dusky” and “beauty” were brought to my notice. My mum was a major support and it helped that I wasn’t living with my grandparents any more.
As I grew older, a little bit of wisdom, an inner stubbornness took root. I wouldn’t use anything that promised to change my colour, just because I was being told to. I avoided whitening products on principle no matter what. I remember spending a month in China and being unable to use a shower gel because there weren’t any non-whitening ones.
Even though I acquired comfort with my skin tone, I never fell in love with it. The validation would have perhaps come upon a confrontation that never happened. My relationship with my grandmother was affectionate, but fraught with tension during my teenage years, and distant during my 20s after I moved cities. I was forever conscious and convinced that no matter what I did, I was always going to be the dark-skinned, acne-ridden grandchild. I could never shake her up and tell her how heavily she has loaded me with insecurity. We talked instead about movies and e-commerce sites and food and bed linen. Safe topics. It was easier to maintain unease, balance love and anger, than have an outright confrontation that may or may not end well.
As she and I both grew older, we came to an uneasy truce of sorts. She moved from criticising my skin/clothes/lifestyle to simply calling them “funny” with a resigned tone of acceptance. In my 30s now, and with some of the hormones and hurt anger under control, I can appreciate her as a woman who worked with what she had, who preferred to say things as she saw them and as she had been taught. The aversion to dark skin has been so deeply embedded that I think it’s become a fact for her and her generation, rather an insult. At her end, I suppose she didn’t want to lose her funny, stubborn, dark-skinned granddaughter who showed her how to pay bills online and use an iPhone. Love comes in strange forms. And colours.
But, it takes one trip out in the sun or a biking holiday, for the telltale tan line to show up around my spectacles. And, my grandmother will still look me in the eye and mutter, “Rong ta moyla.” And while I now have a set of pert responses ready – “good, I like it dark,” etc, the old sting returns. I am 14 again, frantically trying to clean up this dirt I have been marked with.
We don’t need national headlines to remind us that such prejudices exist and need to be fought at every level. Every dark-skinned girl in India knows it starts from home. From the grandmother who makes the best Kashmiri mutton curry in the world and the grand-aunt who tells dirty jokes.
The anger and argument around Tannishtha Chatterjee’s roast will eventually die down. Nandita Das will continue to propagate that dark is, in fact, beautiful. I will write long Facebook posts and scour supermarket shelves for non-whitening skin products.
But, at home, the silence will stay. Or maybe it’s white noise.
Tia is a professional cupcake-eater, who occasionally dabbles in writing and editing. Sometimes, it's the other way around. She believes napping and Colin Firth (separately and together) can heal anything.