When I was in school, we didn’t have modern ideas about equality across communities, race and colour. (It is another story that equality was there anyway, without any of us talking about it much). So, it used to be fine and non-offensive to make personal remarks about someone’s hair-tie or school-bag or curly hair. It was all in good fun and nobody held it against anyone.
One afternoon, in the school bus, a classmate started a discussion about skin-colour. I think we were in class VIII or IX – that time when you start lingering in front of the mirror for longer moments than usual. She was a rather chubby, loud girl who loved airing her opinions about everything from the food at the canteen to the school song.
“So, do all Bengalis have dark skin-colour?” She said to me, poker-faced. “Like you, I mean.”
I was flabbergasted. I was the typical school nerd, who wore her hair in two braids and had eyes covered behind large spectacles. I was born with reddish skin, says Mom, and through school, I’d say it passed for brown. But point is, it never occurred to me that my skin colour could become a subject for discussion, let alone unify my ‘community’ in some way.
The girl looked around the bus and her eyes fell on a classmate – also Bengali, but reasonably fair-skinned. “No! She is Bengali too, and looks beautiful. I think it depends…”
I nodded absent-mindedly and was stunned to find my eyes prickling. My stop arrived, saving me the task of carrying on the enlightening conversation. Or of gathering my composure.
I loved going to school; I had several friends and all the teachers liked me. I paid little attention to ‘frivolous’ pursuits like folding the skirt at the top to make it shorter, pulling socks down, getting multiple ear piercings, or flirting with boys. Yes, yes – I have already stated I was quite the nerd, and happy about it. Never before had it bothered me that I didn’t count among the ‘fair and beautiful’ girls in school. I didn’t even know the two adjectives necessarily belonged together.
But that afternoon, I was, quite simply, stupefied. Also, stunned, dejected and teary.
Mom had come to pick me at the stop, like every day. I looked at her carefully. She had on a rose-coloured salwar suit, her hair tied with a clutch, and a big smile on her gentle face. Her skin was brown, perhaps a shade or two darker than mine. But it was the skin I touched when I got scared of the dark at night. It was the skin that smelled of lime and lavender when Mom used her shower gel. I had always found it beautiful, and very often, I’d ask Mom if I looked like her yet. Relatives and family members often commented on how I didn’t resemble her much. I tried to make up for it by observing how she walked and talked and smiled. All, in that brown skin of hers.
If I meet her today, that classmate of mine will probably not even remember this incident. It was so many years ago, and was an offhand, casual remark, very characteristic of her. But it still lingers in my memory somewhere – this conditioning of school-children that fair is beautiful. Isn’t school about friendship, learning and fun, where the only things that matter are loyalty, not telling tales to teachers, and sharing your tiffin?
If I have kids one day, I am going to do my best to teach them this: skin colour is just that – a colour. And all colours are equally beautiful.