7/29/06

And this one is for the bleach.

Incident 1:

Conversation between my aunt and me, at 14.

Aunt: Look at you. You look like a piece of charred karuvaadu (fish, dried to a crisp). At least wear sun-screen when you’re out playing b-ball in the sun with your thuggy friends.

Me: Who the hell cares? I like my skin this way. I’m not going to touch that icky sunscreen. Besides you know how crappy and rebellious my skin is. It loves to break out at any given opportunity, and I’m NOT going to give it that satisfaction.

Aunt: illai kanna (Tamil endearment, translates loosely to - no, dear), you used to be so fair and pretty. In the last three years, your skin has been exposed to the elements way too much and your skin color has become progressively darker. I don’t even recognize you anymore; you look like a dark boy (as if being dark was an insult).

Me: *stunned, hurt silence.*

Incident 2:

Conversation between my aunt and me, at 20.

Aunt: What happened to you? Did you camp out in the sun all summer?

Me: Huh? Why? I worked all summer with high-school kids! That doesn’t qualify as camping out in the sun all summer. So where are you going with this?

Aunt: You’ve become so dark di; I suggest you stay at home for the most part. The heat in Madras is merciless. I don’t want you looking like a piece of burnt wood.

Me: *Speechless*

My aunt, who is usually a paragon of sense and anti-prejudice (most of the time, at least), always caves in to what I call the unfair and not-so-lovely syndrome (I know it’s a cheap play on words, but go with the flow, will ya?) which most Indians seem to be afflicted with. And they indulge in this curious form of racism so seamlessly, almost as if on autopilot. You will hear someone praise Bipasha Basu’s beauty and her flawless olive complexion and then berate their own daughter for wasting time on useless athletic activities which will only result in her getting a dark tan (the horror), in the same breath. Besides, she has to get married no? You can’t possibly fill out a matrimonial ad along the lines of very tanned, athletic, loves team sports and competitive swimming.

In a twisted little way, the words that make up the matrimonial ad become the girl’s life. She must not do this or that for fear of deviating from the values that make up the archetypal ideal Indian bride i.e. Fair, beautiful, cultured, educated and homely girl from a good (insert religion/caste/sub-caste here) family and so on.


I mean, isn’t asking to specify your skin tone for a matrimonial ad, the most blatant and conspicuous form of racism around? And god forbid if you’re actually dark skinned, you get slapped with a weak ‘wheatish’ tag because oh-wail-no-one-will-marry-you-now. Please tell me if you have seen anyone calling themselves ‘dark’ in their matrimonial profile. Even a person with obviously dark skin will call themselves ‘wheatish’ (I have no idea as to what this term means), because societal pressure and the unhealthy obsession for fair skin deems it so. I will also go out on a limb and say that it affects the psyche of the woman more than the psyche of a man. When an Indian woman looks for one or two likable qualities in a future mate she is labeled difficult and unreasonable. But a man can have no personality, no hair and have bad teeth, and still expect a woman who is ‘very fair, tall, cultured and beautiful’ and that is considered perfectly lucid and unobjectionable. But I digress.

How did this anomalous ‘light skinned = beautiful’ bigotry come into place? Is this an influence of the ill-fated colonial hangover? In all probability I guess that’s what it is. This over romanticized blond hair, blue/green eyes, and aquiline features as the quintessential beauty ideal has been burnt into most Indian’s brains. I mean, didn’t we all learn nursery rhymes like,

Chubby cheeks, dimple chin,
Rosy lips, teeth within,
Curly hair, very fair,
Eyes are blue, lovely too,
Teacher's pet, is that you?
Yes, Yes, Yes.

in kindergarten?

Considering the fact that most Indians aren’t blue-eyed or very fair, this rhyme is laughable at best, but what effect does it have on kids in school? Without going to the other extreme and acting all OMGenglishnurseryrhymesareaccursed! a la Madhya Pradesh, wouldn’t it be better if the archaic and schmaltzy nursery rhymes we learnt as kids were revamped? Or better still, how about introducing new nursery rhymes in english with Indian characters? Personally I found them banal and idiotic even in school and if things worked my way (heh) I would just do away with them altogether, but that’s just my opinion.

I have always seen, while growing up in India that the most popular girl in my grade would also have the fairest skin, irrespective of how she looks. I have nothing against fair skinned people, but judging a person’s looks based on skin color alone is utterly moronic and ignorant.

When I was in 8th grade, our seniors, the 9th graders held an unofficial (hyuk), highly cloak and dagger kind of ranking system for the girls (only ninth graders) based on physical appearance alone. And I personally knew most of the girls in their ranks, but what took me completely by surprise at least back then, was the girl who was given the title ‘prettiest of 9th grade’. She was um, fair skinned to the point of being extremely pale and wan looking, and that was it. She wasn’t pretty by any given means and I know that a ranking system made by pubescent 14-15 year old boys is a little skeevy but it makes an interesting point as to how this fairness obsession transcends age barriers in India.

Numerous times while growing up, I’ve had people asking my mother as to how she was going to find a groom for me in the future as I reveled in ‘un-lady like’ athletic activities and a direct side-effect of that was extremely tanned skin. They even went as far as “I will pray for her to shed her tan and become fair and pretty again. Why don’t you stop her from all these sports?” My mother always used to answer scathingly, making sure that the officious question was never asked again. So, more power to her for that. What makes matters worse is the fact that you can openly taunt and insult a person in India by calling them ‘dark’. I have never been at the receiving end of this insult but I have seen it happen a gazillion times at least. I have heard words like kaalu or karuppu thrown around as taunts albeit casually and that makes it all the more shocking.

In the same vein I'd also like to mention the odious fair and lovely ads. I can’t even pick an ad I abhor the most; almost all of them are alike in their hatefulness. Even if I HAD to pick, I would probably say that the most appalling advert is the one where the syrupy father is beyond depressed because he is tired of earning money for his family. To add to his woes, he has a dark skinned daughter who earns a paltry salary. In frustration, he famously exclaims If only I had a son. Enter fair and lovely, the answer to everyone’s problems. No points for guessing where this ad heads next. Can an advertisement BE more racist and openly sexist? I think not.

Does fair skin confer some sort of um…for lack of a better word, entitlement in India?

If that’s the case, then excuse me while I drown myself in a pool of Emami Naturally Fair Pearl Cream. (Wonder fairness system!)

*snort*

Oh and men, you need not feel left behind (yay!). I present to you Fair and Handsome - The worlds number 1 fairness cream for men.

Thanks.

7/11/06

She is all that is born and what is to be.

Try typing out a post with blurry-one-eyed vision. Grah, bah, nyah and all the other ah adjectives take precedence in your mind, doesn’t it? Well, with a swollen eyelid bordering on a vivid shade of plum and a warm compress on the said eye, my determination to post something on my blog stands unimpeded.

* insert banal opening riff from the final countdown*

Um, right.

Moving on, I’ve been noticing with growing anxiety that in the past few weeks, feminism has been on the receiving end of the blogosphere’s malapropos attention. But don’t groan, I’m actually not going to be a part of it (yes, yes, you heard me). I was merely being a philistine on the sidewalk, so to speak. War with respect to women, equality and religion etc; were some of the pre-eminent issues slung back and forth in the altercations.

One school of thought shunned organized religion altogether, claiming that organized religion was a patriarchal institution in itself and it did not make sense for women to play into the hands of the patriarchy while fighting for equal rights within the trenches of pietism. And I have to say (albeit grudgingly) that there is an iota of truth in this particular argument, irrespective of the fact that I don’t agree with it completely.

Personally I’m no atheist (I’m not insanely hindutva either, a trifle confused maybe), but Hinduism as we know it today has left me in a state of bitter disdain. Overt sexism, bigotry and hate enshrouded in pseudo religious doctrines don’t do much for my personal politics. Religion as I see it is amaranthine, its purity based on fealty alone, and nothing else. A part of my feminism is intertwined with religion; and frankly I have secretly nurtured a longing for the simplicity and the edification of faith in pre-vedic times.

There was a time, before the Aryan invasions extended their web of patriarchy over the land, a time when a single Goddess was considered as the Mother of all, the Goddess of the skies and the heavens, the Mother who gave birth to the universe and She was called Aditi.

In the first age of the gods, existence was born from non-existence.
The quarters of the sky were born from Her who crouched with legs spread.
The earth was born from Her who crouched with legs spread.
And from the earth the quarters of the sky were born.
Rig Veda, 10.72.3-4


Aditi is this abstruse oft-ill represented figure in religion as we know today. The Aryans toned down her all encompassing importance and made her subservient to a man i.e. she became the dutiful wife of Sage Kaashyapa who had twelve other wives. She was however delegated the role of mother of the Devas and the Ashuras characterizing the Aryan stereotype of a woman being important with respect to her relation with a man; a mother (of sons) or a wife (of a great man, in this case it was Kaashyapa).

This adjuvant representation of Aditi stands for everything she is not. Aditi literally means 'free from constraints' or 'the limitless one', which in itself is a nod to the fact that she is above and beyond the bonds that fetter her, permeating the cosmos and the cognizance of all that is living.

Unfortunately her physical representation was obscure at best even during the Vedic times, although ancient Harappan tablets do show a goddess with a lotus for a head and spread legs, indicating fertility and/or sexual responsiveness and this image could be a strong possibility of bearing Aditi’s likeness. For one, the representation of spread legs can be construed as giving birth to the universe and all living beings, but there are a lot of tangential stories floating around as to why she has a lotus for a head. The most accurate stories however are the oral folktales (surprising, I know) passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.

One tale takes precedence in my mind, and somehow its connotations left a resonant impression. The tale goes thus:

Aditi was also known as Renuka in some circles. She is beheaded by an upper-caste man because she openly flaunts his authority. Instead of wasting into nothingness, she grows a lotus for a head and becomes a Goddess.


This story edifies all that I hold dear: freedom, the breaking of social barriers created by man-made prejudices and the utter irrepressibility of the feminine spirit shattering the archaic ‘women are weak’ myth.

With the advent of the Aryans however, the idea of the all-powerful feminine was uprooted and many a goddess succumbed to the ritual patriarchal conversion and were turned into male deities and they were pushed to the background or they had minor roles as wives of the gods. Which upsets me, but it also leads me to wonder as to why this conversion was necessary. Was it because the Aryans were known for their pomposity, calling themselves the superior ones or the aggresives ones and the idea of an all-encompassing goddess was too diaphanous for their warrior-like sensibilites? Or was it because a powerful vanquisher god (Indra, as He was the chief deity of the Rig Veda) was more appealing to their culture of nomadic conquests, and a mother goddess seemed too grounded for their way of life initially?

It leaves me a tad nonplussed, but as I gave the Rig Veda translation a once-over I noticed that Aditi was represented with great importance albeit not too often, but represented none the less.

Oh and lest I forget, here's some food for thought: The oldest known statue (circa. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E) dubbed the Venus of Willendorf is of a woman with exaggerated sexual organs and a flower for a head. Red ochre was used to color the vulva of this statue, clearly indicating the importance of menstrual blood (unlike the sad downslide of religion as we know it today, specifically Hinduism which considers menstrual blood unclean). I cant help but wonder if this has any connection to Aditi, and her representation. It seems like a pretty strong co-incidence, doesn't it?

Venus of Willendorf:


Subsequent posts will probably be on the goddesses Usha and Surya. And yes, Surya was initially a goddess (gasp), blame the Aryans for the age-old patriarchal conversion, yet again.

I would love to have more information on Surya and I will be eternally grateful if you could leave ideas or suggestions in the comments.


Disclaimer :
The Aryan invasion theory is disputed and is yet to be disproved/proved (although scholars on both sides will claim otherwise, it's still being debated). That doesn't take away the crux of this post: the existence of an all powerful mother goddess, Her representation in the Rig Veda and the conversion of goddesses into gods by the Aryans or indigenous warring tribes. This information is not disputed.
Since I did mention that the theory is yet to be disproved/proved, I'll let this post stay as is.

*****


Post script:
I want to give a shout out to Neha for bringing this wonderful post to my attention. It's up at at global voices: Where is the most dangerous place in the world to be a child?

Be sure to swing by.

P.P.S: This is worse than painful. Please go here for frequent updates. Also go here for help.

We live in a scary world.