It had happened again. Not that I was surprised.
I had lost track of the number of times when I had borne the brunt of someone else’s disapproval. I guess I should have been used to it by now but it still hurt. It hurt to be rejected like someone would reject a particularly overripe/spoilt vegetable or fruit at the market.
Dejected I retreated to my room. I looked at myself in the mirror.
A round face framed by poker straight black hair that cascaded down the back all the way to the waist. Brown eyes, midsized, not too small and not too large, decently shaped with a thick fringe of lashes. A narrow forehead, smooth and unlined with creases, a dusky skin tone that gleamed bronze when kissed by the sun and no discernable pimples or acne marks. A mouth that was quick to smile. Far as I could see I was a good looking, dusky complexioned woman. But sadly to many, I was simply ‘dark’.
My skin tone has somehow always dictated the story of my life. The fact that I am an educated, independent young woman, who holds a great corporate job, is immaterial. For when it comes to matrimonial alliances, none of it matters. What matters is what colour my skin is. Everyone wants a fair skinned, beautiful Bahu*.
I have always found the average Indian’s male and consequently his parents’ fascination with fair skin, annoying. Initially, it was just mildly irritating. But that was before I had had a few unsuccessful ‘showings’ (entertaining prospective grooms at tea and dinner) and one prospective alliance after the other fizzled out.
I come from an average middle-class Indian family. My father is a government employee. My mother is a school teacher. My older sister, married for three years, is a fair-skinned beauty very much like my mother. Although I inherit my mother’s alluring facial features, I was not so lucky when it came to skin tone and I inherited my father darker pallor. Not that I ever complained. It did not matter that growing up I was frequently pitted against my sister or compared to my mother. I really did not pay much heed to the condescending aunts with their critical appraisal of my looks. My parents never differentiated between us daughters. In fact, they always taught us to not pay much heed to what people said. And, that is exactly what I did, well…..till now.
‘Beta*, don’t be disheartened. There is someone out there who will value you for what you are.’ I heard Amma* say. So engrossed was I in my thoughts that I had not heard her come into my room.
I smiled at her.
‘Yes, Amma. I know. I am not sad, just disillusioned that even today when it comes to attributes in a girl, people pay more credence to physical than the intellectual. God knows when society will change.’
‘Hmmm…..hard to say that Charu. Truth be told, we need this condescending society. If not for the bad, how would we recognize the good?’
I laughed then. Amma could always make me laugh. She could always bring me out of a dark mood. The evening passed pleasantly enough after that as did the succeeding few weeks. At my behest, Amma and Baba stopped looking for alliances. They probably sensed that I was tired of all the pretty posturing in front of strangers. They probably knew that my soul was wounded and needed time to heal. Anyhow, whatever the reason, I was relieved.
A few months later at work…
I was just getting into the elevator but I turned around at the voice.
‘I’m sorry to bother you but could you please guide me to the offices of ‘Ethereal’?’
I looked at him with interest. He must have been at least 6 foot 2 inches. Smartly attired in business casuals with a laptop bag slung across, he looked very professional. He was a good looking man, fair skinned. I noticed his smile. It was utterly charming. His eyes crinkled at the corners now as he smiled down at my diminutive 5 feet 3 inches.
‘You know they have a display board stating company names and the floors that the offices are located at?’ I retorted impishly.
Sheesh….that sounded so lame even to me. I was blatantly flirting. It was so unlike me. But, there was something about him, something very open and friendly.
He grinned then, very boyishly. ‘Damn! I must have missed that.’ His eyes twinkled mischievously. I knew he was lying. He did not seem the kind of guy who would miss much in life. He had that endearing aura about him.
I grinned back at him.
‘Follow me up. I work at ‘Ethereal’,’ I said.
‘Cool. Lead on lady,’ he replied, winking playfully.
Turned out he was the new advertising and PR consultant hired by my company. He was deputed to our office for a few months to help us rebrand our company post a recent takeover of a smaller firm. As the Brand Manager of a fragrance company, I would be working very closely with him. Well, I for one was not complaining. His name was Rohit and he was as charming as they came.
A couple of months passed with us strategizing the re-launch of our company brand. Then one evening when we were working late in the office…
‘Charu, will you have dinner with me tonight?’ he suggested. ‘Like a date?’
I was taken aback. No one had ever asked me out like this. ‘Err….. I guess.’ I muttered, at a loss for words.
‘So, just to be clear, is that a Yes Rohit I would love to or a maybe Rohit, I need to think about it?’ he enquired. Something in my tone must have puzzled him.
‘No, No. Sorry I mean yes, yes Rohit, I would love to,’ I hastened to reply.
‘Cool. But may I ask why you were hesitant earlier?’
‘Erm…well actually no one has ever asked me out like this.’
‘Really? I find that hard to believe,’ he said smiling. He seemed genuinely puzzled.
‘It’s true Rohit. Good looking men do not like going out with women like me.’ I replied. I managed a tentative grin, trying to make light of the talk.
‘Why is that Charu? I don’t understand. What is wrong with you? You are a beautiful and intelligent woman. Any man would be lucky to spend time with you.’ He said, his eyes looking into mine.
‘Rohit you are my friend so you say this. You think I am beautiful and intelligent but when men look at me they cannot get past my dark complexion. No one wants to go out with a ‘Kaali ladki*’.’ I managed to say.
I felt my eyes moisten. I knew I was very near tears. Rohit had made me revisit a painful topic that I had all but forgotten about in the past few months. My parents had stuck to their promise and there had been no more talk of suitable alliances at my home. The wound that I had covered up reopened today at Rohit’s prodding.
‘Kaali ladki? Are you nuts Charu. Who would say that?’ Rohit was shocked. I sensed that his upbringing did not dictate objectifying women or abasing them.
‘People say this Rohit either to my face or behind my back,’ I told him, a tear escaping my brimming eyes. ‘I cannot remember the number of times I have been rejected by prospective grooms or their parents just because I am dark skinned.’
‘Their loss Charu, is all I will say. To me you are beautiful and I talk not just of your looks. You are a beautiful person.’
“Oh come on now Rohit. You don’t have to say that to make me feel better. I am used to this discrimination,’ I said wiping away at the stray tear and dabbing at my eyes. I smiled up at him and said, ‘let’s go now. I am famished.’
Rohit left it at that. He probably sensed my hurt. We spent a pleasant evening together.
We went out often after that for meals and even movies. We discovered that we had much in common. We talked endlessly and shared stories of our childhood. I told him about my family, he told me about his. He was an army brat who had been raised all over India. His older brother was a software engineer in America and had recently married an American girl. The specifics of our friendship gradually changed as we discovered more about each other. Something grew between us but was yet unspoken. It was Rohit who confessed it first on one of our outings.
‘You know Charu,’ he began, ‘that day by the elevator when we first met? That was no accident. I knew where ‘Ethereal’ was located.’
‘Really? I knew it, ‘I smiled and playfully boxed his arm. But, then why did you stop me to ask.’
‘I saw you standing there and there was just something about you…..I felt pulled. Something made me stop you and ask.’
‘Seriously? Good heavens! I never knew.’ I laughed up at him.
‘I still feel the same Charu. Our friendship has deepened but I have to admit, I still feel this inexplicable pull towards you. I know that I am happier around you. You make me want to be a better version if myself.’
‘I, I…. I don’t know what to say Rohit.’ I stammered shyly, my eyes downcast. This was unknown territory for me. I was not used to such attention from men and frankly speaking did not quite know how to handle it. I knew that Rohit treated me with respect and as an equal. Honestly speaking, he made me feel special and wanted. With him I even felt beautiful.
‘I thought you would have guessed by now Charu.’
‘That I am hopelessly in love with you.’ He said, his hand lifting my chin up so he could look into my eyes. His eyes shone with sincerity and an emotion that I suddenly realized was indeed love. I could not believe it though.
‘That can’t be true Rohit. You cannot love me,’ I said, slightly flustered and unsure of how to handle the situation. Prying away his hand I looked away.
‘Why is that Charu? Why can I not love you? Is there something lacking in me?’ he asked. A shadow crossed his face. He seemed disturbed by my statement.
‘No, No Rohit,’ I hastened to explain. ‘It’s not you. It’s me. I am not good enough for you.’
“What? How can you conclude that Charu? Last I checked I was in control of my thinking,’ he added sarcastically.
I had hurt his feelings now.
‘You don’t understand Rohit,’ I tried to explain, ’you are a good looking, fair skinned man. I am sure your parents want a beautiful fair skinned daughter in law. I am anything but. I am not good enough Rohit so let’s not lose our friendship over something that will never get your parents’ sanction. Today you say you love me but when your parents and relatives criticize my complexion, you will realize the error of your ways. So, let’s save the both of us all that trouble and continue to be friends.’
He laughed then, a deep and rumbling laughter. It began somewhere deep in his gut and bubbled out sonorously. So mirthful was his reaction that I was caught aback.
‘You are something else Charu, you know that?’ he said finally. ‘You have never even met my parents and yet you know that they will not approve of you solely based on your complexion. Do you really think so little of yourself?’
‘I, I…….no…I mean.’ I was at a loss for words.
‘Tell me what you do mean,’ he asked.
‘Rohit, I may not know your parents but I do know parents in general. Especially parents of boys because I have been rejected by enough of them to know that when it comes to an alliance for their precious son’s, they want someone beautiful and fair skinned,’ I said, my temper starting to spike a bit. ‘I have been on the receiving end of so many such critical appraisals that I know what the answer will be even before the question is asked. I am sorry Rohit. I did not mean to insult your parents but you and I see the world through different lenses. Mine are just more realistic than yours.’
My little outburst sobered him up. He could see how deeply disturbed I was. He probably also sensed the deep hurt that had clouded my thinking.
‘Charu, look at me,’ he said, tipping my chin up again.
I looked at him, my eyes brimming with unshed tears.
‘Do you love me Charu?’
‘But Rohit…..’ I began only to be cut short by him.
‘No but’s, Charu. Just please answer me, Do you love me? Do you feel the same for me as I do for you?’
I looked at him in all his earnestness. He seemed so sincere and I had no doubt that he was being truthful. The past few months had been testimony to that. But, could I open my heart up? Could I tell him that I loved him only to be rebuffed by his parents later? I had been hurt in the past so was not so sure. But,………..
‘Charu, do you?’ he asked again now.
In that moment something changed. I knew that I could not be the victim of archaic thinking anymore. If there was going to be a change then it had to come from me too. I too needed to change my own opinion of myself before I could make the world see the error in their conceived notions. As I looked in his eyes, for the first time, I saw a man who was ready to accept me for what I was. In my heart I knew then that this man would forever cherish me. He would treat me with respect and my physical attributes were something that would never mater to him. I knew that this was a man who would always support me, bolster my confidence and to him I would always be beautiful both inside and out.
With this new awakening, I looked into his eyes, smiled and said, ‘Yes Rohit. I love you too. I really do.’
Till my dying day I shall remember the grin that transformed his face then. He lifted me right up and hugged me close before twirling me around till I was giddy with laughter and nausea.
In the weeks that followed, once we were surer of our decision, I introduced Rohit to my parents. A love marriage was something that was against the orthodox thinking of my community but my parents surprised me by supporting my decision. They were probably relieved that I had found someone as well settled as Rohit and from a good family background too.
Rohit too introduced me to his family. I was nervous and scared to meet them. But the love and warmth with which they received me completely brought down my defences. Rohit’s brother was visiting from the U.S and as I was introduced to his wife, I was surprised. Rohit had mentioned that she was American. What he had neglected to mention was the fact that she was also African American. Rohit caught my look of surprise and winked at me from across the room. I realized then how lucky I was to have found not only him but also a family who welcomed me into their fold wholeheartedly. I realized that I had fallen in love with not only Rohit but his family too.
Rohit and I were married a year after we first met.
To this day every time I look at my husband and say, ‘I was lucky to have found you,’ he replies, ‘No Charu. I am the lucky one. I am lucky that I found you and you consented to be my wife.’
We have been married for over a decade now. It’s been beautiful.
Bahu – daughter in law
Amma – mother
Kaali ladki – black skinned/dark skinned girl.
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