“I’m just as dark as they are, damn it!”
This is a pretty common refrain for me. Don’t get me wrong – as a half-Indian, I’m not exactly brown-brown, but rather a very milky coffee sort of color, the kind of hue Behr calls camel (350F-5, if you’re interested). When I was younger, I often wished I was darker, more woven basket (340F-7) or bristle grass (330F-6), spending hours in the sun, hoping to get a tan despite the 3-inch thick layer of sunscreen my mother made me wear every time I ventured outside.
By the time I was 19, I’d come to terms with my skin color. I didn’t exactly love it, but I didn’t hate it either. Until my first solo trip to an Indian store, that is.
I’d been in Indian grocer’s before I turned 19 – after all, spice shopping is a rite of passage for every Indian girl. But those trips had always been with my mother (largely ignored as a gora), or my father (actively proving I was, indeed, part Indian). Yet, until that first trip on my own, I hadn’t realized just how much my family had protected me.
As soon as I walked into the store, everyone -i.e. 3 people – stopped. The attendant, a middle-aged Indian woman in a bright cotton sari, stared at me, and the two women shopping glared before slipping into an aisle and out of sight. I hurried into an aisle of my own, discreetly checking my hair, teeth and face on the freezer doors before it clicked: they thought I was a white girl with a tan. Embarrassed, though not really sure why, I grabbed a packet of jeera, a couple of boxes of tamarind lollies, and a box of pakora mix. After a moment, I put the pakora mix back on the shelf, realizing it would strip away any remaining scraps of my Indian cred.
When I got to the counter, I put my purchases up and pulled out my purse. Snorts and giggles pricked my ears – the two Bollywood chic women I’d seen earlier were peering around a shelf of bhuja. Yanking a magazine off the rack, I tried to pretend I hadn’t noticed.
As the attendant rang me up, I leafed through the magazine. And that’s when it hit me: every actress, every model, every single woman in those pages was pale. Some of them had green eyes, while others had dyed their hair a lighter shade. One was platinum blonde. The attendant slid my purchases into a smiley-faced plastic bag. “Six twenty-five, Miss.” Her tongue lingered on the “Miss”.
“And this.” I plopped the magazine on the counter, making sure she could see I’d been looking at an article written in Hindi, hoping she’d ask about my background, or maybe say something in Hindi. But she just pushed the magazine into the bag then added it to my tab. I could have cried.
These days, I love my camel colored skin. In fact, I love it so much you could even say I <3 it. And I venture into Indian stores every time I see them, picking up methi, jeera, and fresh curry leaves. Sometimes I compose short Hindi conversations in my head (Aap kaisii hain? Ha, thiik. Aur aap? Acha, acha. Main methi muncta – kaha hain?), though I’m always too shy (or perhaps scared) to say anything. When I get to the counter, I leaf through the magazines, taking care to linger on the pictures of Ash, Isha, and Rani, hoping the attendant will realize that I’m at least as dark as Bollywood’s sweethearts.