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The Colour of Abs Rotten

MARIA is a pretty girl,
What you call a bit of awright,
In the shadows, you ken see
She's almost pass for wite (sic)
 
It was in Cape Town I read this observation, scrawled on a wall near the Sunday jetty entrance. My friend and poet, Ernst, what was then known as a Cape Coloured, pointed it out to me. It doesn t change, does it, he said, not even in the new South Africa.
 
We have the same problem in India, I said, we hurt ourselves with equal dexterity.
 
He would not believe it, said I was making it up, just to keep the conversation going.
 
I said it was a bit much thinking he had the lien on prejudice, it's a six-way street, even whites can be the target, it works every which way. I said, in India we start young, we tell kids not to go in the sun, especially if they are girls, we tell them no one will marry you if you are dark.
 
I paint him this verbal picture of millions of little girls running scared, rubbing at their tender skins like an army of Lady Macbeths washing, washing, washing to rid themselves of the tan, otherwise it is straight to a life on the marital shelf.
 
He laughs because he thinks I am being funny. I tell him it is more tragic than he thinks because when it isn’t legalised, the texture of prejudice can be far more insidious. 
 
Siblings are compared, the fairer brother or sister is extended privilege, often unspoken but always there, the other one, she's a nice girl. Just a bit on the dark side.
 
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I said a frightful thing happened to a friend of mine who told his parents he had married an American. So at Mumbai airport the family, having resigned themselves to sonny boy having plighted the troth with a ‘furiner’rather than one of their own creed, sought sanctuary in the fact that there was some tangible social significance to being a westerner. 
 
They all dressed up and fetched up at flight time and suddenly this gorgeous, bronzed black American girl flung herself full length on the arrivals floor, having been informed by her husband that Indian brides did this sort of thing when meeting their in-laws.
 
The in-laws were horrified.
 
The in-laws were deep into catatonic shock. How could he do this to them? Mumsie got into bed with palpitations, dad said woe is me and the family slithered with glee. 
 
I tell him the tragedy is the couple stayed five days of their one-month homecoming.
 
I change tack and tell him how cruel it is, how lovely human beings, especially girls, are victimised in little ways and not so little ways and how fairer progeny somehow get a better break on things. Even jobs. Fairer people just seem to be more visually acceptable.
 
Aunts never tell them don't wear green you are too dark.
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Relatives don't tease them and leave them introverted and bewildered and hurting. 
 
Friends don't nickname them with spearing labels. Their self-esteem does not lie there mangled by insensitive and endless commentary.
 
I tell him we spend a lot of time slagging off racism elsewhere.
 
Then we go back home, picking up another tube of complexion lightening soap. 
 
Want to be fair and lovely. Yes.
 
Bikram Vohra
Bikram Vohra
Bikram Vohra has been editor of Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Bahrain Tribune, Emirates Evening Post and helped in setting up Gulf Today.

More articles by Bikram Vohra
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