If you've lived in India, or the Indian subcontinent, the obsession with fair skin will not be news to you. And if you’re dark skinned, you’ve probably grown up with comments like, “Don’t play in the sun, you’ll get tanned”, “This colour will make you look darker” and “Have you tried xyz product to lighten your skin?”
However, these are overtly discriminatory, and easier to spot. And while blogger Hema Gopinathan Sah did hear all of the above while growing up, it was the comments she saw on a fellow dark-skinned Facebook friend which prompted her to write a poem, which has now gone viral on social media.
Born in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, Hema grew up and has lived in Mumbai for the most part. The 45-year-old blogger published her poem, ‘Kali’, on Facebook on April 10, which has since seen over 4,000 shares. What prompted her to write the poem were the comments she saw on her Facebook friend Cathrin’s timeline.
“They wouldn’t say things like ‘you’re ugly’. It was the insidious nature of the bias against dark skin that bothered me. There would be comments like ‘dark but beautiful’, ‘dusky beauty’ or ‘nice features’… as if a dark-skinned person cannot be just beautiful. Their colour needs to be taken into the equation,” Hema tells TNM.
Hema’s poem itself, she says, “was every day of her life” as she grew up. ‘Kali’ chronicles the life of a child from the day she’s born to when she grows up. It begins with people calling her ‘kali’ (dark) as a term of endearment, her skin colour becoming a matter of guilt and shame for her mother, her internalising that discrimination, even questioning how her fair skinned husband finds her desirable. It finally juxtaposes these restrictions and remarks made on dark skin with the rawness and ferocity of goddess Kali.
“When you are grown up, you become wiser, more self-assured. But when I was younger, I was also on a quest to become just two shades lighter, as if it would somehow make my life better,” Hema shares.
As her poem went viral and reached people across the world, she has been overwhelmed with the messages and mail she has been getting.
“Most people who have written to me are from the subcontinent, even those settled in UK, Uganda and so on. One man wrote to me about how this melanin in our skin that we despise to much can become a boon too – someone he knows has a daughter with Vitiligo. Another woman wrote to me saying that it made her feel ashamed but she experienced relief when her daughters were born fair. She was thankful they wouldn’t have to go through what she did,” Hema says.
“It’s almost as though we take colourism with us wherever we go,” she adds. “It’s as if we cannot change. My model, Cathrin, is 17. I am 45. It feels as though nothing has changed.”
Read the full text of Hema’s poem here:
It was my mother’s fault that she birthed
Me on the banks of Kaveri
For try as they did they could not wash the black alluvial soil off my skin
Little piece of coal my mother’s brother calls me
As he pretends he can’t spot me in the darkened birthing chamber
It sounds very cute when said in Tamil
This one just got baked a little longer in the oven laughs my father when
My mother guiltily presents him with yet another daughter
One whose skin only a paddy farmer could love.
I am six when I am made to understand that
I who was proudly showing off my 99% in Maths was less than my classmate,
At least I’m fairer than you she says,
Sadly looking down at her own 73% marks
Raahat Ali hisses the epithet in class 3, that I would get familiar with through the years
Because I refuse to let him hold my hand
The shame I feel looking at my white face black neck makeup at my Arangetram
Is for the secret pleasure that even though I look like a clown, I am fair
For two hours
I burn my skin to a crisp with hydrogen peroxide, congratulations.
I now possess blonde sideburns to contrast my black skin.
The proud mother of a prospective groom, who insisted on a fair skinned bride
For her son who was ‘white as milk’
Amma told her off in no uncertain terms that her daughter
Is dark as decoction and only when you mix the two.
Do you get rich aromatic
The boy who said your skin shines
Like burnished copper.
I let him go, I thought he was lying.
Boris Becker declared that the only time
He noticed that his girlfriend was black
Was when he saw how beautiful her skin
Looked against his white sheets
Touching my husband’s peachy creamy skin when we make love
Wondering how he could find me desirable
Lakme has three shades white, off-white and peach
The joy I feel when I purchase my first compact
At Heera Panna smugglers market
At age 26
It is the mythical, never seen before MAC compact,
In the pre- Manmohan Singh era
And it is the exact shade of my skin,
They got me. They knew I existed.
I had a number.
I still have that compact. After 18 years.
But the shop assistant wants me to buy NC 44 Because it makes me look fairer.
I'm pushing my light-skinned daughter on the swings
Someone asks me where her mother is
I bristle that I'm the mother
The lady giggles apologetically,
Usually only maids are dark skinned no,
No offense meant ji
Stay indoors, don't swim, don't tan, it's OK
That your Vit D levels drop to 4.75
Depression, stress fractures are a reasonable price for fair-er skin
Melanin is a disease, there are treatments for it
Stick to gold jewellery, silver makes you darker
Leave the diamonds to the porcelain Punjabis
Don't wear white, don't wear black,
don't wear blue, don't wear pink,
Don't wear light colours, don't wear dark
Don't wear pastels, don't wear warm colours, don't wear cold either
She who stands naked
Wearing heads and blood
Suffering no one
Fangs are bared as are the talons
Black of skin
Revered worshipped adored