Difficultly beautiful


Author Brit Bennett gifted me a phrase that I have been looking for all my life to describe myself and my dark sisters in this world. Growing up in a country where beauty is measured in how little melanin one has in one’s skin, I understood and related to what Jude Winston, a character in Brit Bennett’s breathtakingly beautiful book, The Vanishing Half felt in her school, her blue black, dark skin a contrast to the light skinned African American children. She was called a ‘tar baby’. Nobody wanted to be her friend or sit with her fearing her dark color would contaminate their fair skin. The question, of course, arises why did Black people revere their light skin and why did Black people shun Jude for her dark, glistening color? Because white skin meant (and means) freedom, white skin meant (and means) opportunity, white skin meant (and means) grabbing the lion share of world’s resources. And white skin also meant (and means) beauty.

Of course, colorism in African American community is just one aspect of the story. The Vanishing Half tells the story of 2 sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes, who were born in a small town called Mallard in Louisiana. A town which was so small that one could not find it on a map. The town had a history though. The founder of the town, Alphonse Decuir, a newly freed slave was son of a white man and a black woman. His color was white and he married a light skinned woman to start off a progeny of very light skinned, white passing African American descendants. The Blacks in the town of Mallard could pass for Whites. The Vignes twins, great, great, great, great, great granddaughters of Decuir, were no exceptions. On August 14th, 1954, when they were sixteen years old, Stella and Desiree, finding no future in Mallard decided to run away to New Orleans. No one in Mallard, including their mother Adele heard from them in 10 years. After 10 years, one morning the townspeople saw one twin, Deisiree walking towards her mother’s house holding a little girl’s hand. Desiree returned back to her mama with her baby girl Jude, but Stella was gone. Stella, the quiet one of the two, left Desiree in New Orleans itself and word had it she lived as a white woman. Why? Stella hoodwinked the world and existed in it as a white woman to free herself from the shackles that bind black people. An incident in their childhood involving their dad imprinted in Stella’s mind that white people had the ability to hurt non whites and not be held accountable for it. Stella wanted to protect herself from that possibility. However, as we read about her life the question arises at what cost did she choose to lead a life of lie? Desiree had not set her eyes upon her twin those last 10 years. It seemed like Stella had disappeared into thin air. Jude, however, does not look anything like her mother, Desiree. She is dark like midnight. And no matter what her white passing grandmother applies on her skin, her color never fades. For inhabitants of Mallard, this blue black child is like a fly in milk, a ‘tar baby’, ‘ugly.’ And later in the story, she is perceived as beautiful, “difficultly beautiful” for some perhaps.

The story is told from perspectives of Desiree, Stella, Jude and Stella’s daughter, Kennedy to give a fuller understanding of the characters and the story. The progression of the plot is non linear, jumping from 1954 to 1968 and then backtracking a few years, only to jump ahead. But this technique was so seamlessly done that it adds to the fluidity of the plot. The book touches on many issues like race relations, transgender, relationships between sibling and children, domestic violence and love. And they all are folded in beautifully within the story of the sisters, the lives of their daughters and other supporting characters that build the foundation of the plot.

This book is brilliant. And I am grateful to Brit Bennett for she the gift of the phrase that will stay with me forever. Difficultly beautiful. Those of us with dark skin grew up hearing:

“You are ugly because you are dark.”

“Black is ugly”.

“Too bad her skin is so dark, she could have been pretty otherwise.”

“Nobody will marry her because she is so dark.”

And it went on and on and on.

We are beautiful, though. We are difficultly beautiful. Difficultly only to those who have been conditioned by society to define beauty in the way that society, media, race dictates. We can only hope they can break out of the shackle. It must be so binding!

Become an angry young man.


I believe one of the most rewarding aspects of parenthood is observing the slow emergence of the questioning, thinking mind of a child. It is a delight to see your child becoming socially conscious, questioning the wrongs that s/he sees around him/her, asking you for your thoughts on it and trying to figure out the chaos in his or her minds in his or her way. Questions, innumerable questions are hurled at us at all times. We try to answer to the best of our ability and resort to internet when we run out of answers. I personally try to convert each question about social equality or justice into a teaching moment by leading their thoughts in a certain direction and allowing them to persist and think it through.

While changing bed linen the other day, such a teaching moment arose when my younger child, Ryan followed me to the room asked a very pertinent question.

“Mom, do you get very, very angry when you read about all the bad stuff that happened to women in the past, that you read in history books? I feel bad for women that they had to suffer but I am a man and I don’t feel as angry as you or Sahana about it!

Every time I hear about violence done against women, my belief about teaching our sons to respect women (and men) gets reaffirmed. We are equally responsible as the law and order system in the world to bring about the change in the mindset of men and women regarding the equality of all. And we can do that by teaching our sons to respect women and teaching our daughters that they are not inferior to any because of their gender.

So I took Ryan’s question as a teaching moment to teach and reinforce fairness and equality.

I told him, “Think of the injustice done to the women throughout the ages as injustice done to humans. Don’t think of them as women. Think of them as a part of human race who were not given equal rights. They had to fight for their rights, they were ridiculed, violated, oppressed yet they continued their fight and continue to do so to this day. You get angry when you read about how the whites treated blacks, how the homosexuals are treated in the world still, right? It is the same with women. They were not treated equally and that should make you angry even if you are a man. And use the anger to help women fight for equality which is their right.”

He listened silently and walked out of the room. I knew I had planted a seed. I just hope the seed grows into a tree and bears fruit and the world receives a young man who gets angry at any form of injustice and uses that anger as a fuel to right the wrongs done.

Questions! I love them….most of the time!

I don’t have all the answers to their questions. But I felt good about this answer and I write it and store this away in my treasure chest as a good mommy moment.

 

The spectacular now

From Mahabharat to caste system to Lokkhon


I was ready to discuss some pertinent questions on social hierarchy and caste system in India as I gathered Ryan’s little body towards me and snuggled down to read the ageless Indian epic Mahabharata. Inevitably the question of caste system was asked as we read about Dronacharya’s refusal to accept Eklavya as a disciple due to his low status in society. Ryan was understandably miffed at such an injustice. The sense of fairness is very strong at this age, and this was extremely unfair. And since, I seem old enough to belong to the days of Mahabharat to him, I was asked if I have ever encountered caste discrimination. I was about to protest. I was about to tell him indignantly that I happened to be born in an enlightened corner of India where caste system was not encouraged. But I paused. Who was I kidding? Caste system existed and still exists.

I remember the separate doorways in many houses, backdoor of course, for the sweeper to come in. Sweepers belong to the lowest caste, the untouchables. The man who cleaned our bathroom and took our trash came in through the front door, for the lack of a backdoor. But I do remember the warning voice of our domestic help sounding out a warning ‘Lokkhon aasche, shobai shore jao!” (Lokkhon is coming, get out of the way)! The irony was, we got out of his way, quickly, like he was royalty. At the age of six or seven, I followed the rule and kept my distance when Lokkhon came to clean. When I was a preteen and felt righteously indignant about this whole complicated issue of caste system, I questioned this practice of staying away from Lokkhon. I accused my mother of treating Lokkhon thus, for his low caste. She explained to me she couldn’t care less about his caste. She was a firm believer of Chandidas’s immortal line ‘Shobar upore manush shotyo/ Tahar upore nai!’ (human race is above all, there is no other)! She was simply concerned about the germs Lokkhon may carry, given the nature of his work. She would have no qualms about mingling with him socially, once he was showered and clean. Can’t say I believed her, till one beautiful Holi morning.

Some incidents don’t simply fall away from my swiss cheese brain and this memory is one such. On a bright, sunshiny spring morning in Kolkata, I was playing Holi (the festival of colors) with the neighborhood children. My father stayed indoors and away from lime light to avoid being dragged out to play. My mother was smiling on our balcony as she watched us spray one another with colored water. I believe, it was baba who spotted Lokkhon standing on the periphery of the festivity watching us, with a gentle smile on his lips. His family was far away, he must have been missing his loved ones on this day of colors. Baba called out, “Go get Lokkhon, make sure he doesn’t get away. Put as much color on him as you can!” We paused in our game and looked at him. There he was, in his yellowing banyan and short dhoti, standing a little afar, unsure of where exactly he belonged. One of baba’s friends, went to him, grabbed his hand and brought him in our midst. He took a handful of gulal and plastered it on Lokkhon’s face. Then he enveloped him in a bear hug. My mother came out and put gulal on him. Shobar upor e manush shottyo, tahar upore nai…indeed! At an young age, our parents can do no wrong, but I was at that age when when our parents are never right. That day, that moment, my head bowed in grudging respect, towards my family, for walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

Lokkhon has always been the most loved employee in our household. He missed work, sometimes weeks. I chuckled as I heard my mother yelling at him, “Next time I am going to dock your pay, I am serious this time!” Lokkhon’s response was, “Hehehehehe, boudi! Bukhar ho gaya! Sach mein!” (I had fever, believe me)! I knew there would always be a next time, and that next time will see a threat of docked payment too. I also knew the threat will never be carried out. One simply couldn’t get angry with Lokkhon, in real. His ever ready smile made sure one couldn’t stay angry.

As I got older, I recieved subtle hints. “Didi, my son needs winter clothes. He hardly has any sweaters.”

“How many days did you work this month?” I joined the game.

“Hehehehe, didi, I got sick.” That was mostly the response. Or “I had to go home, it was an emergency!”

I remembered to buy sweaters for his little boy on my way back from work. Why? Because he was loved, and he was gentle and he was such a constant in our lives.

In 1992, when I was in college, the infamous riots over Babri Masjid claimed many lives – Hindus and Muslims took up arms over religion. Lokkhon rushed back to his village in Bihar to take care of his family. When he returned I asked him how everything was. Was his little village affected by the riots? Were people killed? Many bad incidents have been reported and some heroic efforts were mentioned. But many heroes went unsung. The villagers in Lokkhon’s village were such heroes who remained anonymous. This is what he said to me:

“Didi, we have more Hindus in our village than Muslims. But we have lived together in peace for generations. They are our brothers, our friends. We were not going to let anyone harm one of our own. They have their religion and we have ours. But there is no conflict, didi. People came to harm them. They said to give our Muslim brothers up. We took up arms, didi. We said you have to go over our dead bodies to get to our village brothers. We turned them away. We stayed up at nights to guard each other. We took turns. Not one person in our village got hurt!”

Oh, did I mention Lokkhon never went to school? And is considered ‘uneducated’? And he belongs to the lowest of the low castes?

These days when I go back, I enquire after him. Ma says, “Don’t worry, he will come. He knows didi is coming from America!” Sure enough, he comes with the same smile, maybe more gray hair than before and a little bent. But the smile is the same that I remember so well.

“How long will you stay this time, didi? Is dada coming? When? Didi, my children need clothes and I need new lungi. See this one is so torn!”

“Let me see how many days you actually come to work while I am here!” I play on, for old time’s sake.

We both know, he is going to miss days and I am going to buy him lungi and clothes for his children. I still overhear people calling out to my children, “Lokkhon aasche, shore jao!” And my teenager retorting, “Why do I have to move? He is a human just like us!”

My childhood comes back and nudges me gently “Remember?”

Lokkhon