She didn’t have a daak nam (pet name or nick name) when we first saw her. She was simply a bundle of dimpled chin, kicking thighs, little hands and a cherubic face. As we entered our house in Kolkata, after a long 25 hour travel, we saw her intently focussed on the ceiling fan overhead, taxing her two month old brain to understand what makes the funny thing work. We walked towards her, she tried to focus her eyes on the faces of these strangers and uttered some adorable kitten sounds with a toothless smile. Sean asked me what was Bangla for happy.

‘Khushi.’ I said.

‘She should be named Khushi then because that is what she is. Khushi.’

Khushi is the new-born baby of our domestic help, Breshpati. As she lay there, kicking her impossibly little yet impeccably shaped tiny feet, Khushi didn’t know she was unwittingly the key player in a tragic drama that her birth has begun. Her birth in the ‘wrong’ gender, to be precise. Although she was born at the end of May in 2013 in a semi developed country called India, she was still unwanted because she didn’t have a penis. She was healthy and impossibly cute but she was still a girl. Her father’s family didn’t want her. After her birth in a hospital where the sanitary conditions left much to be desired and her mother had to stay up all night to keep little cockroaches off her new-born baby, Khushi’s father did not come to see her. He finally came after several days, and after innumerable phone calls. We met Khushi when she was almost 3 months. Till date, her paternal grandparents hadn’t come to see their grandchild. Breshpati was at our house, cooking for us. She meant to take her baby back to her in-law’s house after we left. She was nervous. She was nervous about the reception she and her daughter were going to get in a home, which was supposed to be her ‘forever home.’

I don’t know what can be more entertaining than babies – of any species. I can spend hours just staring at the face of a baby and Khushi provided me my baby fix. As I sat next to her, watching her dark liquid eyes, rosebud mouth, little tongue and every expression, I thought back upon the time I had given birth to Sahana. I felt on the top of the world. Was I any less than a queen, triumphant, with a living miracle in my arms? Phone calls, visits, cards, gifts, good wishes and love flooded our lives. While Sahana slept, her nursery filled up with toys which she didn’t need, and perhaps never played with. She didn’t want for love, attention or anything material. And here was another baby, lying by herself with just one rattle for toy, and the ceiling fan for her mobil. Her mother was busy cooking for another family, instead of spending every waking minute with her, like I did, to drink in the last drop of her infancy. She simply doesn’t have the luxury. And Khushi was still khushi. She learnt to entertain herself, she looked around, smiled at the light that came in through the French windows and touched her pretty face. She clung on to a piece of her bedding and tried to bring it to her mouth, she got a handful of her own hair and gave it a hard pull. Her face registered surprise but she didn’t cry out. As I stroked her soft skin, I got uncharacteristically angry. Angry at our society, the ignorance, the pretentiousness that India is shining. Angry and ashamed that girl children were still a liability, still a burden. WHY? HOW LONG?

I first met Breshpati when she was a skinny 10-year-old. Her older sister used to work in our house and she used to tag along with her to watch television. After a few years, I heard Breshpati was given in marriage at the tender age of 14. The bridegroom’s family saw her in the streets, liked what they saw and asked for her hand. They wanted less dowry. Her family manipulated her age, changed papers to reflect she was eighteen and married her off – one less mouth to feed.

Within a year of the marriage she fled from her marital home when her husband tried to choke her in his drunkenness. When her brothers and parents told her to go back and accept her fate, for God had meant her to be with her husband, she said she would rather give up her life.

My parents decided to employ her in their house as a domestic help and I made a condition that she has to go to school. The school part didn’t work out, despite private tutor, adult literacy centers. The television with its lure of mushy soaps kept books and alphabets far away. She worked for over 10 years, saved up a decent sum in the bank…and fell in love.

Against the wishes of her family, she married her suitor who didn’t earn much money, lived with his parents and was controlled by his mother. Later, I found out she had spent her last penny that she saved in the bank to provide a decent dowry to the man, who claimed to love her and wanted to marry her. I was disappointed at this, but heard good stories about how the young man treated her. ‘She deserves all the happiness. She will get it this time,’ I thought. Within a year, I heard Breshpati was pregnant.

I talked to Breshpati whenever I had a chance during my visit to Kolkata, to find out what plans she had for her future which, now, involved another precious life. I learnt, from our conversations, that change was happening in my country. Imperceptible, perhaps, but slowly and steadily. Mindsets of young women, at least among the urban poor, were changing. I do believe media is somewhat responsible for this positive change. Showcasing some strong role models in popular television was helping women mold their ideals and demand their rights. Breshpati, I found out, wasn’t going to request acceptance for her girl child from her in-laws, she was going to demand it. Her face glistened in excitement as she animatedly explained to me her plans for her daughter. She had made it clear to her husband that if she felt any kind of disregard towards her daughter because she was a girl, she was simply going to pack up and leave. She made it clear that she is more than capable of raising her daughter by herself and raising her well. She is determined to give her daughter the best opportunities at education that she can and her little girl should never feel she is any less than a boy. This was no different from what I wanted my girl to believe! She believes in equal opportunity for both boys and girls and woe be to the one who makes her daughter feel otherwise. As she talked more, she looked no less than a queen, who was ready for battle and who was also sure of her victory. As her daughter suckled at her breast, she reminisced the missed opportunities that she didn’t avail. Her mother took her to work at a young age so they had enough money to send her older and her younger brothers to school. She was determined not to let that happen to Khushi.

Breshpati’s face sparkled as she spoke. Khushi will be OK. Breshpati is indeed the queen and we all her soldiers. My family, my parents. We will make sure Breshpati gets all the ammunitions she needs to win the battles against the social stigma against her child’s gender, against illiteracy, poverty and injustice. I felt better as I planted a kiss on little Khushi’s head and said goodbye. In her mother’s sparkle, I saw India sparkling. We are not shining yet, but we have started to sparkle. That’s a start!


Lovely! Does it HAVE to be fair?

Will you all please join me in raising our fists in the air and shouting ‘Gender equality!!! Finally!!’ A fairness cream company has come up with a fairness cream for men and it promises results in just four weeks of usage. Say goodbye to the ‘tall, dark and handsome’ good looks! That is so yesterday! Today’s mantra is ‘fair and handsome!’ I should have been happy reading this. It deals with the double standard that Indian society has – women have to be fair to be considered a beauty, yet men? Well, they are men, right? The sex itself makes them a step above! Nothing else matters or should matter. Now, they have to be fair to be considered beauti…oops, handsome. That’s politically correct.

I have never quite understood the fairness fetish in India and the other Asian countries. I have seen and have been subjected to good-natured ridicule about skin color. It hurt in the teenage years when one really likes to be admired for their physical attributes. But as I became older and wiser, I became optimistic that as India opened up to the world more, it would realize that the average skin tone of Indians is actually an enviable attribute amongst many in the fair-skinned population. People would also realize that skin color is something in your genes. You can take care of it, keep it blemish free as much as you can, but it would be difficult to change your skin tone. I understood that the concept of ‘fair skinned beauty’ is deep-rooted and will take time to completely disappear. The cinema, the media, the music all play to the concept ‘fair skin equates beautiful’. Hindi songs warn women not to go out in the sun, not because one will get skin cancer but the skin will darken – ‘Dhoop mein nikla na karo roop ki raani, gora rang kaala na ho jaye!’ I was told, many times, not to drink tea. Tea will affect the liver, mal functioning of liver will darken my skin further, my prospects of marrying, already low, will dwindle. You get the logic? It may be appropriate to mention a personal experience here. I went for an interview for a sales job in a renowned air conditioning company, right out of college. The job I was interviewing for entitled selling air conditioners in the sweltering heat of Kolkata. The manager, after looking at me and my resume, asked if I was up for this kind of job since my skin would darken under the sun and I would have trouble attracting a mate with my darkened skin. I didn’t even realize how inappropriate the comment was at the time, I was brain washed since childhood that dark is bad, hence the comment seemed normal. I am still embarrassed that I didn’t protest such mindset then. There are exceptions, but they only prove the rule, unfortunately. However, the eternal optimist that I am, I hoped this perception would fade away as my ‘shining India’ shone brighter.

Then I read this recently: “While these ads (apart from boosting the sales of the products), have invited flak for promoting insecurity and discrimination among women, the latest to join the long list of fairness products is something that can be described as ludicrous at best. The product, that has sparked an online debate, is a fairness cream for women’s private parts!

The ad, that went on-air some time back, has been described by the online world as the “ultimate insult to women”. It shows a Katrina Kaif look-alike who has a glum expression on her face, as her husband is more interested in the newspaper than in her. But once she cleans herself up (with that product), she suddenly becomes the object of his affections. The Twitterati is buzzing with comments slamming these products. “This is the ultimate insult. Skin whitening for your vagina,” Rupa Subramanya tweeted. While @ThePunjew, wrote, “What a bummer, there’s no shade card yet to monitor fairness progress!”

The above excerpt is from an article in The Times of India ‘Outrage over fairness cream for private parts’. ‘A new TV ad for a personal hygiene cream, that promises ‘fairer’ private parts for women, has been slammed by netizens.’

Fairness cream is a disgrace, I think. It is demeaning and insulting, to say the least, to women and now men. Some of the famous film personalities have refused to endorse tobacco and alcohol advertisements, yet many movie icons continue to appear and endorse fairness creams. I agree fairness cream doesn’t inflict the same amount of damage in one’s body as tobacco and alcohol but how about the mind? How about society? How about dowry that the grooms ask for a dark-skinned bride? I have watched with amazement as a father joked about how he has set aside a huge sum of money for dowry for his dark-skinned daughter. He joked, ‘When the groom’s family mentions her darkness, I will hand them the first bundle of rupees, when they mention her nose, I will hand them the second bundle!’ All this in front of the girl, who sat there with a slight smile on her face. Isn’t this SOMEWHAT akin to selling the girl, her skin tone, her features?

I spoke to an amazingly beautiful model whose only regret in life was her dark skin. She wishes to be fairer in the next life. ‘What are you talking about? You are beautiful!’ I told her, amazed. ‘Nah, I am too dark!’ Her response. When a baby is born in a family, the question about his/her skin color is asked at the same time as whether s/he is healthy. If the baby happens to be dark-skinned, the comments generally are ‘The color is dark BUT the features will be good.’ I am waiting for the BUT to change to AND! When my babies were born, the hope amongst many of my friends and family were the children get my white husband’s skin tone! I still remember a question asked after Ryan’s birth, by a friend’s mother, ‘The baby is like Sean, I hope? Fair skinned?’

The pancake make up ladies lather on their faces to whiten them is very disheartening. Glowing skin of any hue is beautiful, unnatural white skin is not! I was subjected to such makeup during my Indian wedding, much to the dismay of my white husband. ‘What have they done to you?’ He exclaimed. ‘Color equality for the day, darling. Deal with it!’ I said.

I recently spotted a popular fairness cream in an Indian grocery store in the US. I was disappointed to see the fairness fetish has transcended geographical boundaries. The store owner told me the sale of the product is very high. To me, that was surprising. I started appreciating my skin color more after I came to this country where people pointed to my arms and said, ‘That is what WE want.’ Hence the tanning salons, hence the sun bathing. I thought Indians would feel proud of their naturally tanned skin color but many seem to want the fair skin of the Caucasians. Entry fairness creams. Hackneyed but true, the grass truly is greener on the other side.

Bottomline: India, please wake up and smell the coffee. The mindset regarding fairness, instead of improving, is taking a terrible, demeaning, sadly humorous turn. It is invading the privacy of women. Spend more money on gynecological check ups to prevent ovarian cancer, educate women on women’s health and check for breast cancer. Please do not worry about the COLOR of women’s privates. There are so many more things in the world to worry about. Do trust me on this one!