I was never ‘brown’ until I left my country. I was always wheatish, possibly right from the moment I showed signs of not having inherited my mother’s complexion. I have rarely heard the word ‘brown’ used in India, ‘wheatish’ is our choice. Go and read the advertisements in the matrimonial section of any major newspaper if you don’t believe me. You see, ‘wheatish’ can be cured with a combination of store-bought bleach and sunscreen, a homemade cocktail of lemon and cucumber juice and myriad other concoctions whose main ingredient is hope and a longing for fair skin. The kind that dazzles and allows you to see veins, blood, bones. It is this very longing that led me to use the famous Fair and Lovely skin cream on my scarred knees in school. The faces of women on television transformed from the darkest color on the shade card to the lightest one, so why shouldn’t my knees? For them, changing their face was life-transforming; for me it would have been my knees.
You see, I had a longing for beautiful legs. Everyone has a body part they wish they could change. I would have replaced my chicken legs with straight, smooth sticks. But as I grow older, I don’t care as much. I enjoy my chicken legs, flaunting them when the weather and place allow me to. But to the thirteen-year-old me it was one of the many obstacles between me and social success. I seriously thought better legs would be a ticket to a life with friends.
I was never ‘honey brown’ until I matched my skin against a shade card. A shade card, you ask? Yes, we have a shade card for our skin. It used to be mainly for women, but now men want in on the fairness bandwagon as well. Don’t forget that the color of your skin is one of your major assets, a currency to a better life. You will snap up that too-good-to-be true- spouse, that dream job, perhaps even a discount, and if you are wondrously glowing, a freebie. And some stares. Always some stares. Travelling outside India has introduced me to the mysticism of my country through the lens of outsiders. We laugh when we read about all these people paying for tans, to transform their skin from pale, milky desirable white to brown. The world is indeed a strange place and this obsession with skin colour, even stranger. When I return from a few semesters in America, everyone comments on my skin. Some say I have grown lighter, others are surprised I am the same as before because going abroad is supposed to clear your skin. It is the guaranteed, number one cure, even more reliable than the homeopath Auntyji has been sending us to. Always, when I meet people, there are remarks on my face, skin, body. I daydream idly about invisibility cloaks. It is not the comments but the very act of making personal comments that upsets me. I now think about my thin brown skin that needs to grow thicker.
I was never brown until I left my country. I sometimes feel that I am now colourless, that my skin is ‘invisible’ in a different way because I study in a predominantly white place. No one ever remarks on my colour. This is not the invisibility of my home country, it is a temporary cloak.
When I step out of my bubble of a university life, however, I am not sure about how people perceive me. Who am I? What am I? A brown woman? An Asian? An Indian? Sometimes I am conscious of it, when I am the only one with this skin colour in a room (because … you see, white is not a colour). I am conscious of it when someone comments on my distinctive Indian accent or praises my English, comments to which I have learnt to control my reactions, because people mean well.
I was very brown in Vietnam. From the moment I arrived and walked into the domestic airport to go to Hue city. People would talk to me, occasionally point and touch; there was never any malice. It was just an observation of how brown I was. Some little girls explained to me, in all seriousness, that I was chocolate brown. To which my mother observed, they must have only milk chocolate in Vietnam. Because — you know mothers. People never asked me where I was from, they looked at me and they knew I was from India. It was a combination of my brown skin and Indian eyes. Folks would say Indian women had beautiful eyes and I would shamelessly appropriate the compliment and thank them. If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that you take from the moment what you can.
I have never had to think about what it means to be brown till I left my country. Just like I have not had to think too much about what it means to be Indian. But now till the day I die, I will be brown and Indian. It has been slowly seared into my brain. Even more permanent than the tattoo my mother disapproves of. What does my brownness mean? Does it make me a person of color, outside of my home country? Does it make me a diverse person? What do you see when you see my brown face? To me, by itself it is meaningless. It is like the shape of my eyes, it is what it is, dwelling on it for a disproportionate amount of time serves no purpose. My being brown is not exclusively linked to my feeling like a fraud, the impostor syndrome that runs in my veins, I am capable of doing that to myself in any skin, as are most women. My being brown is not the only reason why I feel the need to sass and shock people occasionally, quipping about the scandalous; the well-traveled stereotype of the demure Asian woman is enough to provoke me into doing that. My being brown is a fact about me that will probably always interest the rest of the world more than it will interest me.
Shruti Saxena is a feminist development practitioner with a strong interest in education and gender issues. She grew up in different cities across India, finally pausing in Delhi for education and work and is currently in the Midwest in US. In her free time, she enjoys writing, taking walks, listening to podcasts and watching theater.