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Letter from India

March 2008
Letter from India

By Reetika Nijhawan Khanna

When I was looking for a home in Atlanta, I wanted to find the perfect neighborhood more than the perfect structure. I wanted to feel at home in a larger context. Now that I am apartment hunting in Mumbai, I figured I would fit in anywhere. Not quite. The owners of a south Mumbai flat would not entertain our interest and openly indicated that they only wanted foreign tenants.

In a recent column in the Times of India, Shobhaa De declared all Indians racists—we bend out of shape for foreigners. As an ex-flight-attendant for an international airline, I am guilty to a degree for having observed that the average non-Indian passenger was usually courteous, punctuating sentences frequently with “please” and “thank you.” The average Indian, even the expatriate kind, viewed flight attendants as servants, or so it seemed considering the distinct lack of such courtesies.

However, there is a fine line between making studied observations and having a differing set of standards in dealing with people along racial and national lines. The latter, unfortunately, seems the overriding standard in the service sector in India. It is natural to prefer dealing with those who treat you with respect. Unfortunately, when such a preference becomes a sweeping prejudice against natives or in favor of a skin tone, even the considerate and well spoken native gets treated poorly in his or her own country. During a recent trip to Kerala, I was at a breakfast buffet at a reputable Hotel in Cochin. I was waiting to be served at a pancake station with two kids in tow, when for no apparent reason, the server quite blatantly decided to bypass me and attended to an American couple who were decidedly after me in the queue.

Indians, it seems, are smitten with foreigners, and especially Caucasians. In the marketplace in India, foreigners enjoy a distinct preference over fellow Indians. They seem to have an elite status. They even amplify the glamour quotient. Bollywood is teeming with leggy Russian and Australian blondes gyrating to Indi-pop, groping our scruffy heroes. When an Indian man “scores” with a gori his peers greet him with gorilla grunts. If an Indian girl walks into a bar clasping a white guy, she is talked about, if not envied.

We like white. Take a gander at the matrimonial advertisements in the dailies. “Fair” is synonymous with beautiful. “Fair-complexioned,” has become a prerequisite in the brides section. A “saawli” woman is perhaps never described as beautiful in our society—sensual, yes, seductive, sure, but beautiful is for an Aishwariya Rai, not a Bipasha Basu. Make-up artists are constantly instructed to lighten the skin-tone for dusky models and actresses.

It is pitiful to see societal malpractice breed insecurity in educated, well-heeled women. I asked a pregnant friend whether she would like another son or would she prefer a daughter this time around? “I have always wanted a girl,” she said, “but what if my daughter turns out to be dark like me? I have always been made aware of my wheatish complexion ever since I was a child. I don’t want my daughter to go through that.”

International brands like L’Oreal and Clinique have cottoned on to the social stigma. Their skin-lightning cosmetics are reportedly best sellers in India. Men, too, have jumped on the bandwagon. A few months ago Shah Rukh Khan endorsed a “fairness” cream. Commercials, films, and soap operas constantly reinforce the tragedy of being dark. Smear on some miracle goop and voila!, your future brightens up—taking off with a lucrative flight attendant’s job or landing a rich husband.

There are many hypotheses for our fixation with white: perhaps it is the residue of our colonial past; perhaps the fact that a dark patina was the mark of the labor class who toiled under the sun; evolutionary psychologists explain that in prehistoric times, fair skin and red lips were indicators of sanguine health and have therefore become our instinctive preference.

“Empirical evidence aside the argument is more than skin-deep.”

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