Growing up desi is wonderful in many ways. The colorful shalwar kamiz, the gold jewlery, henna, luddu, luddi and fighting over the bill at restaurants. Recently a conversation at Huda’s reminded me of the skin thing. Marriage in desi culture is for the most part very much a “Pride and Prejiduce” “Fiddler on the Roof” type of event with matchmakers and the local townsfolk whispering about the girl who is not yet married and trying forever to set her up with a dashing gent. People watch Jane Austen period flicks for a glimpse of time long ago, I watch it and see the here and now with different accents and clothing.
If you’re Pakistani you have inevitably heard the auntie bemoan her search for a “lumbi gori pathli larki” (tall white skinny girl) for her son. It’s a give and take commodoity exchange with the mothers of the daughters sighing “buss humko aik doctor mil jayai” (we just want a doctor- we’re really not so subtly saying we want someone with bling). Perhaps in a facet where the first thing you learn of the other is their credentials it isnt so wrong to ask for such things but my issue for this post is the skin thing.
Most desi girls are familiar with the bleaching and the lighteners. PTV even has commercials of “fair and lovely” creams that will indeed attempt to make you fair and lovely. Because without being fair how could one dare call themselves lovely? What’s interesting is that even girls who themselves are dark will say “I want my brother to find a nice light skinned girl” Why the self loathing? Is this a left over from British colonialism? Is white better? Indeed sit around a group of aunties discussing beauty and the word “gora rang” (light skin color) will pepper the conversation along with sighs regarding another potential bahoo (Daughter in law) saying “shakal mai pyari hain laikin thori si samvli hain” (her face is nice but she is a little dark). No sense of recognition of the spit they cast upon the majority of their nation who have skin akin to their very own.
Recently I saw a desi grandmother holding her grandchild. She looked adoringly at her baby and then smiled at me “dekho gori hain na? bahoth gori hain mash’allah” (look- she’s fair isnt she? So fair praise God), and so the grandparents continue the tradition. My husband and I are not fair, will our child not get the praises to God? Will our child not be beautiful because of the color of his or her skin?
Though my parents told me I was beautiful I knew in my heart that being light mattered. I mourn the time I spent caring. I’m not a gori chitti larki. I’m your traditional desi complexioned girl. For most of my life I thought less of myself simply because my skin wasn’t three to five shades lighter. I mourn the trees I didn’t climb and the walks I did not take and the beaches I did not walk upon for fear the sun was too high.
I wrote this poem when I was 14 for Black History Month, but I feel it applies to our modern desi world. I pray that the next generation will learn to love themselves and instead of trying to change their skin will embrace it as beautiful gift from God, because it is.
The color of my hair black
The color of my skin black
The color of my will steel
The color of my mind bronze
The color of my heart gold
Then why do you sit and stare at me so
your eyes so icy distant cold
for I am a person
with a heart of gold