I started this blog sometime during second week of June, titled, ‘Fair & Lovely?’ and and after couple of attempts, discarded it. This was about the fair skin obsession in India. A week later the Company which produces the cream, also dropped the word ‘Fair’ from the product. Good example(s) of ‘cancel culture.’ End of story or so I thought.
But then, I read about the sad demise of John Lewis yesterday. Since I have taken ‘suo moto’ responsibility of teaching history to the millennials in the family, I decided to write it anyway.
The most poignant moment in David Letterman’s show, ‘My Next Guest Needs No Introduction’ with President Barack Obama is when they discuss about Mr. John Lewis. First a little background on Mr. Lewis from NYT obituary. ‘John Lewis and fellow protestors were mercilessly beaten up when they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. on March 7, 1965 demanding voting rights for blacks. Ordered to disperse, the protesters silently stood their ground. The troopers responded with tear gas and bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. In the melee, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, a trooper cracked Mr. Lewis’s skull with a billy club, knocking him to the ground, then hit him again when he tried to get up.
Televised images of the beatings of Mr. Lewis and scores of others outraged the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson presented to a joint session of Congress eight days later and signed into law on Aug. 6. A milestone in the struggle for civil rights, the law struck down the literacy tests that Black people had been compelled to take before they could register to vote and replaced segregationist voting registrars with federal registrars to ensure that Black people were no longer denied the ballot.’
Back to DLS. On the 50th anniversary of the March, in 2015, a symbolic protest march was arranged. Mr. Lewis, now a senator, walks across the bridge, only to be received by Mr. Barack Obama, the first black President of USA at the other end. In the talk show Mr. Obama acknowledges that Mr. Lewis is one of the persons who influenced him to enter public office. He says very convincingly, but for the efforts of people like Mr. Lewis, he, a black, could never have become the president of USA. You can watch this part of the interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z54YpXKL-T0
Homage to Mr. Lewis paid, let us get back to the fair complexion complex in India. Unlike USA, where the declaration of Independence is signed with equal rights to all, but the couple of leaders who signed, owned slaves, India’s constitution provided equal rights and voting rights for all from day one. But the problem came in implementing them. After all, the USA had only about 200 odd years of history when they singed the declaration, whereas, India had 4000+ years of history and wrong doing to take care of.
In the seventies when I was growing up in Chennai, we played Cricket in the evenings in our colony. There were two Ramesh(s) in the playing group. Almost same age group & similar height as well. So to differentiate, they called yours truly black (கருப்பு) Ramesh and the fair one, white (வெள்ளை) Ramesh. It was just a term; no one objected and nor anyone made a hue and cry about it.
I never thought fair skin is even an issue nor felt a need, even to ponder about that. May be I was lucky. None in our family talked about it, nor used a fairness cream. In all the years, I have never once heard my father talking about anyone’s skin tone. In all my professional life, spent across the country, I did not face any issue. May be, as I stated earlier, I am just lucky.
So when these skin creams started appearing in super market shelves about twenty years back, with television commercials which promised, ‘you can go from coal black to snow white in 15 days,’ we as a family just ignored them. But then it slowly got into Indian psyche when mega stars of Indian cinema started endorsing them. They told young people that the cream they endorse is more important for your success than all the education and cultural upbringing you had so far. That’s the moment I started hating them and said if I ever become powerful, I will ban all these commercials and I kept repeating it. The only success that came out of these commercials were, it helped to fatten the bank account of these billionaire star by few more million dollars.
An industry which is responsible for the obsession is probably the South Indian Film Industry. When asked, they would always justify their action with good sound bits. ‘It’s the story’s requirement. Look at Mr. Rajnikanth or Mr. Vijayakanth. They are not fair and we feature them in all our movies. How can you blame us? We have an industry to run and we only do that helps to sell the movie.’
What they did not say is, ‘A hero can be dark skinned but the heroine can’t.’ So they imported them by the dozens from North India. The only qualification is, she should be fair. The fairer the better.
So the film industry and the fair cream industry fed each other helped by mega stars who endorsed these magic potions. The young were led to believe, if I use the cream I can look like that fair movie star.
This blog is not about racism in India which requires a deep analysis and also a writer who is more knowledgeable and capable. I can only say it definitely exists in India and is more deep rooted than we care to admit.
The company which made ‘Fair and Lovely’ had dropped ‘Fair’ from the brand. I would have rather had them shelving the product and not making a cosmetic change (pun intended) to the name, which would have shown their commitment.
Irfan Pathan, the famous cricketer from India spoke about this in a recent interview. He said, he had seen his fellow cricketers from South, heckled for their skin tone when they played matches in north of the country. Yes it’s sad. People who had not achieved anything in their entire lives, feeling superior to accomplished players just because they have fair skin.
I don’t think any legislation on this is going to stop any form of discrimination. We need to change as a society. To young readers my advice would be, ‘don’t encourage any talk about skin colour or caste or status with anyone in the family or society.’ Over time, we can see an improvement in people’s attitude.
To others who make millions selling these fair colour dreams, all I have to say to them is this: ‘STOP.’
Feature Doodle Courtesy: Rachna R