We were sitting under the stars, on a pile of cool sand. We’d just had dinner together in the hostel mess. But we had skipped our usual post-dinner walk. Although there was lots to talk about, we were both unusually quiet.
“I want to become an actress,” she said suddenly, breaking the silence of that reflective moment. I wanted to reach out and hold her hand. But I didn’t. There was nothing to say.
That evening, we had together gone to the city. She had an appointment with a well-known dermatologist who was supposed to be one of the best. AIIMS graduate. She had developed a small white patch on her face— just near her nose. It wasn’t too visible, but she had wanted a consultation. “I hope it is not vitiligo,” she said to me in the auto-rickshaw. “Those white patches which spread are called leucoderma, I think,” I tried to calm her, not knowing that they weren’t different conditions myself. We were both first year medical students. And though we pretended to know more when we donned the white aprons, the truth was that we had just started learning about the normal human body a few months ago. We hadn’t learnt anything about disease yet.
The consultation didn’t take too long. The dermatologist was quick to make a diagnosis. It was the first sign of vitiligo, a disease which causes depigmentation of skin and hair. He was gentle, but firm as he explained that the white patches and her disease would in all likelihood spread to more parts of her body. He prescribed her medication and gave her instructions on how to apply it. The journey back to the hostel was quiet and tense. The implications of this diagnosis were just beginning to sink in.
Thinking back, I try and imagine the kind of trauma my friend must have gone through to make that remark. And all this was for the colour of her skin.
I remember another incident, where I congratulated a colleague on his son’s admission in a prestigious college in south India. His first remark was: “I hope he completes his course and returns soon without bringing home a kaali (dark-one)“. If he had even been worried about a daughter-in-law belonging to a different culture, I would have understood his fears about adjustment issues. But the emphasis was clearly on his disapproval of dark skin. Closer home, a nephew breaks the news of going around with his American girlfriend. I am surprised to see the rapid acceptance of a partner who will have to cross a chasm across two culturally diverse countries to adjust. Everyone seems excited about a very fair complexioned bride. But I also wonder what if she had been a Black American? Would acceptance have come in just as quick?
The concept of beauty, world over, is skin deep. You are invariably judged by how you look. The cacophony and compulsion on social media to look a certain way is disgusting. Your appearance overshadows all your talents and all your strengths. The funny part is that people will never be happy with what they have. There is one world which hankers after fair skin— it is a world which posts matrimonial advertisements for gori (fair complexioned) girls, and creates a market for “Fair and Lovely” creams. And then there is another world which is dissatisfied with pale skin and goes miles to achieve that perfect tan.
As I teach my students about melanin—the skin pigment, I tell them how people who live around the equator are protected from skin cancers because of the increased amount of melanin in their skin. As I say this, it occurs to me how ignorant we are to create such a hullabaloo about levels of a pigment which are determined by nature to protect you from damage.