The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi

I recently finished reading my first piece of Arabic fiction, which is important to me because a) it was my college reading assignment and b) I’m moving to an Arab country in less than 4 weeks. I wanted to talk about this book not because I particularly liked it but because it made me think. Maybe that sounds oversimplified – don’t all books make us think? I guess so. But most of them just recycle our thoughts, stir up the leaves a little, and leave behind a new mess. Yet some of them are like a gust of wind, carrying new leaves, new thoughts, into our brains. These, I think, are the truly interesting pieces of literature.

The Bamboo Stalk begins with Josephine, a Filipina who escapes prostitution by becoming a maid in Kuwait. There, she falls in love with Rashid, the coddled, bookish son of Ghanima, the widow Josephine works for. When Josephine becomes pregnant with Rashid’s son (the maid and the man of the house – gasp!), the two are cast out by Rashid’s family.
‘Kuwait is a small place’, we are told repeatedly, as if all the consequences of this phrase can be cupped into one’s palm. As the novel progresses, what it really shows is not a small place, but a large society, united in its wealth, in its expectations, its scrutiny, its shared, hard lump of the smallest of thoughts.

The novel truly begins with José,  Josephine’s son. Until 18, he lives in poverty in the Philippines, waiting to go back to the ‘promised land’ of Kuwait. Meanwhile, he learns Chinese massage, and grapples with religion. Standard coming-of-age stuff. But ‘with a Filipino face, a Kuwaiti passport, an Arab surname and a Christian first name, will his father’s country welcome him?’ Boom. We now have the story.

With this kind of subject matter, that threads through race, religion, identity and patriotism, I expected The Bamboo Stalk to be something like Adichie’s novels –  a literary act of protest. Activist in its very nature. When you think about it, any person of color today, or someone who comes from a country/situation that is experiencing injustice, is expected to make activist art. Like okay, you’re a black woman writing poems about lakes and fields. Now how about some verses on the BlackLivesMatter movement? It’s as if you can’t make art for the sake of making art – it has to say something, shout something. It can’t just be pretty when so much is at stake.

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Kuwait’s skyline

Sorry, other tangent. Back to The Bamboo Stalk – which, ironically, is about a current human rights issue: the state of migrant workers in the Gulf region. No one likes to talk about this, except perhaps Amnesty International. And while The Bamboo Stalk may not be as bold and barbed as Americanah, for example, it is still revolutionary in that we finally have an Arab openly talking about the elephant in his room. The mistreatment of the thousands of Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis etc. who build and wipe and sweep the sleek skyscrapers is a dark lump of shame carefully held beneath our tongues. And here’s why Saud Alsanousi has made us, or at least me, think – in a month’s time, as a Sri Lankan girl, close to my age, serves me at some local Burger King, what will I do? What will I see? What will I say? And how, in the end, will I write about it?
Will I do what everyone else does, toss out a careless ‘thanks’, and forget, in an instant, the bags dragging down her eyes, how tired she looks as she smiles?

The Bamboo Stalk is undoubtedly critical of this situation, but it is first a story before a critique. The narrative is simple and clear, like a gentle stream. And although the writing style didn’t always appeal to me, its mere clarity felt refreshing after all the complex fiction I’d been reading. I’m not sure if that’s the translation or the very nature of Alsanousi’s writing. But it felt decidedly new and soothing.
Another aspect I loved was the metaphors: ‘If only I were like a bamboo tree, which doesn’t belong to anything! We cut a piece from the stalk, plant it without roots in any land. The stalk won’t take long to grow new roots… it grows anew, in a new land. Without a past, without memory.’ Another one was Tarouf, which means ‘net’ in Arabic – José talks about how his family in Kuwait, the Tarouf family, has become enmeshed in the net of societal expectations, while he, a small fish, can often manage to slip through.

I expect this book will inspire more ramblings on here as I go on to discuss it at college AND…surprise, surprise – meet its writer! Yes, apparently we will get a chance to meet Saud Alsanousi himself and satiate all our curiosities. To meet the writer of an interesting novel…dreams do come true, people.

I’m going to finish this off with some words by Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo, which I was reminded of by this book. Thank you for reading this far. You are lovely:

“Here’s to the security guards who maybe had a degree in another land. Here’s to the manicurist who had to leave her family to come here, painting the nails, scrubbing the feet of strangers. Here’s to the janitors who don’t even fucking understand English yet work hard despite it all. Here’s to the fast food workers who work hard to see their family smile. Here’s to the laundry man at the Marriott who told me with the sparkle in his eyes how he was an engineer in Peru. Here’s to the bus driver, the Turkish Sufi who almost danced when I quoted Rumi. Here’s to the harvesters who live in fear of being deported for coming here to open the road for their future generation. Here’s to the taxi drivers from Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt and India who gossip amongst themselves. Here is to them waking up at 4am, calling home to hear the voices of their loved ones. Here is to their children, to the children who despite it all become artists, writers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, activists and rebels. Here’s to Western Union and Money Gram. For never forgetting home. Here’s to their children who carry the heartbeats of their motherland and even in sleep, speak with pride about their fathers. Keep on.”

 

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this is how you lose her – a slam poem

I recently performed my first slam poem at an annual arts show called Verbal Emancipation. It was magnificent. Here is the poem:

this is how you lose her.
as you make love to yourself
through a cellphone screen.
your red-lipped smile is as hard as your hairspray
oh, what a shame
that filters erase pores, but not unhappiness.

this is how you lose her.

as the facebook likes rise
you feel the meter go up on your self-love scale.
you don’t mind the numbers this time
because they’re not telling you
that you take too much space
like that godforsaken bathroom scale.
‘fat’ – a curse word hurled by girls
who try to love what the mirror shows them
but fail. chase after self-esteem
inside a no-cream
skinny latte.

this is how you lose her

when the pop of orange bubbles in the corner of your screen
tells you how you confident you’ll feel today.

flawless. like. stunner. like. slayyy. like like like.

follow.

but let me ask you one thing
as you angle yourself thin
which do you love more?
the girl on the screen
or the girl in your skin?

and this is how you lose her
when your answer to that
becomes your hesitation.

and you lose
when society points its fingers
and you turn them all to point to
yourself.
because you’re female.
you were built up that way.
raised on a plate for catcalling men,
your body a meal for the
wolves in your head.
but take it with a pinch of salt,
the world says. life is a contest,
you’ll always be second best.
this is how you
lose her.

when you listen to that.

today, you noticed your face cream’s called ‘fair and lovely’
but darling, you’re unfair
more caramel than vanilla, you wish
your skin told a different tale than of how it was once oppressed.
see, black girls have lupita, brown girls have mindy kaling
but white girlfriend jane over there has the rest of hollywood
to spare.
isn’t that what’s unfair?
that if you’re dark, you’ve already got a burden to bear.

and you lose her
when you notice the symptoms
of this snow white syndrome
flare. and as you place that filter on your face
do you notice how it makes
your skin get
lighter lighter lighter
and the world gets brighter brighter brighter
as the comments roll in,
a sea of ‘yass girl SLAY’s
never mind that I don’t know your last name
but I’d still double-tap that.’

this is how you lose her
when those words become gospel
leading you to the light
but instead of god, you find Perfection.
and you’re forced to realize
that Perfection is the kind of lover that never stays.
this is how you lose her,
in his too-tight embrace.

and you lose when you pick the guy that only
desires you
because desire is a wolf that rams its
tongue down your throat, brands its touch on your skin
but forgets what your favourite colour is.
yes, he will learn the outlines of your legs
faster than his math assignment. desire
is when he thinks girls become less pure
after they’ve been touched by a man,
well maybe he should take a look
at his hands
this is where and how you lose her.

when you think love is when he looks at you
from between his legs
and desire starts to equal respect, an equation that can never make
sense.
do you raise your skirt’s hem
for him or yourself?

see, a soul can’t be dressed
a soul can’t follow a trend
but if this world was a cup of coffee, then soul
would be the sugar grain
forgotten on the saucer’s edge.
these are the thoughts that pour from your brain –
your tongue calls them ‘feminist’
but the world always thought that
your mouth should be drained.
so angry
so angry it has to be this way.
but anger doesn’t look good
on a woman, they say.

‘a soul can’t be dressed.’
‘a soul can’t follow a trend’
and you cry.
because nothing’s about the soul anymore,
it’s all about the skin.
isn’t it?

and you lost her
when you forgot to ask the girl in the mirror
if she’s happy.
when the lipstick’s gone, the concealer erased,
are you happy with yourself?
when your phone is down, the camera turned away
are you happy with yourself?
‘cause you could drip in gold
or just wear your skin,
you’ve always heard but never
known that what matters is within
‘cause a soul can’t be dressed
and it shouldn’t be a
revolution
to love yourself
but it is.
you always thought being a girl
came with that string attached.

but this is your call to arms
to try to love what you have, what you own,
what you are.
you’re a girl. you’re a woman.
you’ve got your beauty in knots
all you need is to untangle it in your thoughts
because

this

is how

you find her.

***

 

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Geared up for the show – me & my beautiful friend Tsaone. He sings.

 

You Look Disgusting

I got acne when I was 9 years old. I’m 13 now and still have it. I don’t think people understand how much it affects me. I get bullied for it. People tell me “it’s not Halloween yet.” And “What’s wrong with you?”

The comment above has 164 likes on YouTube. A ribbon of replies follow – ‘I can relate’, ‘I feel your pain’, ‘people can be so cruel’.New sob-stories swell by the hour, each commenter relishing the comfort of being faceless in this conversation about faces. ‘I can barely look at myself in the mirror,’ one 11-year-old writes. A horde of well-wishers reassure her that she’s beautiful, she’s worth it, never listen to the haters. Love yourself. It sounds so easy. As sweet and neat as a wrapped candy.
I wonder if she swallows it.

Last year, a British beauty blogger named Em Ford released a short film titled ‘You Look Disgusting’. Ford suffers from acute adult acne and often posts images of herself without makeup – the perennial ‘before’ picture – freely showing her blemishes and scars. The response has been shocking.

Seriously, has she ever washed her face? Revolting. Imagine waking up next to her in the morning. Gross. Ugly. You look disgusting.
In the film, Ford sits bare-faced in front of the camera, as these comments (all of which she has received in real life) materialize around her. She is motionless, unsmiling, distraught. As she begins to apply her makeup, the words around her change. She smiles. You look beautiful.
But this is so misleading.   

A still from ‘You Look Disgusting’

Society never lets you win with makeup. If you don’t wear it, people stare and comment, especially if you have acne. If you do wear it, compliments quickly slide into digs such as ‘you’re fake’ ‘clown’ and ‘this is false advertising’. But a woman is not a product. And since when is she trying to sell herself to you? Yet society behaves as if a woman’s face exists solely for its viewing pleasure. Therefore, it must adhere to its ‘perfect’ standards -which are really double standards.

Most people think that a woman only wears makeup if she’s insecure or she’s trying to please a man. And yes, while it is true that some individuals, especially young girls, use makeup as an emotional crutch or a ladder to higher self-esteem, this is only because they’re trying to please the very society that judges and shames them.

However, many find makeup empowering, and a means for self-expression. Others see it as an art form, using their faces as a canvas on which they can play with colour and texture. They feel equally comfortable with makeup and without. Swiping on some lipstick is simply a choice they feel they have a right to. But we all know that society has a tendency to deny women their choices. Wearing makeup today has become more of an obligation; it stems from an unspoken expectation of women to always look flawless. After all, isn’t this is what all the magazines and adverts and films whisper to us daily? Be perfect, be perfect, be perfect.
And then we wonder why some women can’t leave the house with a ‘natural’ face.

You can’t talk about beauty without mentioning the media, society’s obnoxious loudspeaker. If you switch on the TV or flip open a magazine, every single female is wearing makeup. The high-school girls all look runway-ready in homeroom, their eyeliner winged to the heavens. Some of them even sleep with it on. We see no images of confident, bare-faced women. So we begin to believe that prettiness and confidence can only be found in an eyeshadow palette. Meanwhile, young girls see Kylie Jenner’s stardom spike after she gets plastic surgery and extensively uses cosmetics. So they too begin raiding the MAC counter in hopes of becoming more likeable, more popular, more beautiful. Just like the girls who are #goals on their screens.

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We tell girls that beauty comes from within but we show them that it’s only skin deep. The comments in Ford’s video itself are a testament to the idea that beauty is dependent on makeup, and even then it is never enough. The spectrum of ‘being beautiful’ has become as narrow as an eyeliner pencil. No wonder people find it normal to viciously judge others’ appearances – so casually cruel in the name of ‘stating their opinion’.
Do they ever realize how much it can hurt?

Should such comments be banned?  I don’t believe this will solve the issue. Despite the venomous nature of the words, it would limit one’s right to freedom of speech. And we would only be skimming the surface. What we really need is to change the mindset that somebody’s appearance must conform to your own, or the media’s, set standard of beauty. We need to make people feel the knives in their words before they post a nasty comment on somebody’s face. We need to stretch out our rigid perceptions of beauty.

Because beauty is not a template you can contour yourself into; it is the love and compassion within you. It is your humanity. And you cannot conjure that from a mascara tube.

 

It’s Lit

I often wonder about the fate of the library. I imagine its wrinkles are setting in, its cheeks hollowing out. A few more decades, and it will recede like an old man’s hairline, back into the past. Here lies an archaeological ruin of intellect, a pioneer in the pursuit of knowledge.
“Books smell like old people,” a New Haven student says. I picture a huddle of desolate novels, aged and beige, crumbling slowly from the lack of touch, the lack of love.
An old-age home for literature. Is that what a library has become?

In an article for The New Yorker, titled ‘Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?’, David Denby highlights the significant decline in reading amongst today’s youth. It has become a “chore”, a “weak, petulant claimant on [our] time,” he states. A part of me, the ardent bibliophile, finds this inconceivable. Yet it is the truth.

Two weeks ago, I saw a group of students engaging in some kind of modern ritual. They sat in a circle, backs bent in worship, their eyes fixated on the screens in their palms. Nobody spoke. Nobody looked up. Not a single book was in sight. Their fingers moved swiftly, as if they could tap and swipe their way into an alternate universe. Such was the power of their devotion. They were somewhere else, a fantastical bubble that could not be reached. A place where human expression was replaced with emojis.
And this was supposed to be a literature class.

Screens have become our lifeboats and we cannot stop clinging. Denby mentions that because of this, today’s youth is engulfed with more words than ever, so technically they are reading more. But they amass only broken shells of knowledge – texts, tweets, blogs, articles – the debris of fuller ideas. Reading something longer and more complex makes them shudder. The trendy likes of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are manageable. But suggest some Hemingway and they just blink at you.

It seems that in the tsunami of technological progress, books and literature have become the flotsam. Not only is this limiting the development of critical thinking skills, but also the ability to form more voluptuous opinions. But what can be expected from the generation that’s more fluent in iSpeak than their mother tongues? We are continuously pruning our words into whatever’s easier to digest – ‘cool’ is ‘kwl’. ‘It’s lit’ could mean the party’s going down, but not literature or anything. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing this. But it’s come to a point where our bite-size reading and bitten-down words are encroaching upon well-articulate writing. Today’s adolescents balk at Balzac but will gladly polish off 500 + meaningless tweets. It doesn’t require much thinking or effort or learning, you see.

My English teacher used to say that “literature is life”– trite but perfect. Deepening our reading nourishes our capacity for empathy and our understanding of human actions and emotions. We learn to recognize the various shades of villainy and virtue in the ‘characters’ around us. In his article, Denby asks: “Could a country that had widely read ‘Huckleberry Finn’ have taken Donald J. Trump seriously for a second? Twain’s readers… [would] know what a bullying con artist sounds like.”

Literature and reading are as intrinsic to me as gravity. So I find it difficult to ‘sell’ the notion of reading more books to other people; I feel like I’m endorsing what should just be common sense. To me, reading is the act of turning a page of the mind. That’s why I relish books that shake up my views, like marbles in a jar.

But I worry that in the future, literature will acquire the gilded elitism of classical music – a niche for nostalgic fanatics. Or old people. I worry that libraries and bookshops will one day dismantle their shelves. But I still carry hope in the margins of my thoughts. Perhaps the Kindle or the rise of e-books will resurrect our reading culture. Or perhaps we will realize how ridiculous it is to disregard something we’re so similar to. For someone once told me that humans are just like books; we all have spines and stories to tell.

On Grandiosity, Depression & the Ivy League

I knew exactly what it took to get into college – it was to press a newly-bloomed flower between the pages of a notebook. To fade the colours into bland theses you made up for Cambridge. To align the sweeping petals with the compact paragraphs of a 650-word personal statement.
I knew exactly what it took.

I grew up on a diet of A*s, certificates and report cards more flowery than my teenage prose. The hushed envy I attracted sated me, as did the silent applause I always seemed to hear. It was a drug. And like all drugs, it left me in shreds, wondering when I had sold my ‘self’ to a comprehensive SAT guide.

After I read William Deresiewicz’s essay Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League, I felt a kind of slow-sinking sadness. His arguments on the ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset of elite students made my mind shake. And I found myself grieving for the girl I have been through my high school years – fed on plastic pills of false success and perfection.

I was the definition of an ‘excellent sheep’. My academic record was a smooth sheet of silk, free from the snags of failure or risk. I read large books and used large words but did not understand their beauty or power. I practised flute and piano to earn cream-coloured certificates; you couldn’t have heard a more soulless Beethoven. In fact, every art form I indulged in, from ballet to music to literature, was simply an act of exploitation, milking my talents for hollow prestige. Eventually, I reached a point where all the art I made was technically flawless, but lacked the gossamer warmth of spirit. Each pirouette, each trill, each pretty metaphor, was just a plea – a silent bid for self-worth, collected from the claps and compliments of everyone but the one who mattered most: me.

It’s dangerous for self-esteem to hinge on the top position. Top of the class, top of the list, top of the school. In his essay, Deresiewicz mentions how this aggressive ‘grandiosity’ can impact a student’s mental health. The panic of meeting a deadline means stress. But that stress becomes toxic when it’s having to meet a deadline with a perfect product. Eventually, you feel like a soldier facing an endless barrage of assignments, each needing to be executed with the precision of a surgeon. There is no time to daydream or delight. There is no time to enjoy just breathing for a moment. The pressure of moulding yourself into an admission-ready template grows more rigid and relentless with your rising ambition. And stress morphs into a silent, colder kind of monster – depression.

They say knowledge is power, and education is the way to attain it. But it seems that education itself has turned into a frenzied race for only power, not knowledge. A significant point that Deresiewicz makes is the crazed desire for an Ivy League education. For many students, it’s ‘Harvard or the gutter’. Because being an ‘exceptional’ student comes with the invisible yoke of moon-high expectations – get perfect grades, flourish in your extracurriculars and attend the likes of Ivy Leagues or Oxbridge. A neat line of arrows pointing to imminent prosperity. The problem is that most students will scramble to an Ivy just to gain a status symbol, a flashy brand name to drop casually in conversations – “Yes, I go to Harvard“.  I see very few students really thinking about how Harvard, or whatever college they apply to, will stretch their perspectives and awaken thoughts, ideas and innovations they never knew they could have. How will their place of study challenge and nurture the kind of creativity and projects they are specifically interested in?

It seems that picking a university has turned into a kind of classism. When I told people I would be attending New York University Abu Dhabi, many thought I was being ‘brave’ and ‘unconventional’. But I didn’t understand it. The fact that I had not selected a university based on its name, but on how its values and atmosphere would catalyse my aspirations, was somehow deemed ‘weird’. When did it become radical to choose a university that caters specifically to you rather than society’s applause?

In the rat race our educational systems have become, students are addicted to the destination of their studies, rather than the journey. So many of us feel adrift on a wave of textbooks and graphs, unsure where on the page our heart even flutters. Is it in a maths equation? Is it in the caesura of a poem? In the quest for gold stars, people forget to ponder and wonder. So they settle for safe, salary-guaranteed career paths because they’ve had no time or space to explore who they are and what hobbies and pursuits kindle their hearts.

Ever since I began to write poetry, I have started seeing people as moving, breathing verses. They teem with unspoken meanings, a multitude of desires, burdens and feelings flowing beneath their skin. We are all poems, and life is a journey in which we learn and try to understand the stanzas of our ‘selves’.

But I have no idea what kind of poem I am yet. It was never on my syllabus.

On the Culture of Botswana

Culture is a slippery concept. I like to think of it as clay. You can do so much with it – mould, paint, stretch, ignore. How malleable it is, forever changing shape in our hands, sometimes slowly and imperceptibly, sometimes through lightning-quick revolutions. But ultimately all it needs is a gentle hand, to not let it slip and fall through, to not let it disappear. ‘Treat me with respect” it says.

The most powerful and beautiful way culture manifests itself is through art. Each country does something different with its clay, shaping it and painting it in its own unique fashion. It’s important to note that this can be ugly. And disturbing and strange and messy. Culture can be full of scars because it is so often twisted and transformed by the pain of the past – wars, revolutions, epidemics, you name it. The important thing is that the creation becomes a symbol of the country, as distinct and unique as a thumbprint. So what does Botswana, our nation’s, thumbprint look like? What has it created with its clay? What are the colours, the patterns, the markings it has used?

The most prominent depiction of Botswana in literature is in Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective series. These books are well-written of course. They are also the work of a white foreigner. No stand-out Motswana writer is the country’s ‘literary icon’; even Bessie Head was a South African immigrant. Numerous traditional dances, varied and extraordinary, are performed here– but in indoor shopping malls, rarely on stages. Folk and tribal music have been swapped out for more fashionable rap and hip-hop imports from South Africa and America. The paintings of the Khoisan, shedding colour and light on the lives of hunter-gatherers, have been dismissed to forgotten rooms in forgotten museums.

There’s a pattern here; our clay is becoming increasingly whitewashed. The colours are gradually fading and the West is bleeding through. We are becoming a poorly made replica of a foreign town, all our culture and colours and individuality stuffed in our back pockets, the rural areas. We are eroding Botswana’s very soul, painting over its art, history, music and language with a shinier, white veneer. How painful this is, like extracting a whole row of teeth to install a new artificial set. The problem is, too many Batswana have administered themselves with anesthesia. Nobody cares anymore. And if they do, it’s not enough.

How do we fix this? How do we paint our colours back on? Start in the schools. The quietest, most powerful revolutions occur with education and youth. Maybe before teaching our children French, we can teach them Setswana first. Fill the syllabi with the history of their own nation – and not just through the lens of colonization. Introduce them to their traditional instruments, teach them the back-and-forth melodies their ancestors sang, expose them to the exquisite basket-making and pottery their great-great-grandmothers once did. Give them their music, give them their art, give them their language, give them their culture. This is how we teach them to take pride in their skin, their tongue, their colour. This is how they learn to create patterns that are entirely their own.

‘Treat me with respect”, our culture cries. Let us listen. Let us learn.

Let the children play with their clay.

Point and Shoot: An Open Letter to Myself

You come from a gifted generation. Each day, you unwrap a stream of new presents, with all the urgency of a morning coffee fix. Your thumbs are always slightly bent from the effort, but your ego is well-massaged by 8am. These daily gifts arrive in frantic bundles, ballooning from the corner of your cellphone screen. They are tiny and orange, bearing a heart with a number – a measurement of their ability to butter, to blandish, to spread honey over insecurities.

Exclamations trail from them like ribbons. Stunner. WOW! You’re flawless. I like that. Like. That’s so cool. Like. OMG. Like. Like. Like. Each compliment a new delicacy, curdling self-doubt into something sweet and thick as ice-cream. Does it matter that the faces behind these words don’t know your favourite colour or even your last name? If it does, it soon doesn’t. For they are the benevolent, their fingertips affirming the sheen of your existence, with a simple ‘double tap’.

Ebola is long gone; the world’s new pandemic is narcissism. The symptoms are obvious – a lone man taking a selfie in the supermarket. A 12-year-old girl using her free time, not to read or do sport, but pose for her cellphone, her mother’s lipstick a garish gash on her face.  And you, taking a ‘candid’ of your cappuccino, because in the 21st century, coffee cups are the Internet’s Holy Grail.

This is not an age of ‘doing’ but of ‘seeming’. It is not enough to check out Oliver Twist from the library; it has to be documented, preferably beside a cup of tea on a floral tablecloth. Never mind that you hate classics and couldn’t get past 23 pages of damn Oliver Twist. But what with the Sylvia Plath quotes underneath your sunset pictures, and the fashionable feminist poetry peppering your wall, you need to keep up an intellectual image.

The idea of doing something solely for yourself has become a novel concept. Journaling, unwinding with some tea, playing music in the car – nothing is spared from a camera. What was always ‘me-time’ has been cracked open for the viewing pleasure of all 328 of your ‘friends’. Perhaps, if you reach into the tap root of this phenomenon, something darker lies there. Just think. Are you so desperate to scrape off the mundanity of life? Is this your malady, a constant search for something shiny enough for your Instagram page? Or are you always flailing to find meaning in boredom, in the little things, in your solitude, that laying a filter on them and captioning it #blessed, is better than accepting it as life’s grit?

Some truths have no gloss, so they have to be skirted. But sometimes you do cry yourself to sleep. You have problems with your parents. You worry about getting into college; your best friend got an Ivy League acceptance letter and its image mocks you from your feed. Everybody else is having fun. Everybody is happy. Happier than you. It is all a lie but somehow you believe it.

Filters can erase pores but not unhappiness. In a world saturated with aggressive optimism, with imperfect ideas of perfect happiness, nobody is interested in airing their troubles. Negativity does not gleam. So you tuck away your worries, and furnish an alternate life, airbrushed with unreality. It is all a lie, but somehow you keep telling it.

One morning, while at brunch with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, you crack an old inside joke, expecting nostalgic laughter. But your friend is silent; she is uploading a picture of her salad on the Internet. Instead of getting irritated, you suddenly marvel at the cleverness of naming a phone’s camera function as ‘point and shoot’. For it pulls a trigger on a moment that could have been genuine. A pleasant encounter is shot before warming into memory, its glittering shrapnel left to hurtle into cyberspace.

Unfair and Lovely

My mother thinks she’s the ugliest amongst her three sisters. Because they are the smooth colour of peeled almonds; my mother’s shade is that of the almond’s skin. Nutty. Brown. Dark.

You’d think it was a curse word – dark. A symbol of crudeness that brings shame in the mirror. It’s the mock-soft expression of an Indian auntie gazing at you on the bus. “Poor girl, look at her complexion. Who will marry her?” It’s the rows and rows of potions in the supermarket, promising luminescent magic – Fair and Lovely, 6 weeks to lighter, brighter skin! It’s the laser-like scrutiny of a potential father-in-law, sizing up your fairness – is it good enough for his son? And it’s having to be the smart or sporty one in school – the pageant-pretty position is occupied by some Ria or Anamika, who has genetically creamy skin but smiles and tosses her hair, saying it’s just her Neutrogena face wash, you should try it too!

If you’re dark, you have somehow already failed. But at what, nobody knows.

An image from the #UnfairAndLovely campaign

Indians today spend more on skin-whitening products than on Coca-Cola. In a country that wears Bollywood like a gaudy red bindi, it’s easy to see why. Some of our most prominent film stars endorse such products on TV, their faces paled and thus ‘beautified’ by ‘gentle creams’ – which is really code for bleach. In one particular ad, a struggling, dark-skinned actor is gifted a fairness cream by a Bollywood big-shot. Cue some festive music, digital retouching of his face and voila! He is suddenly a star. (Yes, I’m talking about that Fair & Handsome ad with Shah Rukh Khan).

What this perpetuates is the idea that it is not hard work but being pale that brings fame and success. How problematic is that? And yet it holds some truth. The heroes and heroines on our cinema screens are all fair-skinned – without exception. Darker-skinned actors are seen in the roles of uneducated peasants and criminals (Nawazuddin Siddiqui comes to mind). Or they are the leads in gritty, off-beat films, the kinds that are dubbed ‘B-list’ and barely make any money.

An advertisement for the Indian brand ‘Fair & Lovely’

And if you are an Indian woman hoping to get married, you better buy some face packs and start using photo filters. Because the shaadi sites and newspapers are filled with demands for only fair-skinned brides. Don’t you know honey, being alabaster matters more than your BA! Countless Indians today, both men and women, are rejected by suitors because they’re more caramel than vanilla. They could be armed with degrees and careers, kindness and confidence, they could even make the best laddoos in the neigbourhood – but if they’re dark, then it’s doomed.

The ancient caste system in India has always equated being dark with being an ‘untouchable’ and fairness with being an upper-class ‘brahmin’. This introduced an interesting economic factor – the richer you were, the less time you spent outside, toiling away in the sun like a lowly worker. Thus, fairness became a kind of wealth – a mark of smoothness, of class, of polish.

Many people think India’s colorist malady makes it a racist country. And yes, this is a form of racism. But why is it there? The belief that fairness is power comes from the dregs of the broiling teapot of colonialism and caste-ism. Some are dismissive of this argument, calling it ‘1947 thinking’. But somewhere inside us, and not just in India, we have let the seed of the idea that white is superior to take root. White people have always had more power and authority than us – they were once our rulers and now they are the ‘developed nations’, with more education and wealth and infrastructure. They have the luxury of being our economic ‘saviours’.  History has deluded us into thinking that education and power is synonymous with whiteness. This also explains why having an American or British accent instantly makes you ‘literate’ and favouring jeans over traditional dress makes a woman more cosmopolitan.

When I was a little girl, family members would chuck my chin, murmuring ‘She’s so fair. That’ll be good for her future’.  Charms and potions were slipped into my palm – home remedies, herbal sunscreens – to protect my ‘lucky’ complexion. I was dumbfounded.

Because who says you cannot be unfair and lovely?