Food for Thought
The Eye of the Beholder
Some time ago, I was having coffee with a friend, Nadiya, and her frighteningly intelligent daughter Ilana, who was at that time about three years old. Ilana had come well-prepared to entertain herself while the adults had one of their interminable chats, bringing along a writing pad, colour pens, and a doll, for good measure. At one point, Nadiya encouraged her to introduce me to the doll, Aula (thusly named because of her wavy, “aula-jhaula” hair). Aula is a very beautiful brown-skinned rag doll that was carefully selected for Ilana by a family friend, and had travelled back to Bangladesh all the way from the US.
Unfortunately, despite having all this to recommend her, Ilana did not like her new toy. I had earlier noticed her reluctance to introduce me to Aula when I asked her about the doll, and I had also noted that her treatment of Aula left something to be desired. In the space of a few minutes, Ilana smacked her for no apparent reason, and then dropped her on to the floor, despite her mother's protests that this would hurt the doll.
When I looked at my friend inquiringly, she sighed and said, “I don't know why Ilana doesn't like her, but she's been like this ever since she got Aula a few weeks ago. I did ask her why she didn't like the doll, and she finally said to me, “Aula shundor na, Ma. O kalo” (“Aula isn't pretty, Ma. She's too dark”). Nadiya was horrified to hear this statement issuing from the mouth of her three-year-old, and responded, “But Ilana, I am also kalo (dark). Does that mean that you think I'm ugly?” “Na, Ma, tumi to phorsha”, her daughter returned, immediately assuring her mother that she had nothing to worry about in the fairness department.
Needless to say, her mother was not reassured! The issue of skin colour has particular resonance for Nadiya who despite being very attractive, has grown up hearing about how dark-skinned (and therefore, it is implied, not pretty) she is. To hear the same warped standards of beauty emanating from her own child must have been profoundly disturbing for her. Clearly, it is not Ilana who is to blame for this perception, but the society in which she is growing up, which takes no prisoners when it comes to the issue of skin colour. So much so, that even a child as young as three, albeit a highly intelligent one, has cottoned on to the fact that dark skin cannot be a good thing!
I know how Nadiya feels. I grew up in a family where my mother was perhaps a shade or two darker than myself, but with a father who is unusually fair-skinned for a Bengali. Strangely enough, my father is probably one of the three people in Bangladesh who is completely immune to this issue of skin colour, and indeed, thinks that darker skin is very attractive. Sadly, Krishnakali notwithstanding, Tagore's fellow country-folk most emphatically do not share his views on beauty! That is why those of us who have the “misfortune” to be the mocha brown colour that is our birthright are made to feel ashamed and embarrassed about not being sufficiently fair.
As a child, I had to endure any number of comments from obnoxious adults who would meet me with my father and say, in varying tones of surprise and horror, “This is your daughter?” As I cringed, wishing that the ground would open up and swallow me alive, my father would smile proudly, and reply, “Yes, she is”. He never understood what was being implied, but I certainly did. So did my mother, when I shared my humiliation with her afterwards.
On the other hand, I probably shouldn't complain. My situation was a lot better than that of a relative of mine, a very good-looking woman, who grew up being compared to her equally striking (but fair-skinned) older sister. With typical insensitivity, people would draw odious comparisons loudly and publicly wherever the two of them went. As a result, for a period of several years, she became a recluse, choosing to stay home rather than go to the family events and social gatherings where she would be subjected to these hurtful comments. It still makes me angry when I think back to the unnecessary agony that was inflicted upon a sensitive teenager.
Beautifully brown. Photo: Zahedul I Khan
Leaving that injustice aside, my own reaction to the first black doll that I ever saw was very different from Ilana's. I was seven years old on my first trip to the US, when our host family took me, along with their two children, to the Barnum and Bailey's Circus. We were each given five dollars as spending money, which my two comrades-in-arms spent on popcorn, hot dogs and generous helpings of pink cotton candy. Being a thrifty Bengali, I spent part of the money on a small container of bubble-blowing liquid in the shape of Fred Flintstone (an irresistible treasure to someone belonging to a generation that grew up on Hanna-Barbara cartoons!), and tucked the rest away for a suitable purchasing opportunity.
That opportunity presented itself sooner than expected in the form of a cheap, plastic doll that miraculously fell within my somewhat meagre budget. I already owned a couple of the much hyped Barbie dolls, and in comparison to those, this toy had few apparent advantages to recommend her: her limbs were not movable in the same way (especially in comparison to my more senior, high-tech Barbie which actually had hands that could be manipulated to grip her hairbrush!), her hair consisted of tight curls which could not be brushed, and she had no accompanying wardrobe - let alone the range of lifestyle choices available to Barbie!
What she did have to recommend her was something I had never seen in any other doll in my young life - coffee-coloured skin, black hair (which was even less common in those days) and big, brown eyes. In my frame of reference, even though she was African-American, she looked like a real person. Even better, she looked just a little bit like my heroine at the time, the actress Diahann Carroll, who starred in a series called "Julia" screened by BTV (the only TV channel, and therefore one we all watched raptly). So no prizes for guessing what I named my precious new acquisition...
(To be continued…)
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