Author of The Land of the Wilted Rose, of the The White Mahatma Quartet, Anand Ranganathan studied Chemistry at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and went on to pursue a doctorate from Cambridge. A man of varied interests, he is researching dengue and tuberculosis at the International Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology at Delhi. We told you, varied interests!
When Fair Is Not So Lovely
Two visuals ruined my day at the movies last week. And although one was a warning, while the second a temptation, both concerned two piddly little molecules that are strikingly similar – in shape and name. Here they are, these fat and harmless-looking tiny tots:
Not much of a difference between the two, you might say – fat and lumpy and well-rounded – just like two politicians. And yet, one provides temporary relief before it kills you, while the other just provides temporary relief. The one on the left is nicotine; the other nicotinamide. And let me come straight to the point: while poor nicotine is scoffed at – perhaps rightly so, (full disclosure: I am a hapless prisoner for the temporary relief it brings, with scant regard for the deathly repercussions that are sure to follow soon), nicotinamide on the other hand is glorified and touted as that kasturi which we dark-skinned humans have been searching for all our miserable lives. Yes, you guessed it: nicotinamide, that fat little turd is the active ingredient of all skin-whitening creams. It used to be a pinch of mercury and a dash of hydroquinone, but these have been banned as they were found to be harmful to white people who were formerly brown. Now it is nicotinamide. The world’s largest selling skin-whitening cream for women – Fair & Lovely – and the world’s largest selling skin-whitening cream for men – Fair & Handsome – have nicotinamide as their punch provider. Lovely.
My grouse is not that brown men and women should not be allowed to consume (apply in this case) nicotinamide – after all, I am allowed by law to consume (inhale) nicotine. What gets my goat is why, while the advertising of cigarettes is banned, the advertising of skin-whiteners isn’t. Why, while the physical effects of nicotine are advertised, the psychological effects of nicotinamide aren’t. Allow me to illustrate, filmy-style.
Scene 1. Friday. 11:10 pm. Interior. Auditorium 4. Pitch darkness. Reclined contentedly on my red velvet seat I’m gawking at the 70 mm screen in front like a blissful idiot. Popcorn is being consumed in shovel-mode. Coke being sipped excitedly. But then suddenly: WTF! Gory images of jawless, lacerated, gashed, sore-ridden, hoary-voiced people have taken over the screen, with tubes and drips and stuff festooned all around their emaciated and mangled bodies. Voiceover: tumbaaku se kark rog hota hai. (Tobacco causes cancer.)
Quit smoking, you miserable little wretch, hisses my wife seated beside me. Point well-taken. I’ll think about it, alright?
Scene 2. Movie begins. Song and dance. Those awful kark-rog visuals now a fading memory. Hero cracks a joke. Heroine blushes. Audience slapping thighs. Gym-enthusiasts roaring with laughter. Biceps being rippled. Author doesn’t get the joke, worried. Inadvertently munches on unpopped corn. Shrieks.
Scene 3. Interval. Dim lights on. Gym-enthusiasts stand up, flex muscles in full-view. Outline of SUV key-bunches visible through their tight jeans. Popcorn is replenished. Ad bombardment begins. Out come the customary Fair & Lovely & Handsome and other skin-whitening ads. But hey, this is a new one, not the usual dark and jobless girl hiding behind a curtain. Here the dark and jobless girl is playing chess. So far, so good. And then: WTF! The visual! The tagline! The girl’s whitened fingers that are holding a white piece knock and topple a black piece. Voiceover: Black is out!
That millions of Indians apply skin-whiteners is beside the point – these creams wouldn’t have become the “world’s largest selling…” without our help. The issue here is also not why brownies want to become whities – there are many reasons: our pre-colonial culture that glorified whiteness (“gaon ki gori”); a need to display caste superiority – all that Aryan bunkum; and finally, our post-colonial culture that is awed by white skin, white people, white everything. Besides, we aren’t the only darkies profoundly affected by this transformation yearning. This black and white makeover is more colourful than you might think, riddled as it is with wonderful ironies.
Barack Obama is never called a white president even though he is half-white. He is called a black president because that is the big and shining event in America’s history – that “white blood” diluted to half by “black blood” can “still” “come up” to scratch. And of course, the progenitor of baby it don’t matter if you’re black or white did everything in his and his doctor’s powers to appear white. And then there’s this: a passage from that most black-loving white-hating master-seer of recent history: Malcolm X. Here is what he “told” to Alex Haley for his autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when trying to get his curly and kinky hair straightened by his barber friend Shorty, “cooked” as he called the procedure:
He made me sit down, and he tied the string of the new rubber apron tightly around my neck, and combed up my bush of hair. Then, from the big Vaseline jar, he took a handful and massaged it hard all through my hair and into the scalp. He also thickly vaselined my neck, ears, and forehead. “When I get to washing out your head, be sure to tell me anywhere you feel any little stinging,” Shorty warned me, washing his hands, then pulling on the rubber gloves, and tying on his own rubber apron. “You always got to remember that any Congolene left in burns a sore into your head.” The Congolene just felt warm when Shorty started combing it in.
But then my head caught fire.
The first thing skin-whitening cream sellers do is create an illusion of inferiority complex where none should exist. After all Gandhiji was as dark-skinned as most of us and all he did most days was to give the white-skinned an inferiority complex. Once a dark and brooding and sad atmosphere is created, defenders of this conceit inevitably emerge. White people also want to tan themselves, they say, so what’s the big deal.
Er, it’s not quite as simple as that. There is extensive research that’s been done on this phenomena by psychologists and culture-chroniclers and the conclusion is that this white-to-brown makeover is nothing but a display of well-being, of being in luxury, of having travelled to distant shores and holidayed. It does not stem from an inferiority complex, that white skin is not as good as brown.
And then there is the father of Indian advertising, Alyque Padamsee: “It is hard to deny that fairness creams often get social commentators and activists all worked up. What they should do is take a deep breath and think again. Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer—so what’s the problem? …The only reason I can offer for why people like fairness, is this: if you have two beautiful girls, one of them fair and the other dark, you see the fair girl’s features more clearly. This is because her complexion reflects more light.” (Open, March 17, 2012)
In spokesperson-speak, I shall not dignify that comment with a comment.
So here is what should happen. Advertising of skin-whitening creams and face-washes should be banned in media, print and electronic alike. No more “black is out!”
The nicotine-consumer has been made to realise that smoking is bad, is harmful, shouldn’t be advertised – and it is a very personal choice for him if he still decides to consume it. It is high time the nicotinamide consumer was made to feel the same. Until that time baby, it does matter if you’re black or white.
Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrs_logic/5106543301/