The Nation’s Call Me column is an anonymous piece of writing, where writers can  relate deeply personal stories.

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Call Me:

You see it all the time here. At every wedding, every dinner party, every funeral (it has really happened). You note the glances they give you when you walk in next to your porcelain skinned sister. You can hear their brains roll around their skulls with the inconceivable scandal, the delicious tragedy of it all. They murmur quietly amongst themselves and sometimes they make quick calculations, concluding always that you; the elder one, the dark and un-beautiful one, will have to be married off first. Somehow, by some miracle of God you will have to be shown the door, got promptly out of the way before the eligible sons of the country can feast their intentions on the younger, fairer, beautiful, green-eyed sister. It keeps them up at night. It keeps them busy talking each time they converse over English breakfast tea at the coffee shops of MM Alam. It is your greatest misfortune, this unjust division of familial pigment. It breeds inside you, it goes with you everywhere you go. You refuse to indulge in the fairness creams, in the face bleaching, in the colored contact lens wearing (even though your mother has filled up a cabinet of fair-gels over the years and hinted shamelessly at you all your life). No matter how educated, how intellectual, how intelligent you become as you grow older, somewhere inside you the thought always festers; you’re not beautiful. You’re just too dark. You’re plain. You’re too Pakistani looking. The complex bothers you and you struggle to rebel against it. Only, you can’t. You’re always reminded. There is no escaping it. Pink’s not your colour, orange is not your colour, purple is not your colour. Even the Pathans of Aurega center are wary of showing you any cloth other than beige. You are encouraged by every woman in the family to wear “light” colours, to disappear, to look as inconspicuous as possible. You’re hardly out of earshot before somebody whispers, “Bechari zirra dark hai.”

And sometimes when you make the effort, they will charitably applaud you. They will tell you, “My, my! Today, you look so nice.”

When I was nine years old, I waltzed into a dinner party my parents had thrown at our home with a face so cemented in black cat talcum powder, that I was coughing it up for three days afterwards. I remember entering the room that evening, so self assured and confident that I was finally as pretty as my little sister; the fair skinned darling of the family. (My grandmother had begun collecting her dowry when she was three months old. It was fun, I suppose, hoarding all those pink and orange and purple saaris for a fair bride twenty five years into the future.)  With all the grace I could muster, I perched cross legged on my mother’s blue velvet sofa, leaving powder in my wake like a dusting of icing sugar on cake. My mother looked on horrified, as the guests tried their polite best to look away. Some of them approached me and told me I looked so very pretty. But their eyes were dancing. They were lying, and I could tell something wasn’t right with me. Not even then. Not even when I was the whitest face in the room. That night, the powder and soapy water smothered my face into a pasty mess. It got into my eyes as my mother scrubbed me down quietly and I tried hard not to cry. We both knew, as my features emerged from the powdery depths of white, that I was not beautiful and that I would never be.

Even though I continue to struggle with the ideals of beauty in this country, I am no longer entirely obsessed with it. Falling in love with an intelligent man, being appreciated for the things I do, being loved inspite of the bizarre complexes that have dictated a lot of who I have become (unfortunately), has helped me overcome in part this ridiculous trauma of my childhood. I hope one day we realize that this is a form of psychological abuse, that it affects our children and our adults, that it influences all the important decisions we make in our relationships, that it makes people unhappy and un-whole. Globally, there is a terrible amount of importance placed upon specific ideals of beauty, weight, skin tone, but nowhere is it so blatant, so ironically driven by reverence to the Mem Sahibs of seventy years ago, than it is here. My advice to all the dark, un-beautiful sisters of our society: Take arms against the bleach creams of Al-Fatah. Wear pink. Wear orange. Burn beige. Try hard, every day, to define yourself on your terms. Be happy;  it’s such a beautiful look on you.