“Arre!” exclaims the young woman working the checkout counter at Vijay’s Supermarket. She turns around to share the news with her colleagues, and they all gather round. One of them whispers something into the house phone. The rest take turns peering at the computer screen and back at me. What, what, I ask, searching my mind for some possible violation. But besides the grave eco-offence of buying pre-washed veggies in sealed plastic pouches, I’m pretty sure I’m innocent. After several long minutes, someone hands me a slim pink box. Suddenly, everyone is congratulating me: I have somehow won this free gift! I’m so happy! I breathe deeply, and give my thanks for what I am about to receive.
Gee. It’s a tube of fairness cream. Guaranteed to make me whiter within 7 days.
Ooh, ahh, exclaim one and all. “It’s the best brand!” says the lady of fine wheatish complexion behind me. “Lucky you,” adds one of the checkout ladies, a frown of envy on her duskily lovely face. “It’s just what I’ve always wished for,” I mumble, my freckles aflame. I try to joke around, but it seems fairness cream is no laughing matter. “You know, you have been getting darker lately,” the shop owner says. “Congrats,” say friendly customers, variously hued, as I walk out. At home, I put the box on my shelf and get back to my writing, a feature on ‘The Changing Face of the Indian Woman’ (no, not really, just some news story, but I couldn’t resist).
But I did do a big story once, years ago, on the whole Fairness Cream trip—which really took me by surprise upon arrival in this great and heterogeneous land.
The first time I saw one of these commercials, I was flabbergasted, and honestly thought it was some kind of an ironic spoof. Where I came from, such blatant racial prejudice in advertising would not be allowed on air, and companies would be sued and boycotted for much less than suggesting that the whiter your skin the better you are in almost every way. (Racism very much exists, of course, but it is not flaunted in expensive advertising campaigns). Is India more transparent in its injustices and therefore more admirable somehow? In love with Shining India, I was willing to try and twist my mind around that.
The ad execs I interviewed all shook their head and agreed it was a terrible, terrible thing. Nevertheless, they could not imagine what could possibly be done about it.
How about just say no, I asked.
“Oh, that would be very wrong,” said one account executive, who was pushing a cream which could get just about any dark skinned maiden married to a certain famous movie star in seven days flat. “Do you know what would happen if we all started choosing our campaigns according to our moral beliefs and high ideals?” I waited for his answer, but it turned out to be a rhetorical question.
Another ad man had this to say: “I don’t think this is really any different than ads for conditioners that make your hair softer. Will you write that in India we discriminate on the basis of how soft their hair is? See,” he looked at me closely, and then asked, “Do you use an anti-ageing cream? Are you on a diet?” None of your damn business, I said. “Think about it,” he suggested.
I was invited to dinner that night, at the home of an editor. A few of her friends were there, all media employed. They all had correct, Arundhati Royesque opinions on the subject. But when I ask about starting a media campaign to boycott these products, they hem and haw and say, “Really, there are so many more important things to start campaigns about,” an answer I have since become used to, there are always more important and serious and urgent and original matters to take care of. Later, while washing my hands in my host’s bathroom, I notice a tub of mega luxe fairness cream. Should I ask her about it? Is it any of my business?
A few days after my big win, while reaching for my anti-ageing cream, I see the pink box. I am about to throw it away, but instead, I offer it to my housekeeper. (Never mind the message it will give this young woman, it will earn me points for being kind and generous).
“No, thanks,” she says, dazzling me with her smile, “My colour is okay for me. But why don’t you keep it? You have been looking very dark lately.”