The Color of Skin

It is Sunday. Neelaveni is bored. She recalls a play being show in town — The Color of Skin. “Let’s go to the play,” she says to her husband, Sundaram.

He looks up. “Play? Um. That’d be nice. But I need to finish this paper and mail it tonight,” he says. Nothing new, thinks Neelaveni.

She decides to go alone. Sundaram offers to drop her off at the theater but she says no, not necessary: it’s just a brisk twenty-minute walk and she enjoys walking. Sundaram promises to pick her up after the show, though. He insists. “Wait for me at the door. Don’t walk in the dark. It’s not safe, you know,” he tells her one more time before she leaves.

Neelaveni nods, assures him that she will wait for him, grabs her purse and leaves.

The lobby is crowded. The tickets are sold out, almost. Neelaveni has lucked out: got the last one. She takes the ticket and moves close to the wall and stands there watching the crowd. She does not want to go into the theater until the curtain time. She notices that somebody is signaling with his eyes towards something. Her eyes turn to that direction. “It” is actually a person — a little girl — standing in a corner and crying.

The little child, probably four-years old, is standing there crying, holding a ticket in one hand and a little doll in the other. Neelaveni looks at her. The girl is wearing a frock with big flower prints and worn out shoes, possibly bought in a Goodwill store. Her dark curly hair is tied with a red ribbon. The hair fans out like a hibiscus in full bloom.

A compassionate, gentle lady is trying her best to calm her down while keeping a safe distance from her to avoid any physical contact and possible contraction of some horrible disease. The little girl is not becalmed. She will not say who she is, and probably does not know what to say. She continues to say “I want mommy” in a refrain between spasms of sobs.

A few others, also standing at a comfortable distance, keep asking questions, which apparently make no sense to the little one. A middle-aged man casts meaningful looks at Neelaveni. He looks at the girl and Neelaveni, rolling his eyeballs like tennis ball from side to side. It seems he is expressing his disapproval for neglecting the child.

Neelaveni understands. Huh! He thinks the little one is hers — because? Because the color of their skin of the two: both Neelaveni and the child are dark.

She is annoyed, but only for a second. Then she is sorry for the little child. She goes closer to her. The child jumps and wraps both her arms around Neelaveni’s legs. Neelaveni is speechless. She looks around. Everybody around seems to be enjoying the free show. It takes only a second for her to understand why the girl came running to her: for the same reason as the gentleman who assumed they were related — the color of her skin!

The man winks at her again. His look speaks volumes.

“Glad I noticed it and made you realize too. Somebody else would have called the child services, you know!”

“You should be careful.”

“You should take care of your child.”

Neelaveni does not know much about the child services system yet has gained some knowledge by watching Court TV. She can easily imagine the child’s fate, had she got caught in it. Neelaveni is in no mood to explain that it is not her fault, and she is not related to her. She knows that those who have enormous faith in that “system” are blind to reality.

The curtain is raised in the theater; it is time to go in. The audience is settled in their seats. Neelaveni is still in the lobby with the little girl. The girl stays put, clinging to her coattails and sucking on her thumb, as though she feels safe and has no reason to cry. She is feeling “comfy” like a baby duck under the mother duck’s wing.

Neelaveni waits for five more minutes, nobody in sight to claim the child. On the stage, the emcee starts with his first joke.

Neelaveni goes into the theater and finds a place from where she can keep an eye on the entrance. She hopes the mother will show and pick up her child.

The show starts. Characters come on the stage, one after another. Fifteen minutes go by. A woman comes on to the stage. “Mommy,” the child shouts. People around are annoyed.

“Hush, child.”

Neelaveni apologizes to them and whispers to the child, “Is that your mom?”

The child nods yes. Now it is clear: the woman on the stage is her mother. Neelaveni is relieved. She will hand over the child to her mother after the show and be done with it.

The moment has come at last. The show ends, and the child’s mother comes running to Neelaveni. She apologizes and thanks Neelaveni profusely, on and on. Eventually she explains.

The woman, Jennifer, is an aspiring actress. After a long struggle, she got a small part in this play. She has no financial means to hire a babysitter. Therefore, she asked her cousin to keep an eye on the child in return for a free ticket to the show. The cousin, Camilla, agreed to the arrangement but she had another errand to run before coming to the theater, and so suggested she’d meet the mother and the child at the theater. That was the arrangement. For some uncanny reason Camilla did not show up. It was getting late for the actress. Hoping Camilla would show up eventually, she told the child to wait at the gate and went into the green room.

The woman thanks Neelaveni again. Neelaveni listens to the story and accepts her gratitude and tells her she needs to go since her husband will be waiting for her outside. She rushes to the curb only to find that he has not arrived yet.

She waits and waits, yet no sign of her husband. Probably he came, looked for her and left, thinking she got a ride from somebody else. Or, maybe, he just forgot. She was so absorbed by the actress’s heartbreaking story, she lost track of time.

She starts walking towards home, still ruminating over the events and the little girl, then stops for a second. She is not thinking about the play she just watched but rather the little girl and her mother whom she hardly knew have gotten to her. Well, that’s understandable in a way. Hers was a real life story, no less creative than any supposedly real story presented on the stage.

The street is desolate but for a occasional bike or a car whizzing by. Back home, she never came across a street that looked so deserted. She thinks of that child and the mother, and feels sorry for them. In this country, they say all people are equal yet some people have to struggle that much harder. It is like all are equal but some are a little more equal than the rest.

She had her first lesson in this soon after she has arrived in this country. A month or so after she came to America, she went to the grocery store round the corner for vegetables, just two blocks away from her home. She thought she could walk to the store and finish her daily walk, too, along with shopping. As it turned out, she went to the store smiling and returned very annoyed.

At home, Sundaram was busy with his paper for upcoming conference. He looked up, saw that his wife was not happy and asked, “What happened?”

Neelaveni took a glass of water and narrated the incident at the store.

As usual, she picked up a few items at the store and rolled her shopping cart to the checking counter. She noticed that a white woman in front of her had a cartful of items, wrote out a check, and the checker accepted it without batting an eyelid. Well, that was how it looked for Neelaveni at least. And then it was her turn. She had the items checked out, and wrote a check for $16.95 and gave it to the checker.

The store clerk asked her to show her driver’s license. Neelaveni did not have one. Usually, she and Sundaram would go together and so she never had to produce a driver’s license. For the first time, she ventured into a shop alone and look what happened. The fact that the checker would question her integrity annoyed her highly. Neelaveni told the checker that she had no license to show. Then the checker gave her a form to fill in and get it approved by the manager. The form asked for her name, address, place of work, if she does not have a job, her spouse’s job, color of eyes, hair and umpteen other details about her.

Neelaveni was ticked off. She pushed the cart to the side and said, “You keep the stuff to yourself. I don’t want it,” and hurried to the door.

The manager came and said to Neelaveni, “It’s okay, ma’am. Please: take the items. We are sorry for the inconvenience.” He told the checker to accept the check.

Sundaram listened to the story and said, “Don’t you worry. People are weird in their own ways.”

Neelaveni looked at him curiously. True, her color had never been a problem for him. But he did not care for it at the time of their wedding either.

In those days, she remembers how many times she stared at her shining dark skin: her hands, her feet, her face in the mirror — each and every place she could lay eyes on — were the color of dark clouds on a spring day, the color of the dark-skinned Lord Krishna, the color of dark-lined lotus.

And then all those comforting words from everybody. “Don’t you know what they say about lord Krishna? We call him the Dark Lord but not the White Lord for a reason, right?” said Grandmother. “White is not even a color, but a blend of seven colors,” Brother would comment. “Crow is dark, koyil is dark, yet when the spring arrives, you’ll know who’s who,” her Sanskrit teacher would quote from the well-known adage.

Neelaveni did not find comfort in any of those words.

“Who’s going to come forward to marry this black girl?” she heard her mother whisper to a neighbor, dabbing tears. Neelaveni saw, and felt crushed.

Strangely though, her marriage had been fixed very easily. Sundaram, son of their neighbor Kamamma Auntie, expressed his desire to marry Neelaveni. At first, Kamamma Auntie objected quoting a popular proverb, A dark daughter-in-law begets dark babies. Sundaram, however, said in no uncertain terms that he would not marry any other woman. Then Kamamma Auntie changed her position and started saying to everybody, “Oh, I’ve known the girl since she was a little child. She has been part of our family for so long. Besides, where is the guarantee that a girl from a family of strangers would conform to our traditions so comfortably? What if she were to make my life miserable? Look at that Kotamma’s daughter-in-law. She is white, all right, like a doll made of white flour, uh huh, but talk about her attitude — that’s another story.”

Kamamma came to terms with Sundaram’s proposal soon enough and the dust settled quickly.

The fact that Sundaram chose Neelaveni of his own free will helped her to ignore her skin color and gain confidence in herself. For her parents, it was a shower of milk, as the saying goes. The days of their fears that they might never be able to marry her were a thing of the past. The marriage was performed and the couple arrived in America.

After coming to America, Neelaveni learned a few other things about color. In India, the color of skin is a matter of appearance and beauty. In America, it is a matter of race and a whole lot of other things — a gamut of several emotions.

Often she was mistaken for an African American. Neelaveni understood that only after she stopped wearing saris and switched to western clothes. In the beginning she wore nothing but saris. She even attempted to convince several others about the comfort the sari offers. Eventually, she changed to pants and shirts and then she found them just as comfortable, if not more. In course of time, she also removed bangles and other jewelry too. Then she stopped wearing the red dot on the forehead, because she was tired of explaining what it meant. There was no end to people’s curiosity about that one dot. In her mind, there are so many things about a culture. What is the big deal about the dot? She never asked why they are wearing eye make up or lipstick. How was the dot different? For her, it did not mean much. It was just as easy not to put it on. For the first time she understood that we can find convincing arguments for whatever we want to do, always.

Then the new problem sprang up: now people mistook her for an African American.

Neelaveni was never insulted by being mistaken for an African American. It was the ensuing stereotypes that were hard to swallow. The way some people smile, some people pity, and some few others even express how they are ashamed of their thoughts about skin color. That was what she resented.

“Hogwash,” she mutters, grinding her teeth.

She remembers how a stand up comic once said, “Why do they call us colored? All we have is one color and that is black. Look at them: they show all kinds of colors. They are red in the face when angry, turn pale when lost, black and blue if beat up, green with jealousy — they are the colored ones; actually, multi-colored I’d say.”

She also understands that there are lots of people in America who do not even know that Telugu is a language and “Telugu people” refers to a race. On a rare occasion, somebody will show a tiny bit of their knowledge by asking an uncanny question out of the blue, and say, “So, has the situation for the Harijans improved yet?” with pitiful eyes. Every so often she feels annoyed and amused at the same time for their naiveté and shallowness.

Neelaveni ruminates over the incident at the theater, as she walks towards her home. She can not figure out why that cousin did not show up at the theater as promised? Was she caught up in the traffic, or even worse, in an accident? Got pulled over for speeding? Neelaveni even thought that she made a mistake taking the little girl into the theater instead of waiting outside.

In that moment, she feels a shove on her shoulder and trips, almost —

Somebody grabs her handbag.

“Hey!” she screams, holding on to her bag. Then she looks up. Not one, but three young boys surround her. She shivers, like a tender branch in a blast of wind. Chills creep down her spine. She lets go of the bag. Pushing her down to the ground, the boys run off with her bag. She falls, screaming Help… Help… Somebody help….

As she falls, she hits her head on a rock. Blood starts oozing from the gash on her forehead. She continues to scream Help… Help… Somebody help… Oh God, help me…

After that, everything is hazy as she loses consciousness. She vaguely sees somebody by her side. Who’s he? It’s so hard to open my eyes… Is he trying to help me…?

With great effort, she opens her eyes and looks around. Next to her there is a man, large, tall. Just barely she can see streaks of blood flowing down his dark cheeks in the light from the streetlights.

Neelaveni’s eyes move on to his neck, shirt, sleeves, and arms; the sight is horrendous. She is shivering, her heart racing with super speed.

In that moment, the man turns toward her, gathers all the strength in his body and asks her, “You okay?” His voice is weak, as if he were miles away.

She whispers, “Yes, I am. You?” She is not sure whether he has heard her or not. He is unconscious; his eyes, shut.

She wonders who this man could be? He was prepared to trade his life for mine. Why? Did he think I was one of them?

A car stops. The driver comes to them lying on the ground and asks if they need help. He calls 911 and gives the location.

Within a few minutes, two squad cars and an ambulance arrive. Paramedics jump out of the ambulance and attend to the man and the woman. One of the paramedics asks Neelaveni if she is okay.

“I am fine. How’s he?”

“Are you related?”

“No. I don’t even know who he is. Just a man with a good heart who came to my rescue. Is he okay?”

“He’ll be okay. Unconscious, but he’ll be alright.”

Neelaveni turns towards the kind man who rescued her. Blood from the gash on his forehead is trickling down the side of his face slowly like a caterpillar. He has streaks of blood splashed all over his face, his white shirt, his dark arms. She stares at him again. Streaks of blood trickle from his nose, his left ear and the corner of his mouth. More blood dripped on to the street, sinking into the dirt, drying as it hit.

Crow is dark, koyil is dark, yet when the spring arrives, you’ll know who’s who.

For the first time, the thought of skin color leaves her mind. In its place, a warm, crimson ray shines, spreading to the horizon like a spring gushing water at the top of the Tala Kaveri river.

(The Telugu original, rangu tolu, was published in, 2006)

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