The Infinite Shades Of Dark
By Priya Velayudhan
In the light of the oil lantern that her mother lit in the evening, Laila’s skin was the colour of chocolate. Milk chocolate.
When the morning sun shone through the cracks in the brick wall of her room, Laila’s skin was the colour of chocolate again. Not milk chocolate this time, but dark chocolate. The colour of the handle of the hammer that her father used while working at the anvil.
In the dim light of the fluorescent lamp that lit up their meagre living space, Laila thought her skin looked black. Well, almost. Not as black as the skin of the long-faced, fat-lipped women she found in a book titled “People of the World” that Amma’s last employer had given her. Well-earned for my toil and sweat, Amma had said.
But in her dreams…before we get into the matter of dreams, let it be clarified that Laila essentially had two kinds of dreams. Like most people. One, the kind of dreams that made her wake up earlier than she usually would. These dreams jolted her out of sleep and made her sneak into the kitchen to drink some water. Once back in bed, she always had difficulty falling asleep again. The second kind were those that made her wake up much later than she usually would. When she woke up from them, she would experience a newfound strange happiness, fleeting as it may be. In dreams of the second kind, Laila’s skin was almost always the colour of milk coffee. Or caramel - the pleasant dreamy shade that guaranteed happiness. Or in other words, acceptance.
Her mother had once told her that her “blackness” was a direct inheritance from “Appa’s side”. She didn’t have to. It was clear for all to see. Her father was black. Really, exactly, precisely black. The colour of Amma’s hair. Amma’s skin though, was the colour of wet sand. Their union logically ought to have produced the right colour combination for her – or at least a dark caramel shade. But destiny, like God, works in mysterious ways.
It was the arts hour. When Pappu sharpened his pencil, discarded the shavings sneakily to the floor and looked up at the classroom door, his heart skipped a beat. It was Laila. Time stood still as she tiptoed in and meekly took her place. Her face bore the constant expression of shame, as if she didn’t deserve the ‘privilege’ to be there. She was one of the top scorers in the class, and Pappu never quite understood the reason for that perpetual humiliation sitting sadly on her beautiful face. Maybe it was because he wasn’t black himself. In fact, by Laila’s standards, he was almost fair-skinned!
Laila sat down, softly kept her tote bag next to her chair and settled down with her book. She looked to her right, surreptitiously without moving her head and caught Pappu’s eyes. Even more embarrassed, she shifted her gaze down at her book and fumbled with her pencil. Pappu thought that was cute. There was something about the girl, he thought. The way her big eyes looked around, as if searching for something. Her calculated moves, her old-world charm, her mysterious silence. Everything about her was a question. And the answers were all fighting for space in Pappu’s head. Juggling from one hand to another. Like monkeys in a zoo. Pappu had to cover his mouth with the back of his hand to stifle a giggle.
On the way back home, down the narrow road lined by coconut trees, Pappu hurried past his schoolmates to catch up with Laila.
“Wait!” He called.
Laila did not even realize someone was calling her till Pappu tapped on her shoulder. She shuddered and asked “What?’ with her eyes.
He caught her gaze and both of them froze.
Laila shook off the odd feeling, wore a worried expression and marched on. Faster this time.
“Laila!” Pappu called loud and clear.
She ran off without a backward glance.
During the evening at Laila’s house, the whole family came together in their living space and did their individual tasks by candlelight. Amma cooked, Appa relaxed after the day’s strenuous work and Laila studied.
“Surya’s case is becoming a headache for Sumathi chechi.” Amma announced.
Sumathi chechi was her Amma’s elder sister, and Surya was her only daughter.
“What case, Amma?” The words escaped Laila’s mouth before she had a chance to hold it.
“I was speaking to your father.” Amma spoke with a sharp glare.
Laila looked down at her book and shut her mouth. Her ears however were wide open.
“What’s wrong with Surya? She is a smart girl. She goes to the village ladies club, knows stitching, has common sense. She’ll find a suitable groom.” It was Appa who spoke.
“Hah! What use is all that for a boy? Haven’t you seen her colour? Even charcoal appears lighter.”
Amma sounded almost cruel.
Appa tried to silence her with a long face, and a brief nod at their daughter.
It worked. That was the end of the conversation, and Laila went to bed earlier that night, on a stomach that was empty despite the heaviness she felt in her heart.
In the scant space that could be called her room, she looked at herself in the mirror. The only thing she saw was the blackness of her skin. Not the silky long hair that reached up to her waist, not her well-defined eyebrows, not even her slender waist. All she saw was the pathetic colour of her skin, her strongest and probably only barrier to feeling accepted. If not societal acceptance, at least the wholehearted acceptance of her mother.
She saw the items lined up by her mirror. The bare essential cosmetic products that adorn most girls' rooms - talcum powder, kohl, bindi, fairness cream. She had a quick urge to throw them all over the floor. She lifted her hand as a reflex but prudence interjected at the right time. Feeling defeated, she dropped by her bedside. Good friends may be like mirrors, as Appa says, but mirrors are seldom friends. They have only taunted and teased her as far as she could remember.
Of the various prickly memories that often hurt Laila when she recalled them, one stood out starkly. Each time it crossed her mind, her eyes felt the heat of fresh tears and her hands automatically clenched something. Anguish and anger equally took over her. It was a pleasant summer day and she had alighted the red bus that crossed the only bus stop in the village. She was with her parents and they were going to the temple. It was her father’s birthday and seeking God’s blessings was what Appa always liked to do on occasions like these. The luncheon served at the temple was to be his special treat that day. And so they sat. Appa, Amma and Laila. Laila sat alone in the seat right in front of the one where her parents sat. Amma sat by the window. Everything was alright until the conductor arrived.
“Ahaa! What a mean man you are, Muruga! Letting your fair beautiful wife get sunburnt while you sit sheltering your precious skin!”
Since the conductor was loud and the number of passengers was small, everyone played along.
“That is right, Muruga. Be a gentleman and move over. At least you don’t have any risk!”
“That’s true. How can that skin get more tanned? It’s blacker than the coal he works with!”
Soon everyone in the bus was roaring with laughter. Everyone except Laila and her parents. The black skin that her Appa so humbly wore without a complaint, stood out like a clown’s gown. In perfect contrast with the white dhoti and shirt that he wore. Laila blinked back her tears. Was it rage or shame that she felt? She felt like they were animals in a zoo - she and her parents, with the spectators having a jolly time throwing them scraps. Suddenly she felt someone touch her shoulder. It was Appa. To this day, she accurately remembers Appa’s face when she turned back. A static smile was plastered on to his lips, the only purpose of which was to reassure his daughter that everything was okay. Earnest as the effort was, it was unconvincing for Laila. They sat in silence till the bus reached the temple. The three of them got down and marched towards the temple. Laila was already waiting for the day to end. Sometimes when they sat down to supper in the candlelight, Laila often watched her father from the corner of her eye. His subtle subjugation that he had grown so accustomed with, registered in her mind as dignity. She was too naive to understand that her father, like many others, had only been conditioned by society to bow low. That they knew it was futile to stand up for yourself. Laila imbibed these very traits that she admired in her father, without ever wondering if this was really right.
The sky was laden with dark, rain-filled clouds looking down on the earth, as if getting closer and closer to come lashing down. The wind blew a whistle as it blew past her on her way to school. A black umbrella tucked under her armpit, she marched on. It was turning into a race between her and the clouds above.
"Laila!", called a familiar voice.
She turned back and saw Pappu. The scrawny boy who acted weird with her.
Again, her eyes asked "What?"
"Can you share your umbrella please?"
Laila thought he was mad. She looked up at the sky to say it wasn’t raining. Just then, a drop fell on her forehead. Pappu laughed as if to say, “See? It’s raining after all!”
She opened the umbrella and waited for a moment. Pappu took the cue and squeezed in to fit himself under it. They walked together slowly, each step taken carefully not to rub elbows or unequally partake of the small space under the umbrella. The two of them walked on, drenched in a multitude of emotions. Laila carefully drew them all in, while Pappu’s smile grew wider and wider until Laila asked “Why are you smiling like that?”.
Pappu shrugged and offered his hand.
Such a simple question, but Laila thought long before responding with what she thought would be the proper answer.
He was smarter. “Why not?”
She pleaded. “Does it matter?”
He was honest as he replied. “I wouldn’t have asked you if it didn’t matter to me, would I?”
In the silence that followed, raindrops poured down on the exhausted earth and the winds blew without a care.
Pappu would not take no for an answer.
Laila nodded, a bit scared but sensible enough to accept the inevitable.
That was enough. Pappu took off like a storm and there was no turning back. He got drenched in the rain, while his white shirt turned brown. The colour of the muddy puddles surrounding the lane that the two of them walked. The walk that signalled the start of a friendship untainted by the colours that God tossed carelessly around us. Secure in the deep browns and jet blacks. And that is how an ordinary boy named Pappu gave a beautiful girl the courage to believe that she was indeed as beautiful as he thought she was. Perhaps even more beautiful if she could only see.
“What do you think you are doing?” Amma’s shrill voice jolted Laila out of her dream.
“Tidying up, Amma”. Laila responded.
Her mother stared at the floor to see the discarded tube of fairness cream. And it was not discarded because it had been used up to the fullest. It was discarded because it didn’t need to be there.
Neither of them spoke. Amma marched out muttering to herself. “What on earth is happening to this girl? Is this why we send her to school every day? She is losing whatever little sense she has!”
Laila smiled to herself and walked closer to the mirror. It was a different person looking back. The retreating sun shone a golden light that crept inside her room, giving her brown colour a golden tinge. The big eyes seemed emboldened by something she could not define. The long black hair fell over her deep brown shoulders like a waterfall uniting with a stream. At night as she wrote in the light of the oil lantern, Laila looked at her father in a new light. For once, she saw through him without noticing his ‘blackness’.
Days later as Pappu and Laila sat on the banks of the village pond, throwing stones clumsily into the water, Laila got the courage to ask him the one question that had been circling in her head ever since that day when they had made their pact of friendship. Witnessed only by the pouring rain and sanctified by Laila’s black umbrella.
Pappu responded the way Laila had taught him to. With his eyes, asking “What?”.
“Why did you pick me, of all the people in class?” Laila persisted the way Pappu had taught her to. Asking pointed questions leaving no room for doubt.
“Oh that.” Pappu smiled, leaned back and thought a while. Carefully picking his words, to arrange them in a pattern the way only Pappu could.
“It had to be you. You have something that none of them have. You are way beyond what they even aspire to be.”
Laila clung to every word breathlessly, like a little girl waiting to see what came out of the magician’s hat this time.
“And what is that?”, she asked when the magician had paused for too long.
In response, Pappu reached out to tuck a loose strand of her hair behind her ear. Cupping her face ever so gently in his palms, he could only look deeper into her eyes. Perfect words were often elusive.
“And everything else, Laila. Every single piece that belongs to you.”
In the dark blue light of the evening, when everything seemed to be in motion by the banks of the quivering river, Laila finally accepted what she was afraid to realize. All the shades of black and brown that had defined her identity so far, had now dissolved into nothingness. She accepted them for what they were - shades that God paints us with. Packages that God wraps us in. Each one unique and breathtaking in its own way.
All because of a young boy who was blinded by love. Blinded enough to disregard the absurd standards that society had dictated. Blinded enough to teach a young girl that she didn’t need fairness creams to feel beautiful. Blinded enough to empower her so that she could look at herself comfortably in the mirror, without turning away in disgust.
Laila clung to his embrace, entangling all the colours and hues in a way only love could, under a starlit black sky.
By Priya Velayudhan