The Color of Skin by Nidadavolu Malathi

It is Sunday. Neelaveni is bored. Color of skin—a play being shown in town, she recalls.

“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.

She decides to go alone. Sundaram offers a ride to the theater but she says no, not necessary, just a 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 left.

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

The lobby is crowded. The tickets are sold out, almost. Neelaveni has lucked out, she got the last one. She takes the ticket and moves to a side, by 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 fanned out like a hibiscus in full bloom.

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

A few others, also standing at a comfortable distance, keep asking questions, which apparently made 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 thought the little one is hers, because? Because the color of skin color of both, Neelaveni and the child, is dark.

She is annoyed, just 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 took only a second for her to understand why the girl came running to her—for the same reason as the gentleman, who assumed they are related—the color of her skin!

The man winks at her again. His look speaks volumes. “Glad I’d 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 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 “system” are blind to the realities of it.

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, it is as though she feels safe and has no reason to cry. She is comfy like a baby duck under 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 would show up and picks up the 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”.

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

The child nods, yeah. It is clear the woman on the stage is the child’s 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 mother comes running to Neelaveni. She apologizes and thanks Neelaveni profusely on and on. Eventually she gets to the explaining part.

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. She, hoping Camilla would show up eventually, told the child to wait at the gate and went into the green room.

The woman thanks Neelaveni again. Neelaveni listens accepts her gratitude and tells her she needs to move on, her husband will be waiting 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, stops for a second. Amusing, she is not thinking about the play she just watched! The little girl and her mother whom she hardly knew have got to her. Well, that’s understandable in a way. Here is a real life story that is no less creative than any supposedly real story presented on the stage.

The street is pretty much desolate but for a bike or car whizzing by. This is one more thing, which is so different from her hometown. Back home, she never came across a street looked so deserted. She thinks of that child and the mother, feels sorry for her. 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. Actually, she had her first lesson in this aspect, 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.

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 shopping cart to the checking counter. She noticed that a white woman in front of her had a cartful of items, wrote the check and the checker accepted it without batting an eyelid. Well, that is how it looked for Neelaveni. 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 checker asked her for driver’s license. Neelaveni had no license. 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. Anyway, 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 the manager approve it. 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 them,” and hurried to the door.

The manager came and said to Neelaveni, “its okay, ma’am. Take the items. Sorry for the misunderstanding.” 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. He did not care for it at the time of their wedding either.

In those days, she does not remember how many times she stared at her shining dark skin—her hands, feet, face in the mirror, each and every place she could lay eyes on—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? says grandmother; White is not even a color but a blend of seven colors, brother comments; crow is dark, koyil is dark, however when the spring arrives, you’ll know who’s who, her Sanskrit teacher quotes the well-known adage.

Neelaveni did not find peace in any of those words.

“Who’s going to come forward to marry this black girl,” she heard her mother whisper to a neighbor, wiping her tears. Neelaveni saw that and felt crushed. Strangely though, her marriage had been fixed very easily. Sundaram, her neighbor Kamamma auntie’s son, expressed his desire to marry Neelaveni. At first, Kamamma auntie objected quoting a popular proverb, dark daughter-in-law begets dark progeny. 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, “I’ve known the girl (Neelaveni) 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 makes my life miserable? Look at that Kotamma’s daughter-in-law. She is white all right, like a doll made of white flour, but talk about her attitude, that’s another story?” Kamamma came to terms with Sundaram’s proposal soon enough and the dust settled down pretty 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 is 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 is capable of. Eventually, she changed into pants and shirts and then she found them just as comfortable if not more. For the first time, she understood that we can always find convincing arguments for what we really want to do. In course of time, she also removed bangles and other jewelry too.

Then she stopped wearing the red dot. She stopped wearing the red dot because she is tired of explaining what it meant. There is no end to people’s curiosity about that one dot. In her mind, there are so many issues about a culture. What is the big deal about the dot? She never asked why they are making eye make up or lipstick. How is the dot different? For her, it did not mean much. It was just as easy not to put it on. But, that is when the new problem shot up. Often, people mistake her for an African American.

Neelaveni is not insulted for being mistaken for an African American. However, the ensuing stereotype images are hard to swallow. The way some smile, some pity, and few others even express how they are ashamed of their thoughts about skin color. That is something she resented. Hog wash, she told herself, grinding her teeth.

A stand up comic once said, “Why do they call us black. 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 beaten, yellow with jealousy—they are the colored; actually, multicolored I’d say.”

She also understood that there are lots of people in America who did not even know that Telugu is a language and Telugu people are a race. On a rare occasion, somebody shows a tiny bit of their knowledge by asking an uncanny question, pulled out of the blue, and say, “So, has the situation for the Harijans improved yet?” with pitiful eyes. Ever so often she would feel annoyed and amused at the same time for their naivete and shallowness.

Neelaveni kept ruminating over the incident at the theater, on her way home. She could not figure out why that cousin did not show up at the theater as promised? Was she caught in the traffic, or even worse, in an accident? Got pulled over for speeding? Neelaveni even thought if she made a mistake by taking the little girl into the theater instead of waiting outside? … In that moment, she felt shoved and tripped; almost … Somebody grabbed her shoulder bag… “Hey,” she shouted holding on to her bag … then she looked up. Not one but three young boys surrounded her … She is shivering … shivering like a tender branch in a blast of wind …chills creep down her spine, she lets go of the bag. The boys run with her bag, pushing her. She falls to the ground, screaming help, help, somebody help.

She fell and hit a rock; bloods 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. She is losing consciousness, does not understand what followed. She vaguely sees somebody by her side. Who’s her? It’s so hard to open eyes… is he trying to help me?

With much effort, she opens her eyes and looks around. Next to her, there is a man, looks quite big; streaks of blood flowing down his dark cheeks, she could barely see in the light from the lamp post on the street.

Neelaveni’s eyes move on to his neck, shirt, sleeves, and arms; the sight is horrendous, she is shivering, her heart races 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 so weak; he could be miles away as he spoke.

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

She wonders who this man is. He was willing to trade his life for mine or so it seems. Why? Did he think I was one of them?

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

Within a few minutes, two squad cars and one 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 good man who came to my rescue. Is he okay?”

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

Neelaveni turns her head towards the kind man rescued her.

The gash on his forehead flowing down the side of his face slowly like a caterpillar. He has blood all over, streaks of blood all over his face, and arms, his white shirt and dark arms, splash, splash, splash.

She stares at him again. Streaks of blood is trickling from his nose, left ear and the corner of his mouth and drying up. Blood squirts on the shirt, glides to the street and sinks into the dirt.

For the first time, the thought of her skin color is erased. In its place, a warm, crimson ray sprang, spreading to the horizon like a gush of spring at the top of the Tala Kaveri river.

[End]

This translation has been published originally on thulika.net, September 2010.

(© Nidadavolu Malathi. The Telugu original, rangu tolu, was published in www.eemaata.com, 2006)