“AND SO IT CAME TO PASS THAT FOR MANY YEARS MY BEING WAS DEFINED BY A WORD NOT OF MY CHOOSING.”
“What is an adjective?” Anne Carson asks in Autobiography of Red, her hybrid reinterpretation of the Greek poet Stesichorus’ Tale of Geryon. “Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else.” Even the word adjective, the Greek epitheton, is itself an adjective that means “placed on top,” “added,” “appended,” “imported,” “foreign,” she reminds us. “These small important mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.”
When I was still in my mother’s womb, she found herself interceding to the Virgin Mother. But not because I was a risk to her survival—she was 42 when she bore me, had delivered two male children less than a decade before, which was followed by two subsequent miscarriages. She was adamant. She wanted a daughter at all costs. Just not one in whom she would find shades of her own reflection; not one who would be subject to the same ignominies she had on account of her dark brown skin.
“I prayed that you wouldn’t be dark,” she told me one night when her impulse for autobiography had replaced her usual third-person bedtime stories. “And then I saw you… you were beautiful, but you were dark.”
Her conscious use of the conjunction, but, compulsively altered my relationship between beauty and dark skin. My father decided to complicate the narrative, “Don’t listen to her. What struck me first about your mother was the color of her skin. She was dark, and beautiful.”
But my mother believed in miracles. “Why don’t you try Fair & Lovely? Look at your cousin Marie, she was as dark as you, but now she’s become fair.”
One evening I relented. I conceded to my mother’s badgering and found myself in front of the bathroom mirror; thick white spots of artificially fragrant cream speckled over my black face. After the deed was done, I confronted my reflection. My face was five shades whiter than the rest of my body, like it had been caked over with white paint. It was then that I discovered, however vaguely, that whiteness is no substitute for light.
Until then my nightly ritual involved me standing in front of the mirror, combing my hair, brushing my teeth, washing my face, patting it dry, and finally, staring at my reflection, wondering if this was really me. Before I’d sleep I’d pray. Always, the same words coursed through my lips, because there was only one thing I wanted most of all—Beauty.I prayed for beauty.
I understood beauty as a form of escape. If I was beautiful, that is, not dark, I would not longer have to suffer the jibes from strangers reminding me of my unfortunate color, I wouldn’t have to contend with a persistently dwindling self esteem, or be forced to wear clothes that didn’t enhance my black skin. If I were beautiful I wouldn’t be such a misfit. I was tired of derision. I wanted to be desired.
That night, after my failed experiment with Fair & Lovely, I decided to alter the texture of my daily intercession.I stopped asking for beauty and asked for wisdom instead.
And yet the same dream continues to recur within the fragmented tapestry of my subconscious. I am walking the streets as I would in my waking life. And like in the clutches of reality, every stranger I confront looks at me as if I were an anomaly. I cannot understand why. It is confusing. Unable to make sense of the experience, afraid of their prying, unforgiving eyes, my pace turns to a sprint. Soon the sprint turns into a run. Chased by my own fears and insecurities, I find myself dashing across the undefined extents of an imagined city until I reach a dead-end. I stop to catch my breath when I finally realize why I’d been the subject of their derision. I had been naked all along. I had been walking and then sprinting and then running exposed, the deep blackness of my body’s span was out on display in all its repulsive glory.
“I remember your body so well,” I confessed over the phone the evening after I first met you.“I do too… I remember your skin, so dark and beautiful.”
It was the first time you ever testified to my beauty, an act that would come to be performed increasingly rarely as our relationship progressed from the unexpected comfort of a one-night stand to the underrated humdrum of the everyday. I’ve never grudged you your reluctance to flatter. I found it refreshing. I had come to be repelled by men who practiced repetition, where each sexual encounter would be punctuated by their grateful, charitable moans that attested to my beauty… “Look at your skin how it glows in the light,” or the more unimaginative, “You’re so beautiful.”
Even now I cannot explain how or when I came to be desired. Having spent my girlhood being made to believe that my dark skin would interfere with any such possibility, I was and remain surprised by every instance that proves the contrary.Sometimes you say things that assume the form of epiphanies.
Once, when I told you about your rival, you seem nonplussed that he should be attracted to me.“Ah! So you admit I’m beautiful?” I said.“It depends on how one defines beauty.”“And what is your conception of beauty?”“I think of beauty as light. Light that shines through from within… Yes, I think you’re beautiful.”
It was after you said so that I remembered how fortuitous it was that we first met in a virtual room; when my status on Facebook was an audacious one in which I stated that I was reflecting light.
“Nice status,” you typed, initiating what would evolve into a six-year-long ongoing dialogue.
Considering you’re a photographer, I took your comment as a compliment. I knew it wasn’t a superficial one based on a profile picture but had everything to do with my choice of words and what they evoked when I had them placed together in a sentence.
“We charm by coincidence rather than by design,” Alain de Botton said in his novel The Romantic Movement. And yet, when the female protagonist in Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband has to pinpoint exactly what it was about her deceitful husband that lured her and kept her bound to him despite his many infidelities and his pathological lying, “Beauty,” she admits, without flinching. “No great secret. Not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty. As I would again if he came near.
Beauty convinces. You know beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.
You if anyone grasp this—
Carson, however, is performing a literal twist on the Keatsian edict presented in his 1819 poem about art and immortality, “Ode on a Grecian Urn:”
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
I was seated on a tall stool in a studio, three umbrella-like objects projecting light were directed at me. When the deed was done and the shutter had been drawn and my photograph had been taken, the man behind the lens proceeded to his computer to insert his data card and extract the image that had been recorded. For ten minutes I watched as he, meticulously, digitally bleached my face, rendering it at least ten tones lighter than its actual dark chocolate shade. I searched through the printed pixels hoping to find some resemblance to my reflection and couldn’t find any. I needed the photograph urgently for my passport application. Even now, when I submit this document to the security guards that stand at the boundaries between the outside and the inside of an airport terminal, they seem confused. They hold up the first page against my face and wonder at this distorted “proof” of my identity.
Raghu Rai, who had grown accustomed to my consistent presence on the photography scene, gave me a perfunctory smile when we first encountered each other at his most recent opening. Later in the evening, when I was sharing a moment with Mithu, who seems almost like the older sister I never had and who shares my complexion, he came over to us and stated, in Hindi, that now there were two Kali Mas in the art world.
His comment stayed with me. Barely an hour before, when you and I were driving to Jhandewala in your jalopy, we’d come across a tall, bold statue of Kali, and I’d asked you if you knew why she was dark. You didn’t.
The next day I looked it up online. The Encyclopedia Britannica spoke of her as the goddess of time, doomsday, and death, “or the black goddess (the feminine form of Sanskrit kala, ‘time-doomsday-death,’ or ‘black).” In the parenthesis appending the word Kali, is written: Sanskrit: She Who is Black or She Who is Death. “Kali’s iconography, cult, and mythology commonly associate her with death, sexuality, violence, and, paradoxically, in some later traditions with motherly love.” Another article by a certain Subhamoy Das says “her black complexion symbolizes her all-embracing and transcendental nature,” and cites the Mahanirvana Tantra: “Just as all colors disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her,” and goes on to qualify her nudity; “Kali is free from the illusory covering, for she is beyond all the maya or ‘false consciousness.’ Her garland of fifty human heads is meant to stand for the fifty letters in the Sanskrit alphabet, thus representing infinite knowledge.
I wondered why I had never equated the word kali with the powerful goddess or with the notion of time. I had always processed the word as an adjective and never as either a proper noun or as the verbal evocation of a divine entity. I had been called kali so many times, and so derisively, as if it were a life sentence, I had never imagined the subversive possibilities of appropriation.
Like that one time when I was walking through my neighborhood in Bombay, heading towards the Church, in broad daylight, when two women who were walking in the opposite direction and who would have had to have passed by me suddenly noticed the color of my skin. I was still a young girl then, and it was hard for me to make sense of their reaction. There was this moment of recognition, then a strategic maneuvering on their part so as to avoid my crossing their path. I had never equated myself with a black cat before. I had never seen myself as an appendage to a superstition. I spared them the inconvenience and steered my movement such that they wouldn’t have to contend with the inevitable bad luck I would have brought them had I strutted beside them.
I still think of mirrors as allergens. They cause rifts in the way I perceive myself and are best avoided. Each time I find myself alone in an elevator, confronted by my reflection, I cringe and look away. There is always the shock of rediscovering the dissonance between the life of the body and that of the mind, as if the two were separate beings that had to suddenly face each other within that moment of imaging.
It is in you that I seek my reflection. It is in you that I find myself. It is through the prism of our love that I have discovered my beauty; a beauty that isn’t qualified by pigment; a beauty that is more akin to grace.
It is you who altered the narrative arc of my autobiography. It is you who enticed me to be more than the color of my skin. It is you who moved me to feel; you who urged me to follow, with passionate intensity, the lure of the written word; you who coaxed me to discover, and then stoke the fires that flame inside me, the light that shines through from within, which I was not convinced existed. It is you who has shown me the uniqueness of my reflection; that there is no other quite like me.
Love is an act of transformation. To be in love with someone is to surrender yourself; to allow the other to invariably transform you. Sometimes I wonder if being in love with someone and being loved by that someone is in fact a process of constant revelations; if one’s “Being” is not, in fact, a fixed phenomenological category because at any given time, we are always a subset of multiple selves, never a single, unchanging one; if we are not indeed in a constant state of flux, permanently altering what we believe to be our true selves in relation to the also persistently transforming loved one, shedding old habits to acquire new ones, adopting new sensibilities because the previous ones don’t harmonize well enough with the loved one’s eccentricities.
These six years together have consisted of a series of exposures where everyday we unravel more of ourselves to each other, we strip off layers and come closer and closer to knowing the other’s true core. As we continue our individual transformations, spurred by our relentless contact with each other, we mould ourselves to fit against the other, we acquire new tricks, fresh devices, revolutionary ways to manipulate the other, we navigate the compulsions of our innate proclivities in order to be better versions of ourselves for the sake of the other, we seek out shreds of wisdom from our slew of previous encounters, so that love becomes an ongoing quest towards perfection.
Text: Rosalyn D’Mello
Photographs: Prarthna Singh; Illustrations: Reshidev RK