It’s all about Fairness

Fairness and I have a long, complex and ongoing history. We are joined at the hip and not in an optimum way or quite in the way you think. If you know me or have seen me you would get that. From my earliest consciousness to the present it’s a word and an idea that I feel I have always understood. Understood because of a whole life filled with careless words.. careless words of too many adults that I came across, careless words in the Hindi film songs I listened to on the radio, careless dialogues in films I watched on Doordarshan as a child growing up, careless words flitting around my mind space from a time when I wasn’t even considered a real person. I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reminded, time and time again by the big wide world that it’s something I lack, something wanting, a big minus.

It took me years to understand that I wasn’t a minus. That my colour isn’t and never will make me a minus. Other things might but not the colour of my skin! But like I said it took years and caused immeasurable angst that I am sure impacted and continues to impact my behaviour.

But this is not about me. It’s about this society and it’s obsession with color. Where did it start and will it ever change?

Where did it start is probably irrelevant, the more important & relevant question would be to ask whether it will ever change.

Recently the beauty brand “Fair and Lovely” magnanimously & with much fanfare changed their brand name to something else, ostensibly demonstrating their commitment to the fight against racism and colourism. The whole of social media in India went into loud and sustained applause. Twitterati predictably gushed “Wow what commitment to the right values” and so on and so forth. I wonder if this is because we are naive or plain foolish? Most of us just seem to take things at face value maybe because we aren’t invested enough in the cause & bringing about change.

Let me remind you here that they, as in Unilever (the company that owns the brand Fair & Lovely) didn’t change the product one bit. The product remains a skin bleaching/lightening product. It’s one of the company’s top revenue earners and they had no real intent to change their cash cow.

A rose by any other name..

In short pulling the wool over our eyes!

This rebranding of “fairness” products to “brightening products” is however sadly not limited to Fair & Lovely. Every second skin care brand has one.

I have yet to walk into a skin care store and not be asked (in a overtly solicitous tone I might add) if I want something to “remove my tan” or to “brighten my face”.

If Unilever and other skin care brands were really committed to ending colourism and racism they would disband and stop selling bleaching and fairness products. When you sell a product that’s inherent nature is to bleach your skin then you by default are making white or fair skin seem aspirational. Changing the name of the product is just an eyewash, an eyewash I might add that social media lapped up and how!

To be fair it’s not just these companies. It’s rampant in every sphere of life in India. Everywhere we look we are constantly reminded that being fair is the goal. That fair equals beauty. That fair equals success. That fairness gets you jobs. That fairness gets you a spouse. That fairness makes you a boss. That fairness is the key to your best life.

From Bollywood film songs that praise fairness, to dialogue in films that associate beauty with fairness over and over again, to Bollywood & the advertising industry predominantly casting only fair people. To the racist advertising campaigns run by reputed corporates that blatantly spin the narrative that being dark is the only thing standing between you & success. From the subtle and not so subtle constant barrage of advertisements that have only fair Indian models or Caucasian models to sell products to brown skinned Indians. The irony of that is not lost on you I hope.

Obviously the underlying premise is that we Indians conflate beauty & self worth with fair skin and the advertising & media industry knows, understands and capitalises on that. For most of them it’s only about the bottom line, societal change or just plain morals be damned!

I think it’s also not just limited to beauty, I think our colonial past makes us revere and trust a fair person more. The way African visitors and students have been targeted and harassed in this country, while Anglo Saxon and Caucasians visitors are fawned over by every strata of society, is testament to our deep rooted racism.

We placed the white man on a pedestal for 150 years or more and that’s what the ad agency is targeting.. Our hangover of colonial subservience. But I would also be simplifying it if I say that this is just a hangover of our years of colonisation. This fair skin obsession predates the British. I think it’s safe to say that it’s intrinsically linked to Brahmanism and the caste system. The upper castes playing their part in perpetuating this narrative.

I recently watched Indian matchmaking, a show on Netflix and I lost count of the number of times the word FAIR was mentioned in the context of marriage. So obviously this obsession with fair skin isn’t going anywhere. It’s still here and seems to be here to stay.

But how does this obsession work in a country where the predominant skin colour is brown?

What are the long term repercussions of making more than half of the population feel inferior I wonder? Whether we like it or not there is a repercussion. It impacts confidence and confidence is often linked to success.

When one is constantly judged and found wanting based on one’s skin colour it can have a cascading effect on other areas of one’s life. And when this happens right from childhood it’s hard to overcome those feelings of inadequacy.

Fairness has become almost aspirational, a way to move up the ladder of life.. be it your career, the partner you find, the circle of friends you make. It’s why kids and young people are told countless times not to go out in the sun and get a tan. It will be a setback to all your plans is the implication. It’s why the biggest market for these lightening products are in the 21 to 35 age group with kids as young as 13 using them.

Coming back to me, I can say that it made me more introverted, definitely less confident and probably hindered me in reaching my true potential. All this I know now with the benefit of hindsight.

Even as an adult, the system or society still fails me. The racist jokes that I have had to laugh along with at parties just to be seen as a “sport” or the multiple well meaning Aunties who within earshot of me make disparaging remarks that go somewhat like this “she is so dark, not like her mother at all” or a friend who refers to another friend in your presence as “Dark but attractive”..”Dusky but beautiful”.

Sidebar here: Raise your hands those who have heard themselves described like that multiple times by friends who think they are paying you a huge compliment! They just don’t see the racist “but’ in their words.

Also raise your hand if you have felt the urge to smack them in response.

The countless times I have been advised by friends and relatives not to let my daughters play in the sun or go swimming too much or home remedies of turmeric face masks to lighten their skin.

The friends and family I know who regularly bleach every visible part of their body because of the pressure to be fair.

Dermatologists & Cosmetologists whose claim to fame is their famous “skin brightening treatment”, who have an appointment schedule that I swear is longer and packed tighter than the Prime Minister’s.

All this and more, the direct and indirect bombardment of your value and worth based on the colour of your skin is something that often stays with you forever.

This colourism is in our homes, in our families and engrained in the psyche of more Indians than you or me can imagine and I despair of things ever changing.

I don’t see miracles happening in my life time and I have made peace with it on a personal level.

But I still wish that it wasn’t that way for countless young women and men out there, just starting life, who face this discrimination at every juncture of their lives.

I believe Bollywood & corporates cannot abdicate responsibility for perpetuating this mindset. They do influence opinion & therefore they should and can be purveyors of change.

However at the end of the day the real change has to happen within families & the community as a whole. We have to work from the inside to understand and spread the word that our stunning world is full of colour in more ways than one and that each colour is so valuable and beautiful.

As someone said..

“I see no colour is not the goal. I see your colour and I honour you..That is the goal”

The hard truth about hard work

I can’t count the number of times I have heard people including myself say that hard work and ambition takes you places. Or that there is no substitute for hard work or “I worked really hard to get where I am”. “No one gave me anything on a platter” I have heard people say. People also say that when big dreams and hard work are combined then the sky is the limit.

All the above is undoubtedly true. Hard work, ambition and dreams are all valuable character traits, no doubt about it.

A lot of people work very hard and all of them without exception have dreams & ambitions.

But is it really true that it’s only your hard work that got you where you are?

Let’s take a moment now to consider 2 hypothetical situations

Let’s call it: Family A & Family B

Family A:

A family of 4 living in Bandra in a 3 BHK.

Mom and Dad both work outside the home and work bloody hard.

They are either high or mid level salaried corporate employees or they run their own family business.

Kids go to an expensive IB school that parents work hard to send them to.

They have a domestic staff of 4: 2 home staff and 2 drivers.

Everyone leaves the house between 7 and 8 am and the parents come home only after 6 or 7 pm.

Mom and Dad are busy all day, in back to back meetings, answering emails, work calls, managing their clients and their bosses.

When they come home they interact with the kids, help with homework and maybe answer a few work emails.

They go to bed around 11 pm dead tired after a long, productive and hard working day.

They have big dreams for the future.

Both parents are well educated, come from middle class or upper middle class backgrounds. They have either started their careers as trainees and are now successfully climbing the corporate ladder or they trained in the family business and are now taking it to greater heights.

Combined income: 80 lakhs to 1 crore per annum

Cover: Good health insurance & P.F

Debt: Some credit card debt or maybe an EMI on a car or house.

Work hard and you will be rewarded

Family B:

A family of 4 living in Bandra in a 80 square foot room with no indoor toilet.

Mom and Dad both work outside the home and work bloody hard.

Mom is a domestic worker.

Dad is a driver

Both kids are in the local BMC run school.

Dad and Mom get up at 4 am to fill water.

Dad takes kids to the shared toilet that is about 300 metres from his house.

Mom finishes filling water that they need for the day because they don’t have any running water.

Mom bathes both kids and gets them ready for school.

Dad gets ready for work.

Mom packs leftovers for Dad to take to work while Dad feeds kids breakfast.

Dad has to leave his home by 6AM to reach work by 7AM.

He walks to the crowded bus stop and waits in line.

Mom walks the kids to the bus stop that will take them to school or they go to school with other kids from their neighbourhood in a shared auto.

She goes back home & finishes her home chores.

She then walks to the building where she has multiple jobs.

She cleans and sometimes even cooks in about 3 to 4 homes. She gets a meal at one of the homes and maybe a cup of tea in another.

She works tirelessly, rushing from one home to another, always on her feet.

She comes back to her own home in the middle of the work day to feed her kids who have come home by 1pm.

Mom leaves her last job around 5

On the way home she stops to buy groceries for dinner.

She can’t afford to buy too much as she has no place to store or refrigerate food.

So she buys just enough for a day or two.

Mom reaches home at 6 & starts cooking dinner.

Dad meanwhile has reached work at 7AM.

Dad makes many runs throughout the day.

He drops his employer’s kids to school, drives his employer to work and to various meetings.

He drives up and down all day. Running errands for both Mom and Dad of family A.

He eats his carried lunch wherever he is, it all depends on where the employer happens to be at lunch time.

Finally his tired & busy employer calls it a night and heads home around 7 PM.

Dad parks the employer’s car and heads for the bus stop, reaching home only around 9 or 10.

Most times the kids are asleep by the time dad comes home.

Dad and Mom eat dinner.

They go to bed around 11 pm dead tired after a long, productive and hard working day.

They both have big dreams for the future.

Both had similar backgrounds.

Both had farmer parents, who were not stakeholders in the land they tilled.

They both dropped out of school in grade 5 and 6 respectively so that they could earn & help their respective families survive.

There was no money in farming so they fled to urban India for a shot at a better life.

Combined income: 4 lakhs per annum

Debt: Owes his employer or the local money lender 1 Lakh for medical expenses of his parents back in the village.

Cover: Zero health insurance or P.F.

Medical expenses depends on the largesse of his employer.

Work hard and you will be rewarded.

I think we can agree that all the adults in both families work hard. I would in fact argue that the adults in Family B work a bit harder.

Their hard work is compounded by the fact that they know they are just one Jenga tile away from collapsing and self destructing.

The key difference between the two families is that the people in Family A are going to grow stronger and grow upwards. Like a well nourished tree. They have all the resources needed for upward mobility.

Family B on the other hand are probably going to remain stagnant. Akin to running in one place and getting nowhere. Doomed to remain where they are crippled by lack of opportunity and the circumstances of their birth.

No amount of hard work is going to bridge the gap between Family A & B.

So clearly it’s not just hard work, is it?

Wouldn’t you agree that luck plays a huge & integral part of who and what we are today?

Chances are that the people who are reading this are similar to Family A.

People like me, who have had the advantage of opportunity, education and the good fortune of being born in a certain well heeled strata of society.

He or she starting the ostensibly 100 metre race, 50 metres from the finish line.

Family B starting what is meant to be a 100 metre race, 5000 metres from the finish line. No amount of hard work is ever going to be enough for them to get to be within viewing distance of their competitor, let alone be at par with them.

In fact in India, just having an good education in English automatically takes you streets ahead of everyone else. And chances are that if you had an education in English you would have had all the other advantages of your socio economic class. “Roti, Kapada aur Makaan”.. Fed, Housed & Clothed.

So when we go on and on and brag about our hard work, we must also understand that economically & socially disadvantaged people are not any less hard working. That in fact they work twice or thrice as hard. The farmer, the woman who comes to collect the trash, the food delivery guy, the driver, the plumber, the factory worker, the mine worker, the carpenter, all of them work bloody hard but the difference is in the size of the reward.

The reward most often isn’t proportional to the level & quantum of work.

The reward is in fact, many a time even inversely proportionate to the amount of hard work.

The fact is that hard work actually plays a very teeny tiny part of your or my success story.

The bigger and greater role is played by good luck.

It’s time we begin to understand and appreciate that lack of dreams, ambition & hard work are not the reasons for the poor remaining poor. Its bad luck and our knee on their backs. To my mind luck shouldn’t play a role in a person’s basic right to earn a salary that will give him or her a decent quality of life.

The poor are poor because the rich keep them poor. It’s as simple as that. Inequality is caused by each and every one of us, we have all been and continue to be guilty of perpetuating this inequality, me included.

If we really believe that hard work will be and should be rewarded, then its time we as a society take our knee of the back of the poor and reward hard work across professions more equitably and fairly.

Right from conception & the health of the pregnant mother to the present day, members of Family A & Family B have radically different and unequal experiences. These experiences fortunately or unfortunately chart the course for the rest of their lives.

Where you are born is where the story of your luck begins, and it’s about time we recognise that.

Speak up..Speak out

Small intimate gatherings in Mumbai are just wonderful places to observe people.

Sit around with a drink in your hand and your ears wide open and you will hear things that tell you so much about people.

It’s my favourite thing to do. The less you talk the more you see.

Some of that could be inspiring, like a person’s fitness routine that makes your jaw drop at the dedication required or the work someone does that sounds so incredibly challenging and demanding. Sometimes though, the things you hear can be the complete opposite of inspiring.

Have you noticed that people in these small groups or comfort zones, tend to be somewhat different to what they claim to be? Its like pulling off the mask.

Sidebar: In today’s time with COVID, pulling off the mask at parties isn’t even an option, but back in the day I meant.

So let’s take this person who postures as secular but the moment he’s in a group that’s minority bashing or minority mocking, he not only partakes in the bashing but is clearly also relishing it. If you dont believe me just look at his animated face and the reams of “facts” that he conveniently has at his disposal, and I rest my case. Suddenly he’s an US and they are a THEM.

Or how about the acquaintance who laughs uproariously when someone cracks an inappropriate joke about LGBT folks or dissects a gay relationship in a mocking tone, or uses the word lesbian as if gay people were another species altogether!

Or the rape jokes, colour jokes, fat-phobic jokes, the casual sexism or just the way being politically correct is dissed & laughed at..

It got me thinking. Is it that we need to fit in and that’s why we sometimes join in the laughter or the digs? Are we afraid to take a stand and call it out?

Or is it the opposite and we really don’t see anything wrong with it and that what we put out there on public platforms is not really who we are.

Maybe we don’t see the contradiction.

Speaking for myself I feel that there have been times in the past when I have not called it out because I didn’t want to appear negative or angry or that party pooper who is unable to “take a joke” or horror of horrors have to face the ultimate insult “Lighten up! Why do you take everything so seriously?”

I have also realised that I feel so rotten & angry at myself, whenever I stay silent when someone says something inappropriate, either seriously or camouflaged as a joke. In fact, me thinks the truth is often masked as a joke.

Many a time people feel that these intimate gatherings are a safe space, where they know the ins and outs of everyone. Where they can be themselves! Knowing everyone basically seems to mean that you don’t need to be “politically correct”. The underlying thought seems to be that, “since I know that there are no gay or black or Muslim or Chinese folks, no “Thems” in that gathering then why do I need to mind my words?”

As a side note I want to point out that you really might not know, as much as you think you know, about everyone. For example: No one walks into a party with their sexuality printed on their forehead, or you might not be aware that the person sitting on your left has a son who is dating a Muslim, or a best friend who is gay or a sister suffering from depression..and so on and so forth. I am sure you get my drift!

My point is that the phrase politically correct is there for a reason, isn’t it? It’s a phrase that means “Don’t cause pain and hurt with your words”

It’s not about you, and how you have always spoken that way, (which is often what people say when they use words that are politically incorrect) it’s about the other person. It’s about being mindful and sensitive.

In short I would think that the rule of thumb should be, if you wouldn’t say it in front of “them” then don’t say it ever. Because if you are aware enough to realise that something is inappropriate & hurtful in some settings then you should also realise that what you are saying is clearly not right. You can’t be politically correct (sensitive) when it suits you. It’s not a contextual thing. It’s an absolute.

The second rule of thumb should also be to call people out. Every time..call them out.

It’s time to ditch your fear of being called the serious one, the drip, the wet blanket, the over sensitive one.

If the price one pays for being called all these things is a clear conscience and a life that’s lived in accordance with one’s beliefs then I say it’s totally worth it. In good conscience I must also warn you that you will probably lose a couple of pals along the way but to my mind, I’m quite sure you didn’t need them in your life anyway.

I think we often underestimate the true value & power of speaking up.

Try it next time.

Trust me, it’s liberating.

The world as we know it

The world as we know it is crashing right in front of our eyes. We are all isolated inside our walls longing to go out and catch it before it hits the ground but our feet are frozen, almost nailed.

Is this even real? Will we wake up and find ourselves back in our beautiful world of indiscriminate consumption? With our high walls that are our sunglasses against the glare of poverty & discrimination, our blue screens that we live inside, our gigantic fridges & our insatiable appetite for self gratification. We humans are masters at that aren’t we?

How did we get here? Was it when we divided our world into little boxes and spent the rest of the what seems like infinite years trying to destroy not only other boxes but many of the people in our box too. Racing against each other to see who could do it better and with more finality. Was it when everyone became an outsider, a competitor, an enemy?

Well we aren’t waiting any longer to be woken up, because guess what, we are actually very much awoken and this is it.

The crashing you hear is the sounds of the walls that you built coming down. The sound that tells you that this world is full of humans that are essentially the same. In the ways that matter, we are no different from one another. Our frailties, our bodies, our weaknesses and our strengths, our ability to love and hate is the same across families, nations, continents and across all of time.

The crashing is telling us it’s time now to leave the walls down. To let people in, to let ourselves out of the box we are in. To share resources, to share each other’s joy and more importantly each other’s pain, and finally to look inward and outward and realise that our very survival depends on the strength of our neighbour, and his on his neighbour.

This is the chain of survival that crosses oceans, rivers and deserts.

The enemy of this chain of survival was never and will never be that man who’s skin is another colour or the woman who prays to another god! How stupid is this species we belong to? An ignorant species that wasted centuries and sacrificed countless members of its tribe fighting an enemy that exists only in the mind! When the real enemy turned out to be a microscopic virus, which even though you can’t see is so much more real than those enemies you thought were hiding on the other side of the wall you created.

If only we had put all of the considerable resources of this stunning world that we were given, into recognising the real enemy, fighting that enemy and building walls against that enemy. If only we had worked on protecting, strengthening & empowering each and every member of the species so that they could stand tall and strong against that enemy.

If we had done that, the enemy would not have stood a chance. The enemy might or might not have come but our ability to fight it would have been considerably better if we put our resources into healthcare & education. Into strengthening our tribe of humans and not in tanks and guns & grenades that ultimately have only diminished our tribe.

The tragedy is that we were given warning after warning, in every part of the world, time and time again for years, lifetimes and centuries!

But did we heed it?

It seems to me that if you look at history carefully, these warnings seem to stick out in bold. The plagues, the flus, the viruses, the bacterias, repeatedly shouting alerts from different corners of this earth. Some from years just gone by, others from a century ago. But how quick we are at forgetting!

That’s another most marvellous fact about our species, our inability to learn from the past is almost as great as our ability to selectively forget. And forget we did.

Instead of using our past to shape our future, we focussed on what’s really important, which is kicking the hell out of each other. I must admit that we are incredibly good at that. And that is the biggest tragedy of all.