When you say you wish you had my colour

By | 1 February 2021

Because it would let you carry off hot pink
the way the black models do, the way I do,
I meet your light face with confusion
I feel rivers rise under my cheeks
in this wide and sunburnt country
what colour should dark people blush?

Back in Madras with a cousin six shades paler
and aunts saying Well she can carry off
any colour because she’s fair.
maybe you should wear pastels?

So, I take old blues and beiges to the tailor
lavenders dulled by dust, old roses
stained with British chai
So, I bring nothing bright with me to these
salt-rimmed shores with my visa
no saris of jewelled seas, no kurtas with
sapphire mists tacked on

on Chapel street, the drunk girls call out
Poppadums, Poppadums!

I don’t know why I pause before I tell you
that the man who plays the didgeridoo
on Bourke street called me sister.
They think you’re one of them lot!
you say and mimic my head-shake
your eyes roll like earth marbles.

Later, my desi friends bristle too,
all fellow savarnas thinking:
It’s one thing for white people
to see only our colour and race

(not our high and pitiless birth)
but for “them” to think we are the same!

Back in Madras, this is cast as story:
Well my grandfather was so dark
they once mistook him for a ____!

made to sit outside the high-caste house
coffee left for him not in steel tumblers
but glass with its sides cut sharp

like a prism – dividing light
even rainbows could not fall on our streets
without showing proof of lineage.

Here in hot Christmases, you daub zinc
on your face like grandfather’s caste marks
just as easy to wash off
Strange camouflage, I thought, because
it just makes you whiter in this brown land;
litmus that shows you don’t belong.
You don’t need the sunscreen, mate you said
Surely you get enough sunshine over there?
But no, it singes us too, some of us,
coffees too hot, poppies too tall and ruddy,

Opal-heart countries so white they could be mirror

I walk towards the glare and it casts back my shadow
– my brothers tar their faces to jive on Saturday TV
– my compatriots call people monkeys on the field

what’s done to us was done by us

My brown skin, sure, dark enough for pink
but flecked with inherited prejudice
melanoma from both our suns.

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