Books are immortal; don’t get me wrong, censorship and burning copies were enough to drive certain books to extinction. I mean that once the words are penned down and the idea is shared, they become immortal in the minds of the readers. In a way, books are like people; they are to be loved and cherished. My father handed my first book to me at the age of two and it had more pictures than words in it. My obsession was fueled by the joy we shared, arguing about different books and their relevance in the modern world. I consider books as soul food, my chai, and biscuits on a rainy day, which is why I turn to them to ease my mind.
It was late Saturday afternoon and I made my way to Blossoms, an iconic bookstore placed on Church Street. It is a place that can sate the Grandma in me while also reigniting my youth. As I stepped into the three-storeyed, twenty-year-old building, the smell of books, both old and new, engulfed me. I felt the familiar surge of excitement as I climbed up the stairs, ready to dive into the racks of books that stood wall to wall on each floor. My usual system was to start from the top and make my way down, from non-fiction to fiction, with the multitudes of genres in between. I began my monthly ritual for the umpteenth time, the duration of which drove my boyfriend crazy and my friends knew better than to tag along. Crazy is the term that people use when they don’t understand something, and it did not deter me from indulging in what I saw as a language of love.
Somewhere between the sections of young adult and historical fiction, I felt a sharp tug at my dress. I turned around to see who dared to interrupt my sacred time and came face-to-face (if you can call it that) with a child whose eyes hadn’t been marred by life’s troubles yet. If not for her smooth, well-behaved straight hair, we could’ve passed off as sisters. She looked to be around five or six years old and was looking at me with so much wonder and awe that I put down the pile of books in my hand, and kneeled to face her completely. Her name was Shirley and her parents were at the restaurant next door. They had left her to peruse the book store by herself for the evening. My mind’s reel ran a couple of minutes of furious judgment on the parents for abandoning their child even temporarily but eventually decided to keep her company until they came back.
Hand-in-hand, we made our way to one of the reading corners and I picked up “Charlotte’s Web” to read to her. As I read the girl fidgeted continuously, playing with my curls ever so softly, tilting her head to look at me from different angles. It got to a point when the distraction annoyed me to such an extent that I stopped reading and asked her what she was looking for. Shirley picked up the book, holding it up to cover her face as she giggled, “Your color is like chocolate and you’re so pretty,” she said pointing at my skin, “I wish I could be so pretty as well”.
Taking the book away from her, I held on to her hand and brought her closer to me. I told her that she was beautiful and why she thought otherwise. Shirley dejectedly said, “Mama says I’m burnt by the sun too much and people don’t like burnt food now do they?” I realized that there was yet another young victim of colorism. I gave that little girl a big hug and told her that she’s the color of the Mama Earth, the same Earth that nurtures all living things. I told her that if she got any more beautiful, flowers would start sprouting at her feet wherever she went. I gave her all the love that I could to make her understand that the color of her skin did not make her less beautiful.
We spent the rest of the evening going through the tons of books by black women as I showed her their pictures on my phone. Michelle Obama, Hafsa Zayyan, and Amanda Gorman were our top picks; it warmed my heart to see the child step out of the shell others had defined for her. We then got some ice cream from across the street and I handed her over to her parents at the end of the evening, not before giving them a polite but firm reprimand for abandoning their kid and for feeding her utter nonsense about her looks. As we said our goodbyes, Shirley hugged me tightly and gave me a sweet kiss on my cheek. I watched as they drove away, praying that the little girl didn’t forget what she learned that evening; she didn’t have to fit into others’ ideas of beauty to be beautiful.
The roots of the fair skin tone obsession can be traced back to numerous legs of history, from white supremacy to the Aryans allocating the dark-skinned proto Indians to the lower castes of societal order. Hundreds of years later, the repercussions of these actions are still felt; the inner programming pushed in the name of culture and tradition has had a devastating effect on the quality of life. The past decade has seen a slow shift in political and social climates, with more and more people standing up for themselves, refusing to stay in the boxes that society has put them in. When will we all step up onto a pedestal of complete equality and offer ourselves unapologetic self-love?
I will never forget the look of inadequacy in the eyes of that child I met that evening. Everyone deserves a chance to feel good in their skin, to love themselves beyond trends and societal expectations. Society needs to make way for humanity, not the other way round. When we refuse to define people based on their religion, color, gender, or caste, we make way for ingenious solutions to our everyday problems. It is time we go beyond the labels of society and honor one another as pure life energy. It is time we learned to live our lives lovingly.
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