This Grasping Photograph Story On Our Fixation on Reasonable Skin Has A Delightful Turn

Today, every other TV interval, road sign and billboard is hijacked by fairness cream advertisements, featuring unnaturally white-washed models. All these ads say the same thing – fair is lovely, fair is confident and only fair is successful. These companies have conditioned people to believe all of their lies for their own selfish motives. Even as a country, our obsession with white skin is inconceivable and this fixation really needs to change for our country to prosper.

This photo story by the talented LA based photographer Arjun Kamath, tackles the very same issue in the most gorgeous and sensitive way.

As a young child, Ranika’s father, Dhananjay, would often walk her to the top of the little hill on the edge of their farm and whisper in her ear, “Do you want a helicopter ride?” Ranika would smile, ear to ear, and nod enthusiastically before Dhananjay would snatch her up and spin her around like a toy.

She knew that he would never let go, as the field around them became a yellow–green blur, Ranika sailing through the warm air until Pa could spin no more! People passing by often heard her infectious giggle, bright and cheerful like the summer dandelions. Ranika’s mind would never let go of these joyful memories, so finely detailed… the guava tree, the mulberry bush, even the weeds in the flowerbeds. And yet, it was the handsome face of her father that always stood out, the love and the joy creasing his features.

Ranika was now twenty-four and had blossomed into a fine young woman. Despite the passage of time, Ranika and Dhananjay still walked to the top of the hill every evening to watch the sunset, met first by a shallow ditch covered in lush grass, growing in dense tussocks. Dhananjay would grab Ranika’s hand tightly as they ran towards the edge of a ditch before leaping into the air together! Screaming, they would land on the other side—the habit had become like a ritual over the years.

Most days, they landed on their feet, but sometimes, they would fall clumsily onto a bed of fragrant daisies, with sunshiny centers grinning up at them as they tumbled. Often, a soft breeze ruffled the white petals, much to the delight of Ranika. As a child, she had once raced ahead and leapt over the ditch alone, taking a nasty tumble. But her tears had not lasted long before she noticed bright pink butterflies, lazily flitting in and around the grass, and she dipped her tiny feet into the clear, bubbling brook nearby. It had almost been a decade since that fall, but Ranika still had the scar on her knee to remember it by.

That had been many years ago, and things were different now. The brook was dry, her father was older, and there were no pink butterflies to cheer any of them if they fell; all they had were each other. Now she was too grown up to be clumsy and instead, she held Pa’s hand tightly so he wouldn’t fall as they leapt over the ditch. He was too old to take a tumble, although he would never admit it. When they reached the top these days, he would gently ask, his voice coarse, “Helicopter ride?” Ranika would respond, “Do you want one, Pa?” before grabbing Dhananjay by his waist and tickling him until he rolled all over. Ranika was not a girl anymore; it had been a long time since Dhananjay had picked her up and spun her around.

On most days, Dhananjay and Ranika waited at the top of the hillock for the sun to set before taking the long walk back home; they would discuss fond memories, tell jokes, and talk about what her mother might have made for dinner. The fiery red orb above would be a silent witness to their conversations before slowly sinking beneath the horizon, leaving behind shards of light in the sky, melting into the rolling clouds and dyeing the heavens first orange, then crimson, then deep blue, until all that was left of the sunset was a pale lilac. Behind, the grass would whisper in the gentle breeze, beckoning a gentle hush. In the water over the hill, dolphins frolicked and played under the last of the lilac sunlight while the birds around them settled in with their chicks, conceding another day’s completion. And as the stars began their faintest twinkles from within the blanket of darkening lilac, gently pulling away the splendor of the day, only then was it time to go back home for dinner.

1

Ranika had just finished college at the nearby town and returned home after four long years, although while she was away she would return home on weekends to see her parents and eat her mother’s delicious homemade food. Ranika was an only child and her parents always meant the world to her. Although, the town where she was studying wasn’t too far away, she missed her parents dearly. But Dhananjay had always known the importance of education and he made it a point to educate his daughter, even if it meant sending her away from home. It was a hard decision for him, as she was the apple of their eye.

Ranika felt a huge sense of relief finishing college. Her marks had been good and it now felt as though the world was at her feet. Dhananjay and Sudhamini couldn’t have been more proud of their daughter.

Ranika, although mature beyond her years, had always been a little child at heart and now having come back home, all she wanted to do was to take a break from academics and think about nothing. She loved running through the green fields behind the backyard, just as she would when she was a little girl; the only difference now was that Pa was too old to run behind her and chase her back home. But he made sure to stand at the edge of the fence and wave. “Be careful, you’ll hurt yourself, chinnu!” he yelled, to which Ranika would smile and respond, “Stop worrying Pa, I promise I’ll be careful!”

Each evening, Ranika danced though the lush green backyard like a fresh zephyr and out to the fields. Her feet became the soil, her arms as if trees, while her hair the lively leaves and her eyes the pool of the azure sky. Her soul danced from her body to mingle among the spirits of the plants and birds around her, drawing her to the very wisdom of the earth, settling inside her so she could instill in others the desire to cherish the essence of the land. She was a girl on a path, one she would be on her whole life… While there was nature to care for and protect, her feet would always bond with the soil and her ears hear the whispers of the divinity in the temple; she could not touch it but she could feel it.

Walking in the fresh air usually helped her to relive her childhood memories. Some evenings she loved flying a kite; her father had taught her how to make them when she was a little girl and she hadn’t forgotten the joy of the making and of the flying. The kite would sail above her, slicing the air, dancing and tugging at the strings so hard the kite would pull Ranika to her very tiptoes and several yards forward; if the wind were any stronger she’d be flying too! When the kite started to soar higher and higher, Ranika often stopped and tossed her head back to look up at the gigantic clouds, the kite now tiny like a butterfly. The huge sky often made her feel small, but it was a feeling she loved.

2

Dhananjay couldn’t contain his excitement at seeing his daughter flying a kite in their backyard—it was a sight he had long wished to see! When Ranika was away at college, Dhananjay would often stare into the green fields from his backyard, and bent over with age, he would trundle about, tipping the watering can onto the plants, though the soil was already damp. And he would even chat with them, with a plant for each family member, especially Ranika. Cherishing each of them, he would seek their opinions on this and that, and his comments were as if the plants had carefully considered his questions. At teatime he could be found close by the phone, just in case someone called, in case he was needed by anyone, though it would only be unimportant calls if it did ring. Since Ranika was so busy with her college assignments, she wasn’t able to call him frequently; when not studying, she liked to visit the medical camps conducted around neighboring villages and provide whatever help she could as a volunteer.

Dhananjay’s eyes followed Ranika as she ran into the fields and under the lofty trees with the kite in her hand. He too wanted to run under the trees, soak in the sunshine with her, and feel like a free bird—more than his next breath. This coolness now had brought him to the present like nothing else. In a perfect moment such as this, he could forget those lonely days when he missed Ranika, when he visited the temple several times each day so he wouldn’t worry about being a dad to a young girl, about soon becoming a grandfather, about how his daughter had already grown up to be a young woman. But under the embrace of the shady tree and beside his beautiful daughter there was only the present, nothing more. Underneath the shade he had escaped the dull drag of his mind. This was as free as he’d ever felt in all these years; nothing else could come close to having his smiling daughter here by his side.

Dhananjay couldn’t hold back any longer; forgetting his age, he joined Ranika as she floated out into the fields, much to her delight.

“Pa, what are you doing?” questioned Ranika excitedly.

“The kite should have been up, sailing in the clouds by now! You need to buck up!” he joked as they both burst into familiar laughter.

Perched on the branches and nestled in the leaves of the tress, the birds sang of the magnificent color all around, serving as a palette for his memories of Ranika’s childhood here in this very same backyard.

Dhananjay grabbed the spool with both hands, his normally weary eyes alive now with excitement in the warm and gentle breeze that came from the direction of the mountains away in the distance. In the little stream close by, the fishes frolicked and danced. And in the fields, the laborers had long before turned for home. So too should Dhananjay, but he wasn’t yet prepared to commit all before him to memory. No, for a little longer it could still be his here and now, permeating his senses. How comforting was the gentle warmth and moisture in the air as he breathed it in; how sweet the sound of the songs of the birds gliding and floating above; how gentle the moist soil and wet mud beneath his feet.

No music could be finer for Dhananjay than Ranika’s infectious laughter. It rang out now among the symphony of colors, smells and sounds. This could never be replicated in a photograph and so he would only move from this spot once all the daylight was robbed from this scene, stealing away the light and color to shroud them with the darkness of the night.

3

Dhananjay and Ranika had spent over an hour flying the kite in their lush green backyard. Dhananjay stood beside her and watched in awe as Ranika’s hair blew in the warm breeze, her youthful face turned towards the bright sun.

Since childhood, Ranika had been all about simplicity, making things easy, helping those around her to relax and be happy with what they had. Perhaps that is why her skin glowed so. It was her inner beauty that illuminated her eyes and softened her features. When she smiled and laughed, Dhananjay could not help but smile along with her, even if it was just on the inside.

Dhananjay was proud that Ranika was his child. Many years ago, he would tie pigtails in her hair before sending her to school and wave goodbye while standing in the same spot in their backyard. Ranika would continue to wave ‘til the bus in which she traveled disappeared behind the line of blue houses at the end of their tiny street. Dhananjay smiled to himself as he recalled those memories. He realized Ranika was not a little girl anymore. While away, she had blossomed into a fine young woman.

The streams of sunlight fell through the thick wall of trees that bordered their backyard, filling every space between the leaves with warm, sugary light. The rays tumbled down the blades of grass, which gleamed with remains of the morning dew. As Dhananjay stood there, lost in deep thought, Ranika continued to dance with the kite, her feet bare, as if the joy of life within her could not be tamed. In her yellow saree she could be anyone or no one, but to Dhananjay she was the world itself, and without her, he could not imagine enjoying a simple flower or the rising sun. There was nothing he would not do to keep her safe from harm, but he realized he could not protect her forever. He could only be there when she fell and stand well back as she reached for the stars.

4

It took Dhananjay a while to fathom the fact that his daughter had blossomed into a fine young woman. Each time he looked at her, he felt prouder. Although Ranika was the apple of his eye and he couldn’t bear to part with her, he wondered if it was time to start looking for a prospective groom. Dhananjay had heard rumors around town of girls running away with their lovers. He’d also heard stories about newlyweds having a difficult time adjusting to their new homes. The very thought of sending Ranika away to a strange, new home gave him jitters. As they stood in the backyard, the kite continued to soar high above them in the sky; a distant spectator to their banter. Dhananjay had always been honest with Ranika, and whenever something bothered him, he shared it with her.

Finding a quiet moment, an anxious Dhananjay strode to Ranika and said, “Is there someone, anyone, in your life who I should know about, Chinnu?”
Ranika paused for a brief moment and, realizing what he really meant to ask, replied, “Pa, I really wish I could meet someone interesting…” Suddenly, her tone became serious. “There was this boy called Krishna at the medical camp…” Dhananjay, now overcome with anxiety, placed his palm on her shoulder. “He was really cute, but each time I tried to talk to him, he ran away! I had to chase him around the tents!” she laughed.
To this, Dhnanajay replied, “Krishna? You never—.”
Ranika spun around and, holding Dhananjay’s face in her palms, said, “I never saw him after that day Pa, and Krishna is just the name I gave him. I don’t even know his real name!”
“Really?” asked an anxious Dhananjay.
“Pa you’re too cute! You still can’t tell when I’m serious or when I’m joking!” she said, hugging him tight.
“So nobody then?” Dhananjay probed. His relief was plastered across his face as Ranika embraced him.
“Nobody, Pa! I guess men are just too scared of your daughter!” she joked.

Dhananjay let his smile widen into a brilliant grin that had Ranika beaming at him. He was laughing now, feeling absolutely delirious. A zillion thoughts were dashing though his mind. Were his thoughts visible, they would resemble an inverse explosion, crazy chaotic twists and turns of emotion, all coming together to form one idea—to marry Ranika off to a wonderful man who would take care of her as if she were a princess. Though his thoughts spun in a way that appeared to lack any design or logic, they always danced their way back to his love for Ranika, to a way of thinking that celebrated the love between father and daughter. The little pond next to them glistened in the warm glow of the sun, mirroring the dazzling assemblage of colorful butterflies that had gathered above them. The faint wind brushed against the water’s surface, the ripples ruffling the stillness of the surface and shattering the reflection of the clear blue sky.

Feeling an enormous sense of relief in his heart and mind, Dhananjay decided to write a letter to his childhood friend Rudra. Just before Ranika’s arrival, Dhananjay had heard that Rudra’s son had recently returned from the neighboring city after completing his higher education. One thought had always remained in the back of his mind; Dhananjay had seen Rudra’s son, Tirthana, when he was little and hadn’t seen him since. Rudra’s businesses took him all over the country. He hardly had time to interact with his own family, let alone Dhananjay. Dhananjay and Rudra hadn’t spoken in over a decade, and although Dhananjay could make a quick call and speak to Rudra directly, he decided to write a letter inviting Rudra and his wife Lankeshi to his home. He felt it would be more personal that way. But Dhananjay was not the kind of man who would hide anything from his daughter, so before writing the letter to Rudra, Dhananjay asked Ranika if she would be willing to meet Tirthana, Rudra’s son.
The happy go lucky girl that Ranika was, she responded by asking, “Is he cute, Pa?”
To this, Dhananjay smiled and gave her a gentle pat on her cheek. “Not as cute as you, Chinnu!” And then he embraced his beloved daughter.

5

The smell of fresh dew lingered in the air as Sudhamini kissed Ranika on her forehead and whispered gently, “You’re looking beautiful, Chinnu. Tirthana will be stunned!”

Ranika stared into her mother’s eyes. “But… what if he do—”

Before she could finish her words, the doting Sudhamini placed her finger gently on her daughter’s lips. They gazed into each other’s eyes and smiled warmly. Ranika’s mother was a woman of fiercely strong will who would always focus on the positives—qualities that had seeped into Ranika as well. Dhananjay would often joke, “Like mother, like daughter!”

Ranika embraced Sudhamini tightly and chuckling gently she said, “Yes, let’s be positive, right?”

A wide smile spread across Sudhamini’s lips. “Always!” she replied with a confidence that flowed across to her daughter.

The mountains in the distance stood like tall fortresses against a cloudy sky and the air carried the smell of damp loam. The sun itself had barely risen; the town still had the subdued quiet of dawn, with only road sweepers and early morning factory workers hurrying through the otherwise deserted streets, too preoccupied to savor the persimmon sky or the rays that radiated from the golden orb as pretty as any fresco. There were no sounds of buses yet to hiss as they moved through the tiny street next to their home; only the gentle sounds of cuckoos softly consoling their little hungry ones in the nests high up in the trees.

There was something about this morning that almost made it seem like a treasure as it eased in gently, unwrapping the world anew, Ranika thought. Rudra and his wife, Lankeshi were coming to meet Ranika and she had never been more nervous. Who knew what gifts this day would bestow…?

Rudra had responded to Dhananjay’s letter almost immediately, writing how delighted he was to hear from his childhood friend. Dhananjay had mentioned in his letter how Ranika had blossomed into a fine young woman and that he would love for Ranika and Rudra’s son Tirthana to meet. Rudra had last seen Ranika only when she was little so Dhananjay wanted to remind him in his letter that she wasn’t a little girl anymore but a fine young woman. Dhananjay also took the liberty of mentioning to Rudra that, should Ranika and Tirthana like each other, he would be elated for their friendship of three decades to blossom into a family bond.

6

Dhananjay was excited that his childhood friend, Rudra, was coming home with his wife and son. Although Rudra and Dhananjay had been friends back in the day, Rudra was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Dhananjay, on the other hand, was the son of a farmer. The house in which Rudra lived was like a fortress with tall gates and more men to guard it than a military compound. Perhaps Rudra’s family felt safe from harm behind those red bricks, but Dhananjay could not help but think that they had only built themselves a beautiful prison. Either way, it was none of his concern. All he cared about was their friendship.

Rudra and Dhananjay had never let the difference in their family status affect their relationship. That said, Dhananjay always felt a little inferior to Rudra. He felt like he always had to please him and say nice things to maintain the friendship. Dhananjay had a heart of gold, but the materialistic things Rudra possessed swayed him easily; such was their age.

Rudra’s attitude, on the other hand, made no sense to anyone who did not know him. At eighteen he still behaved like a child. He thought the world revolved around him, he saw no points of view other than his own, and he was extremely rude to people who did not listen to him. If Dhananjay was ever grumpy, Rudra assumed that Dhananjay was angry with him; no other explanations occurred to him. Rudra’s tantrums were legendary. The entire street could hear one at its peak. Most of the time though, Rudra was like a well-mannered preschooler, eating biscuits and playing around the opulent fountain in the front yard of his house.

Despite Rudra’s attitude, Dhananjay had been a good friend to Rudra throughout school. However, it had been ages since the two had seen each other. Rudra was finally coming home to see his beautiful daughter, Ranika, and Dhananjay could not have been happier. Dhananjay was not sure how Rudra had changed over the years. He hoped he had gotten calmer and maybe a little less proud of his wealth.

Dhananjay knew that Rudra loved being amidst nature. Back in the day, Rudra and Dhananjay used to venture into the forest bordering the town in search of unexplored waterfalls. It was their favorite pastime after school. Each time they discovered a little waterfall, they high fived each other and leapt in the air. Dhananjay had always cherished those moments. Bearing in mind Rudra’s love for nature, Dhananjay saw this as an opportunity to show off his beautiful backyard. This also gave him an excuse to not let Rudra see his small home. The paint in the house had started chipping, and Dhananjay wondered what Rudra would think if he saw the condition of his house. Therefore, Dhananjay decided to set up an area in the backyard where he could seat Rudra and his family comfortably. He would decorate it so beautifully that Rudra would never ask to see his home, or so Dhananjay hoped.

As the birds softened the dawn with their chorus, Ranika and Sudhamini walked to the edge of the pond in the backyard and waved to Dhananjay, who was on the other side.
“Pa, is this you being creative?” Ranika called.

“Does it look odd?” Dhananjay asked nervously. “I can switch the flowers!”

Both Sudhamini and Ranika burst into laughter as they looked at Dhananjay’s anxious face.

“It’s beautiful Pa,” Ranika said, “better than all those fancy gates and entrances!”

Dhananjay smiled, realizing Ranika was hinting at the opulence of Rudra’s house. “You’re going to behave yourself when they come!”

The greyness of dawn had disappeared, evaporating as quickly as morning dew, and the heat of the day was making its presence felt.

“Yes Pa, I will. Maybe I’ll add a little salt in the tea, that’s all!” Ranika joked as she embraced Sudhamini and looked at her father on the other side of the yard.

The excitement was visible on Dhananjay’s face as he shook his head and continued to decorate the wooden frame, which he had set up in the middle of their lush green backyard to greet Rudra and his wife, Lankeshi.

7

After having a quick chat with Dhananjay, Ranika went inside to prepare snacks and coffee for when Rudra’s family would arrive; Sudhamini, meanwhile, joined Dhananjay on the other side of the yard to lend him a hand with the decorations. Rudra had mentioned to Dhananjay that he would arrive at 10 a.m. Still, hearing the sound of a horse carriage at around 9:30, Dhananjay turned to Sudhamini anxiously.

“You think it’s them?” he asked.

Sudhamini placed her hand on Dhananjay’s shoulder and said, “Maybe they’re here already.” Seeing his concern, she added, “But we’ve done everything we can, haven’t we? And the doorframe looks lovely!”

Dhananjay placed his hand on Sudhamini’s and smiled warmly. Before they knew it, in the distance Dhananjay saw Rudra and his wife, Lankeshi marching towards his backyard, though, as he peered, he noticed he couldn’t see Tirthana, their son. In his letter, Dhananjay had asked Rudra to bring his son along, too, so he was rather conspicuous by his absence. Dhananjay had also requested Rudra arrive via the back lane, saying that there was some construction going on at the front of his property and that his horse and carriage (Dhananjay knew that Rudra traveled everywhere by horse and carriage!) might get stuck in the damp soil of the construction. This meant that Rudra could enter through the backyard directly, without having to see his little house.

An excited Dhananjay and Sudhamini stood behind the attentively decorated doorframe and welcomed Rudra and Lankeshi as they arrived.

“We left the carriage further up the road… Didn’t want to get stuck or anything,” Rudra announced. He smiled warmly at them. “Well, this is a beautiful backyard… Your old house didn’t have one!” Dressed in a simple white kurta that rather matched his otherwise plain face, Rudra scanned the backyard with his curious eyes, which were a mesmerizing gray whose flecks of silvery light performed ballets throughout. Before Dhananjay could even respond with a greeting, Rudra added, “I see you’ve gotten a little fat, old friend. A double chin and, all huh?” and laughed loudly, grabbing Dhananjay’s hands.

Sudhamini, standing on the other side of the doorframe, greeted Lankeshi with a friendly Namaste. Dhananjay and Sudhamini had never met Lankeshi, nor had they even seen any photos. In fact, Rudra hadn’t invited Dhananjay to his wedding, which had rather upset him at the time; Rudra had said that he got married in Devara, Lankeshi’s hometown, although Dhananjay had actually heard through a friend that Rudra had gotten married in the neighboring village of Sundarapur. Dhananjay always felt that Rudra didn’t invite him to his wedding because of their status difference, but Rudra’s excuse was, “How would you travel to Devara? It’s like traveling to a different continent, Dhanu! And I didn’t want you to take the trouble!”

Dhananjay brushed it off with a simple, “I understand!” but deep within, it always bothered him. Did Rudra really get married in Devara? Was status the only thing Rudra cared about? Had he no value for the wonderful times they spent together? These questions often plagued his mind, but as time passed he succeeded in quashing his feelings about it. All he cared about now was his daughter’s future. He was delighted to see Rudra and Lankeshi but was worried about not seeing Tirthana.

Dressed in a lavish purple Sari, Lankeshi exuded an air of power and utmost confidence. She had a charming presence about her with just the right kind of twinkle in her eyes and a voice that was warmer than sunlight on amber. Sudhamini was pleasantly surprised as she smiled back and enjoyed an exchange of words with Lankeshi.

“Where’s Ranika?” Lankeshi asked softly, to which Sudhamini enthusiastically responded, “She’s preparing some coffee, she’ll be right with us!”

“Oh, a doorframe in the middle of nowhere! How… lovely,” mumbled Lankeshi as she walked in slowly, breathing in the cool air that flowed through the backyard.

Sudhamini welcomed her in, feeling a slight chill from her guest. There was something in the way Lankeshi had looked at her as she entered, like she was doing more than simply taking Sudhamini and the surroundings in, like she was actually judging Ranika by taking a close look at her mother and their home.

Rudra suddenly said, “You’re the culprit!” Sudhamini looked back at him, slightly confused, but before she could say anything, Rudra blurted, “For making Dhananjay fat!” and laughed loudly.

Dhananjay, of course, was familiar with Rudra’s sense of humor that seemed at odds with those often quite bank-looking features, and laughed along with him. “You haven’t changed one bit! You were crazy back then and are even crazier now!”

Sudhamini forced a smile although she didn’t really think it was funny.

On hearing Dhananjay’s words about her husband, Lankeshi turned to Dhananjay, her smile slowly disappearing. Noticing this, Sudhamini wondered if Lankeshi’s expressions were really a mask to create a certain effect and impression. She mentally put in her earplugs and looked for an excuse so she could leave for a brief moment.

8

While Dhananjay made sure that Lankeshi and Rudra were comfortably seated, Sudhamini mumbled an apology and went quickly into the house to grab Ranika.

There was a strangeness to the sunlight that morning, as if a layer of tinted filtering had been placed in front of the sky. Everything was cast in honeyed tones, beautiful yet a little unnerving; it was almost as if the light had developed a thickness.

Although Dhananjay knew of Rudra’s eccentricity, he felt he could trust him, maybe because they had spent so much time together back in school. Dhananjay was a rather naive man, though; in fact, a number of his trusted friends from his town had taken him for a ride thanks to his somewhat gullible nature—some whom Dhananjay had wholly trusted. Even Dhananjay’s older brother, Kundhara, had duped him of all the ancestral land by forging signatures, which is why all Dhananjay had to himself were his backyard and his little home.

Dhananjay had, as a result, generally lost trust in most everybody. The only person he felt he could trust his daughter with was actually with Rudra, and his family. Rudra has enough money, thought Dhananjay. Rudra wouldn’t cheat him and Ranika would be happy living in such a palatial bungalow. That said, he hadn’t met Rudra in ages and was well aware that people could change with time; but somewhere in his heart, Dhananjay hoped that Rudra would only wish well for him and take care of Ranika as his own daughter. In Dhananjay’s head, Ranika and Tirthana were already married. Dhananjay had even started dreaming how he would play with his grandchild in the backyard and fly kites, just as he had done with Ranika. But this was the first time he had met Lankeshi, and Dhananjay didn’t fail to notice that Rudra was somewhat changed in front of Lankeshi from the younger man he knew before.

But putting all his apprehension aside, Dhananjay asked politely, “I hope you didn’t have any trouble getting here? Sorry you had to come through the back entrance…”

“That’s no problem,” Lankeshi responded immediately. “We love a good walk once in a while!”

Rudra nudged Lankeshi and said, “Yes, we don’t want to grow fat like Dhananjay, do we?” and chuckled loudly.

Dhananjay laughed with Rudra and asked, “Where’s Tirthana, I was looking forward to meeting him!”

A long silence hung in the air. Rudra and Lankeshi glanced at each other.

“Us meeting Ranika is as good as Tirthana meeting her, isn’t it?” Rudra replied. “You’re always welcome to visit us if you want to meet him.”

Lankeshi turned her face to Rudra and said sternly, “Rudra, stop it. Tell him the truth…”

“Dhanu, I’m sorry. Tirthana couldn’t come because he’s overseeing some construction work in our bungalow. Otherwise, he would of course have loved to see Dhanu uncle…”

“And sit in the middle of this beautiful backyard…” smiled Lankeshi, finishing Rudra’s line.

Dhananjay smiled and nodding his head said, “I’m sure it must have been something important. I understand…” Behind the masked smile he wore on his face, though, there was sadness. Dhananjay had arranged this meeting specifically so Ranika and Tirthana could meet.

9

While Dhananjay kept their guests busy in conversation, Sudhamini went to check on Ranika.

A busy Ranika stopped what she was doing and looked outside. She couldn’t halt the dawn that had ebbed its gradual way into daylight. And so finally, the day was here. Everything hinged on how Rudra and Lankeshi reacted, which, once done, could never be undone. Ranika hadn’t been able to think straight since the sun had risen! Trying a dozen different sized bindis. Panicking when nothing seemed to work. Which one, which one…?

Just then, Sudhamini walked in. Seeing her anxiety, she moved to comfort Ranika.

“Why, Chinnu? What’s wrong?” asked Sudhamini lovingly.

“Just a little nervous, Ma. I have to please strangers I don’t even know…”

“Have we asked you to please them?” asked Sudhamini.

“Well, no… but you and Pa have been so supportive. It’s just that… that all this is so new to me, it just feels weird! I mean… what if they think I’m… ugly?”

Ranika had never liked sharing her problems with her parents as a teenager. They had their own, after all. She was aware of how Dhananjay had been cheated by several of his trusted friends; Sudhamini had always kept her updated about what was happening in their home, both the good and bad. It had not been a particularly good time for their family when she was in school and Ranika had felt that sharing her woes at school would only make Dhananjay more upset; she loved him too dearly to do that.

But her own troubles she experienced at school still stung fresh in her mind. Sometimes at school, her close friends would ask her, “How did you get so dark Ranika?” “Maybe you shouldn’t roam around in the sun so much!” Then there would be suggestions and advice from her teachers for overcoming this “deficiency” of hers, which sometimes made her wonder if her dark skin was some sort of complication. She had always been fond of playing in the sun and never cared about her skin getting dark until, one day, her classmate Dhavi took her wrist in one hand and the fair, delicate wrist of a friend in the other and laughingly exclaimed, “Look, night and day!” Ranika had cried for several hours that night.

Ranika became aware of apparent issues with her skin tone all through school following that. She was often told that she was “dark” and “ugly,” both in direct and indirect ways. Sometimes she would lock herself in her hostel room and cry, though not once did she share these personal feelings with her father and mother.

Through most of her childhood, her confidence level had been low, only really peeking out when she was safe with her parents. They loved her unconditionally and made her feel like a princess each time she visited home. Her years in school had made her come to feel they were the only people who could love her without judgment.

Sudhamini stretched her hand out to Ranika, who held it tight. “Ugly? Chinnu, my angel! You look simply beautiful in your grandma’s sari! Nobody could possibly use that word to describe you. I wonder where you get these silly thoughts from!” She sighed. Ranika stood up and embraced her mother. Sudhamini smiled, “Your grandmother would have been so proud if she were alive… Listen, all this was new to me when I was your age too, but, if I hadn’t overcome my insecurities and fears, I would have never met your Appa. Your Appa is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Ranika tightened her arms around Sudhamini. “Thanks, Ma. Love you,” she whispered.

“Everything will be fine.” Sudhamini smiled as she hugged Ranika back warmly.

“Am I looking okay?” asked Ranika.

“Okay? Ten out of ten!” Sudhamini lovingly touched her forehead to Ranika’s and smiled. She held Ranika’s hand firmly as they walked out of the home into their backyard. “By the way, how much salt have you added to the coffee?” asked Sudhamini with a quirk of an eyebrow.

A wide-eyed Ranika turned to mother. “You know I wouldn’t do that, Ma! I was only joking!” They both chuckled and walked towards Rudra and Lankeshi, who were seated comfortably on the other side of the yard.

Although the walk was only a few hundred yards, it seemed like the longest walk of Ranika’s life.

10

Lankeshi had her eyes transfixed on Ranika the moment she saw her step out of the house, not once losing track of her. She could feel Lankeshi’s gaze from afar, and as Ranika walked closer, Lankeshi rose and looked at her with piercing eyes, the palest of gray—as if she were a creature who had spent her life in perpetual shadow; she wore a false smile, like a wolf observing its prey. Her presence could drain anyone’s elated feelings, absorbing them into herself, leaving those unfortunate around her deflated. Ranika felt that the sky was starting to crowd with darkening clouds, closing both the light and her hope.

Rudra, for his part, never rose from his chair, but instead gazed at Ranika like she were a creature from another world. His face was impassive but tilted back a little, looking up at hers. He was frozen for maybe three whole seconds before the corners of his mouth resumed a softness and his eyes quit staring. After a few seconds, he turned his head to Dhananjay, eyes just as still, and said with a robotic tone, “Well, here she is…”

Silence hung in the air as Ranika stood a couple of feet away from Lankeshi with the tray in her hand. Lankeshi stretched her hand out and slowly picked up the earthen cup with its steaming coffee. Not once did she look at the rich liquid within, but instead simply narrowed her eyes and again scanned Ranika’s face, draining Ranika’s color.

Ranika knew that the tensing against the shaking of her limbs was useless but still she did it instinctively, trying to suppress for a few more moments at least, what she knew she could not. Each time a worrying thought would emerge, Ranika had learned to mentally jot it down on a notepad, wrap it around a stone, and throw it away into the abyss. But she always needed to find and hide in a comforting corner of silence to counter the distress that threatened to engulf her.

But today… today was different. She felt trapped in the lair. Even though her parents were next to her and this was her home. Under Lankeshi’s penetrating glare, Ranika couldn’t help but recall that incident… the one from her childhood when her favorite teacher, Miss Kanak, had scanned her from top to toe, staring at her, before picking the fair-skinned Sita, Ranika’s classmate, to greet the chief guest at the school’s annual day function. Ranika had performed better than Sita that year, but her reward that day was being made to feel incompetent and ugly… that recurring feeling. That evening, she had locked herself in her room and cried.

And now that feeling of worthlessness, of feeling beneath, was back again today—here and now—suddenly slamming into her like the time she was knocked over in the street, sent crashing to the ground, her shopping from the market sprawling all around.

Sudhamini clearly anxious and wanting to break the silence, blurted, “Ranika makes delicious coffee, you will love it!”

Dhananjay joined his wife with a “Rudra does love his coffee, Chinnu! Please give uncle some…”

Ranika willed herself to keep her smile, such as it was, locked on her face as she offered the tray to Rudra.

“Uncle, coffee…?”

Rudra smiled and rising from his chair, said, “You’re as color coordinated as cat sick!” letting out an odd chuckle.

Feeling the awkwardness in the air, Dhananjay moved closer to Ranika and placed an arm on her shoulder. “Isn’t uncle Rudra funny?” he offered.

Ranika turned to him. “Oh… yes, he is.” No smile, rather the feeling of helplessness was plastered across her face now.

Sudhamini forced a smile to lighten the situation, but the discomfort in the air hung like the rains about to fall.

11

As Lankeshi stepped closer to Ranika, the trees seemed to cease their rustle and tense up with nerves for what was to come. Lankeshi suddenly flipped up the walking stick in her hand so that the blunt metal handle was in the direction of Ranika’s face, and leaning forward she gently placed the cold metal against Ranika’s chin, using the stick as a prop to turn Ranika’s face from side to side.

Ranika was strong and intelligent; she loved her family and was good to her friends, but these eyes… gazing at her, falling all over her… couldn’t see any of those qualities. No, they just saw her deep brown hues.

While his wife examined Ranika, Rudra stood next to her in support and mumbled, “You’re a bit of rough from the all the games in the sun, girl. I don’t think our son is the one for you.”

Dhananjay and Sudhamini were too overwhelmed with what was happening and froze. What Lankeshi was doing was unacceptable! But she had a calm and confident demeanor that made it seem like she was just being curious.

A wave of inferiority engulfed Dhananjay as he stood next to Rudra with his head bowed. He was insulted—hurt. And suddenly he was keenly reminded of the pompous Rudra from his childhood, of the Rudra who hadn’t invited him to his wedding. Still, no man should directly insult a friend, especially one who was a guest in his home. Dhananjay could never be the kind of man to break society’s tight chains of behavior.

But for Sudhamini, as much as she tried to hold it in, her pain threatened to burst like a gush from her throat. Beads of water began to leak and trickle, one after another, down her cheeks. The muffled sobs wracked against her chest as she tried to understand what must be been going through her daughter’s mind and heart.

Lankeshi didn’t stop her inspection. Still she stared into Ranika’s misty eyes. The hold she had over the girl gave her a thrill, the kind that was hard to get any other way. Power! She enjoyed that feeling of class, position, and judgement! Leaning back and with a forced smile on her face she turned to Rudra and said simply, “She’s too dark!”

Rudra burst into an obnoxious chuckle. “She is!”

Lankeshi didn’t join him. “It’s not funny! It’s insulting.”

On hearing Lankeshi’s words, Rudra’s smile slowly disappeared. “I need some coffee!” He stretched his arm out and plucked the glass of still-steaming coffee from Ranika’s tray.

A sudden silence now hung the air as Ranika stood with her head bowed, holding the empty tray. Everything was the same—yet everything was suddenly and utterly different. The trees in the backyard stood naked as they had before, but their twigs had curled in distortion as if they, too, were feeling Ranika’s pain. The sky had gathered into itself a blanket of gray cloud, desperate to hide the ugly incident from the heavens.

12

The deafening silence of the surroundings and Lankeshi’s comment rang in Rudra’s ears. “This is insulting!” she had said. And as Rudra thought about his wife’s words, fires of fury and hatred smoldered in his narrowed eyes as he looked down at the steaming mug of coffee he had taken.

How could Dhananjay even think that he would marry his son to someone as ugly and dark as Ranika?! Yes, Lankeshi was absolutely right; this wasn’t funny, this was sheer insult! The more Rudra thought about how far he had traveled to get to Dhananjay’s house and how he had to leave his carriage behind and walk in the harsh sun, the more his blood boiled.

Shifting his gaze from the coffee mug, his eyes narrowed, rigid, and cold, he looked up at Ranika slowly like she was his enemy. Rudra’s mood swings had no greyscale, only polar extremes. Drawing in a deep breath, he stared at Ranika, thinking of the most brutally cutting thing he could tear her down with. But the girl didn’t even have the courage to look up at him; instead, she could only stare down at the empty tray, looking helpless. Rudra felt he deserved an apology. Dhananjay had insulted not only their friendship but also his wife. And his son! Clenching his fist around the earthen mug tightly, he turned to Dhananjay, who lifted his head slowly and looked at Rudra’s face with an apologetic smile.

“Rudra, she’s a wonderful girl… she’s my daughter… Don’t you trust my words?” he said, placing a hand on his heart.

Before he could stammer another next sentence, Rudra raised the mug of coffee and splashed the liquid on Dhananjay’s face, taking him totally by surprise.

“How dare you?!” he screamed in his face. “You think I’ll have my Tirthana married to her?!” he fumed.

Lankeshi let out a sarcastic chuckle, while Ranika and Sudhamini both froze, seeing Dhananjay in such a helpless state, with the hot liquid streaking down his face, draining all his self-respect and pride along with it.

13

Rudra’s temper was like a ticking time bomb. Always. Any provocation, no matter how small or insignificant and his temper would blow. There was a cold burning to Rudra’s rage, an ice that scared Dhananjay. He’d seen that look in his eye before, but never toward him. It was how Rudra showed hatred and dominance and how he imparted fear.

Dhananjay stumbled backward, coffee dripping from his face, almost falling on the ground, tears already welling in his eyes. But Rudra wasn’t done. In another stride he was over him, the empty coffee mug still clenched in his fist, face contorted into a version of him Dhananjay would never forget.

“You’ll always be there,” he screamed, pointing at the ground. “It’s where you belong!” He beckoned his wife and they began to walk to the gate.

Rudra’s words were so harsh and cold that Ranika sank to her knees, not caring about the damp mud that dirtied her grandma’s saree, completely in shock from the events that had just transpired.

Sudhamini wanted to embrace her daughter tightly, but she also had never experienced guests leaving their home with such disappointment, such… anger. Everything happened so quickly that Sudhamini instinctively followed Rudra and Lankeshi as they stomped towards the back entrance.

“Please…” she said, disappointment plastered across her defeated face and her arms stretched out. But Rudra and Lankeshi paid no heed to her words as they walked away, refusing even to look back.

Sudhamini stood by the decorated doorframe with a blank look on her face, torn between culture and events, her arms still stretched outward. What just happened? The fire of shame and anger slowly started to burn under her skin as the sentiments brewed and boiled through the seams she could no longer hold together.

Ranika sat on the ground silently, her heart crushed. She felt her father, whom she had loved so dearly, had been stripped of his self-respect because of her and her dark skin. That smoldering stare Lankeshi had given her before she walked away… She felt like dirt, like she had somehow insulted them, broken some rule. And now her chaste soul was going to suffer: the pain that coursed her was as palpable as the frigid fall wind.

The only person at her side was her father, struggling to keep his tears at bay, looking up through watery eyes to the sky and heaven beyond. Ranika had always been so self-conscious when she cried but now she just gave way to the enormity of her grief. She sobbed into her hands, the flow of tears dripping between her fingers, raining down onto the already damp soil.

“I’m sorry, Pa…” she sobbed as Dhananjay held onto her tightly.

“Sshh… don’t say a word!” said Dhananjay in a broken voice, holding her tight, totally overcome with grief. “I should have never invited them…”

Ranika looked up at him. A silent tear rolled down his dejected face. She hugged him back, desperately clinging to him and crying until no more tears came.

But still the emptiness and sorrow remained.

14

Having cried her heart out, Ranika slowly stood up, walked to a quiet spot at the far end of the backyard, and sat under a shady tree. Dhananjay and Sudhamini didn’t follow her; they knew she liked being alone when she was upset and trying to console her would only upset her all the more.

Rudra’s harsh words rang in Ranika’s ears repeatedly, every word stinging her heart mercilessly, stoking and fueling a fire that now sparked and caught within her. The image of Rudra splashing coffee on her father’s helpless face! And that heartless Lankeshi using her stick—a stick!—as a prop to inspect her face from left to right! Blood boiling, her fists began to clench and her jaw rooted as she thought of her father’s defeated face and her mother’s misty eyes. Just because Ranika had dark skin?

Ranika was under the illusion that her woes regarding skin color had ended in school, but now her parents wanting to get her married had opened a new can of worms—dark ones! Rudra and Lankeshi’s words brought back all those bitter memories from school that fed and chipped away at her self-confidence and her spirit. She recalled the incident when one of her classmates at school, Rakshdeep, had called her “Blackie” and pointed to the black-colored dog sleeping under the school bus. But what happened today was worse—her parents had suffered because of her.

Under the tree’s slight sway, Ranika wondered what she could possibly do. She didn’t choose her skin color; it’s how she was born! Was it her parents’ fault? No! The truth was that the world was a sick place, infested with superficial, heartless beings that fed on people’s sorrow and defeat. Ranika’s face now matched the sky, which was dyed a pomegranate pink, the color farmers looked for during the harvest. Through teary eyes, she stared at the delicate doorframe in the distance, which her father and mother had so happily decorated. She felt the sun behind her slowly slipping lower and lower into the horizon, painting the sky shades of red and pink. As she closed her eyes and thanked God that this day had come and gone, she heard her father shout from across the backyard.

“Do you see those colors, Chinnu?” he cried, pointing to the sky. “They’re symbols. Each showing you the good tomorrow could bring.”

Ranika nodded, although her boiling heart couldn’t do anything to believe his kind, almost desperately encouraging words. She was cursed, she thought. With a dark-skin color. And no tomorrow could change that.

15

Realizing how Ranika was feeling, Dhananjay quietly slipped into the house and walked over to Sudhamini, who was busy preparing chapatis.

On hearing Dhananjay’s footsteps, she turned around and before he could say anything, she said, “She hasn’t eaten all morning, Dhanu…”

Dhananjay took a deep breath. “I know. I tried talking to cheer her up, but she didn’t say much…”

There was as a long silence as Sudhamini and Dhananjay exchanged looks. They knew what happened shouldn’t have happened.

Sudhamini looked into Dhananjay’s eyes. “She’s a strong girl… She’ll heal quicker than you.”

Dhananjay’s eyes turned moist as a half-smile escaped to perch on his lips. Sudhamini turned around and tossed the chapatis she had cooked onto a plate.

“Hot chapatis and her favorite mango pickle…” she said. “I hope she eats… You know how stubborn she can be.”

Dhananjay took a step toward Sudhamini and put his hand on her shoulder; she held her tears back and nodded gently. She had to be strong, for Ranika. They both wiped their tears as they stepped out of the house into the backyard with the plate full of the tempting bread.

On the other side of the yard sat Ranika, shoulders drooped, silently soaking in the crimson, amber, and tangerine beams that were cast down by the setting sun, its deep colors in contrast to the mood. The sun now appeared like an orb of buttery red flames, threatening to dip behind the horizon, firstly cascading a prim bombardment of colors that were flung over the sky. The receding blue and oranges battled the blackness, hoping to push it away.

Dhananjay and Sudhamini walked over to Ranika.

“Who wants mango pickle and chapati?” said Dhananjay in a cajoling voice.

Ranika looked up at him. “You think we upset them by not inviting them into our home? They sat in our backyard for over an hour…”

Dhananjay’s smile faded as he stood in silence, thinking about what Ranika had just said. Sudhamini went and sat next to Ranika on the little bench. Ranika’s words reminded Dhananjay of Rudra’s harsh words.

“They liked our backyard… I don’t think it’s that… But that wasn’t the Rudra I knew in back in school… no, no…” said Dhananjay, his head bowed slightly.

“Let her eat, Dhanu,” said Sudhamini in a soft voice.

Ranika gently lay down on Sudhamini’s lap, taking comfort from her mother’s touch. It was a few minutes before she spoke again.

“I’m wondering if we did anything to offend them… Or… or did they just want to hurt us?”

Warm tears flowed from Sudhamini’s eyes as she gently patted Ranika’s head like when she was a little child.

“We did nothing wrong Chinnu… They’re color blind! The just don’t… appreciate your… beauty, that’s what it is!” Sudhamini’s words echoed through the backyard, which now felt empty and possessed the silence of a graveyard.

Dhananjay stood silently and watched Sudhamini’s tears helplessly. She was right, of course—he knew that. He hadn’t seen her cry in the longest time ever. Feeling Dhananjay’s concerned eyes on her, Sudhamini quickly wiped her tears and tried to feed her daughter.

Ranika, though, was in no mood to eat. Her mother’s words rang in her ears repeatedly. Even if she tried to eat, the food wouldn’t go down her throat, she felt; there was just too much grief in her heart. Deep down, she wondered of maybe all this had happened to her because she hadn’t visited the local Marikamba temple and offered prayers since she returning home. Would things be different if she had, she wondered? Feeling guilty, she made a promise, asking the goddess to please protect her family from such agony in the future, telling her that she would visit her temple first thing in the morning and offer prayers and that she was sorry she didn’t visit earlier.

She begged the goddess, for it seemed the better choice. All this happened because of her not visiting the temple, that was what it was! Not because of the shallow Rudra and Lankeshi’s obsession with wanting a fair-skinned girl for their son! She would offer payers tomorrow, yes. And things would be better.

16

Her father knew she hadn’t eaten all morning, and she knew that all he wanted right now was for her to eat the chapatis her mother had made. Ranika, though, could only wish that she could wake up and realize this had all been just a bad dream. Lost in a maze of “if only…” and “what if…” feelings, she just wanted life to return to how it was before Lankeshi and Rudra had arrived. She wanted her father’s self-respect restored. She wanted to go back in time and find the cure to her dark skin sooner and prevent the episode from happening… If only, if only, if only… The “if onlys” were causing her to find fault in herself, turning over in her mind what she could, what she should, have done differently. Ranika even bargained with the pain she was experiencing, willing to do anything to stop the sadness she now felt, the pain of what had happened. Somehow, she couldn’t find a way out of that moment, out of the hurt and the pain she had brought to her family. Guilt felt like her only companion now.

A concerned Sudhamini tried to feed Ranika several times, but she refused to eat. Realizing that Ranika wouldn’t eat, Dhananjay, finding a quiet moment in the silence that had engulfed the backyard, walked over and sat on the bench next to Ranika.

“Want to fly a kite this evening?” he asked softly, trying to make eye contact.

“I don’t feel like it,” Ranika muttered under her breath, still staring into the lofty trees whose shade blanketed them.

Sudhamini looked at Dhananjay, concerned.

“Because you can’t get your kite to fly as high as mine?” joked Dhananjay, a little smirk plastered across his face.

On hearing Dhananjay’s words, Sudhamini’s concern melted into a relaxed smile. Dhananjay always had his way with Ranika, no matter how upset she was; he knew what to say to her, such was their bond.

Ranika sat up slowly. “Good try, Pa,” she said with a half-smile. “I know you’re hurt, too; you don’t have to do this…”

Dhananjay gently put his arm around his daughter and embraced her. “I know, but I want you to eat, Chinnu… Is Rudra so powerful that he can make my Chinnu starve?”

“No way!” cried Ranika and stuffed the chapatti into her mouth like she used to when she was little child.

Sudhamini and Dhanajay exchanged a quick smile; at least she had eaten. Ranika ate the whole chapatti within minutes, stuffing her mouth with the bread like she hadn’t eaten in ages. If was almost like she wanted to prove to Rudra and Lankeshi that she didn’t give a damn about what they thought!

Ranika had spent the time since… since that, thinking constantly about what had happened, and only after a lot of self-blaming had her attention finally shifted back to the present—a present where empty feelings swirled and grief permeated her mind and heart, without even her realizing it how deeply.

As Ranika began eating the second chapati, Dhananjay said, “I understand what you’re feeling Chinnu… but I don’t want you to dwell on it. You’re all that we have.”

Hearing these words Ranika gently leaned over and rested her head against Dhananjay’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine Pa, I’ll be fine…” she said, though she couldn’t feel that was truthful.

17

As Dhananjay tightened his arms around Ranika and pulled her close, gently rubbing her hands, she started to feel better. She sunk into the warmth of her father’s embrace, appreciative of the simple gesture. His touch made the cold backyard warmer, her future within its boundaries seeming a little less bleak. Dhananjay’s hugs could never be long enough for Ranika. In her father’s arms, she had always been safe, letting her worries disappear like rain on summer earth. In that embrace, she was cocooned better than any butterfly-to-be.

“My kite’s going to fly higher!” Ranika cried in a chirpy voice, pressing her cheek against Dhananjay’s chest.

“Oh yes? We’ll see tomorrow morning!” said Dhananjay with a big smile. He gently touched his forehead to hers. Ranika’s cranky face melted into a familiar smile much to both her parents’ delight.

From where the three of them sat, they had a perfect view of the sun, dancing atop the crest of the mountains, sky awash and ablaze with colors found at the heart of a fire. Although the sun was fast dipping behind the horizon, the daylight still lingered in the air as though accidentally left behind. Dhananjay looked up and wondered if they should keep searching for a groom for his beloved daughter. This had been a terrible experience for her, for the family, and he didn’t want Ranika to go through the trauma again. That said, neither did he want her to sink into depression and give up hope; he wanted her to settle down for he felt he had lived his life and now it was her turn to live hers and be happy.

As he held his precious daughter protectively in his arms, his mind started to tick. Did just one bad experience, hurtful as it was, mean that the entire world was shallow and evil? No, of course not. There were still good people left, and he would do all he could to find the best groom for his little princess.

18

As the days passed by, the weight of humiliation inflicted by Lankeshi and Rudra lifted from Ranika’s shoulders as if a weighty child had finally climbed off after a piggyback ride. Slowly but surely, Ranika started walking taller, gaining both confidence and comfort from the love her parents gave her. Her stride was now lighter and more carefree. She had slowly begun to notice, once again, how the soft light of the morning streamed in through the lofty trees of the backyard as she strode into it each morning to help Dhananjay with the gardening. Ranika had reclaimed her inner happiness, one independent of the outside world; she hadn’t thought about the color of her skin in days. And whenever Dhananjay would crack a silly joke, her smile was one of happiness burst from within instead of one worn like an obligation in the way it was a few weeks ago.

One fine morning, with the sun casting the trees in the backyard with virescent hues, bringing warm brown tones to the earth, Dhananjay walked up to Ranika, who was watering the plants in the backyard.

“Want to go for a walk?” he asked, softly patting her on the back.

Ranika smiled. “Sure Pa!” She put the watering can on the ground and took Dhananjay’s hand. Her steps were now lighter and her face tilted toward the brilliant shafts of light breaking through the canopy above. Perhaps this was happiness, what came when a battle was over, she considered. The backyard, dull for many days, now seemed like a droplet of paradise. The air was still; the distant sound of temple bells from the Marikamba shrine was the only thing that reminded Ranika that their house was in the middle of town. The sunlight streamed in like it was purer than the light that caressed the blue mountaintops in the distance, white, yet liquid gold at the same time. Nearby, on a rotting spindly tree, sat a woodpecker hunting for insects, its brilliant-red crest rocking back and forth as it pecked. Tiny chunks of wood fell to the leaf litter below, the sound dissipating into the backyard around. Noticing the woodpecker chipping away, both Ranika and Dhananjay walked towards the tree on which it was perched, still holding hands, their eyes transfixed on the colorful bird.

“Look at him!” said Dhananjay, with a big smile on his face, his eyes glued to the woodpecker.

“I know! He’s going to break the tree in half!” giggled Ranika.

“He can’t do that… but he won’t stop trying!” Dhananjay put his arm around Ranika. Feeling the weight of his words, Ranika rested her head on his shoulder gently. Kissing her on her forehead, Dhananjay said, “Remember Pithambar uncle and Bandhini aunty?”

“The one who used to bring you and Amma sweets every Diwali?”

“Yes! They’re lovely and they belong to the Kutidhar caste… the same caste as us!” said Dhananjay, gently raising Ranika’s face so he could look at her.

“That’s nice to hear, Pa… I suppose not all the people in the world are shallow and hurtful, are they?” Ranika knew that she had to move on and her father was only trying to help.

Dhananjay smiled and hugged her tightly. “I’m inviting them to lunch tomorrow and they said might bring their son Sundara along…”

“Sundara? What a funny name…! I’ve heard Sundari, but what’s Sundara?” joked Ranika as she giggled loudly.

Dhananjay patted her on her head and heaved a sigh of relief; Ranika was finally herself again. Yet as they stood in the backyard in each other’s embrace, deep within their hearts, both felt a sense of fear and anxiety for what was to come.

Before Dhananjay and Ranika knew it, the evening was over and the sun had risen for a new morning. It was again another big day—Pithambar and Bandhini were just minutes away from their scheduled visit.

19

The terrible experience with Lankeshi and Rudra seemed more like a distant dream now as Dhananjay walked Pithambar and Bandhini towards Ranika, who was busy gardening in the backyard.

Although Dhananjay had asked Pithambar and Bandhini to take a seat and make themselves at home, they had said, “Please don’t be formal with us, Dhansa! I thought we were like family?” Dhananjay responded by embracing Pithambar.

“Let’s walk over to her, shall we?” Bandhini said softly with a pleasant smile plastered across her pale face.

Ranika was busy gardening in the corner of the backyard, and although she was expecting their visit, she never would have imagined they would walk over to her. And so soon! She thought they would take a seat, like Lankeshi and Rudra, and that she would have enough time to dust herself down, change, and get ready before serving them coffee. But, thank goodness, Pithambar and Bandhini seemed nicer than she feared; they were willing to walk through the long backyard and come see her wherever she was. How nice of them!

That said, Ranika had no time to wipe her face, tidy her hair, or… anything! Fear coursed suddenly through her veins: the sun had only deepened her complexion further and there was no makeup to mask it! Her eyes were now steady, fixated on the plants, willing them to save her, as she heard the distant voices getting louder. She could now almost hear their footsteps, the crunching sound of moist grass.

She let out an understated sigh, slowly turning to towards the voices. Pithambar and Bandhini were right behind her, almost towering over her slender frame. Ranika’s face grew rigid with tension, which belied her youthfulness, like she had suddenly aged a decade. Anxiety and fear suddenly grabbed her tongue and dried her mouth. Yet, for some reason, she didn’t panic—or at least she couldn’t feel it. She had been here before; she knew the feeling and knowing it made it less scary—she was all the stronger from her battle scars. So instead of letting it take her down, she told herself that everything would be all right; she reminded herself that she was a good person, that she did good things and had a heart full of love, and that there was a world full of good people out there. Fear could only hold her back, she knew, stop her from reaching her dreams.

She wanted to get to her feet, but there was no chance now. Oh well, the important thing was to greet them, not whether she was sat or stood. She managed a polite “Namaste!” clumsily folding her hands as best she could.

Yes, this fitfully sunny morning would either see the dawn of her new life or snap her dreams in two. She gazed up with hope at Pithambar and Bandhini’s blank faces.

20

No, not blank… They were gazing at her like she was some kind of unearthly object.

An eerie silence had now crept into the backyard, turning Ranika’s blood as cold as the air in the mountains. Why were they not saying anything? Oh! There must be something on her face, she suddenly realized and wiped her face quickly. Maybe the mud from her hands had accidentally spread on her face? Yes, of course. She wiped her face again, frantically, but there was neither mud nor sweat; the cool breeze had dried it and she was tidy enough not to have any mud on her face.

Still there were no words from either Pithambar or Bandhini. Ranika folded her hands back into a Namaste. Bereft now of the slightest breeze, the leaves on the trees hung limply with no whispering noise or rustling. It was as if nature was conspiring to keep her from the reassurance she craved.

While Ranika held her frozen smile, Pithambar and Bandhini glanced at each other quickly, which made her heart race as fast as a gunshot. Her head snapped in an instant from gazing at them with unfocused eyes to the dark mud she squatted on. The silence, as pure and cold as a wintry mountain blanket, made her feel anxious… nervous even. It seemed like every creature was sheltering: the birds had either flown south or had better things to do than sing, and it seemed like there wasn’t another human for miles. As her ears quickly adjusted to the vacuum, she thought she could hear the tinkle of the bells from the Marikamba temple, but other than that, only her rhythmic breathing hung in the air. Pithambar and Bandhini, disregarding her silent salutation, continued to stare at her wide eyed, like she were a damned soul.

Hoping to break the silence, now making her extremely uncomfortable, she blurted, “Thank you for coming!” staring into Pithambar and Bandhini’s dark, emotionless eyes. “My-my name’s Ranika.”

“Yes, that’s her!” said Dhananjay proudly as he turned to look at Bandhini and Pithambar. “People say she looks like her mother, but I say she has my features! What do you think?” He nudged Pithambar, a big smile spread across his face.

Pithambar slowly turned his face to Dhananjay and after staring at him blankly for a moment, he whispered, “I think she’s diseased.”

“What…? W-what are you saying?” Dhananjay stammered, his smile fading.

“She’s definitely diseased; there’s something wrong with her skin…” he said unapologetically. “Her skin… it’s like charcoal!”

“What are you talking about? She’s perfectly fine!” said Dhananjay firmly.

Bandhini continued to stare at Ranika. “Goddess Marikamba has cursed her… Marikamba has cursed her!” she cried, now backing away, almost stumbling. “She should hide her face. Or she’ll bring the entire town bad luck!”

Suddenly, Pithambar took the shawl off of his shoulders and with a simple gesture, itself full of disdain, he threw it over Ranika’s head, covering the ‘diseased’ girl. For a moment, no one moved, taken utterly by surprise.

“How dare you make fun of her complexion, you… you bastard!” Dhananjay cried. Rarely had he raised his voice in his adult years, preferring always peace and negotiation. Rarely, though… well, never—not even Rudra and his miserable wife—had anyone insulted his daughter so. “Nobody has cursed her! Of all the stupid… You’re the one who’s cursed, you swine… Your words are proof of that!”

Ranika sat in her own, private darkness, Pithambar’s shawl still covering her like a victim about to be beheaded.

21

As a child, Ranika used to wake in the night and wish for the sun. The darkness always worried her, for her imagination supplied many beasts with fantastical jaws lurking just beyond the range of her vision. But now she had no option but to embrace the darkness so suddenly and shockingly forced upon her. Warm tears flowed down her cheeks and wet her saree. Diseased? Is that what she was? No, her parents would have abandoned her if she were diseased. But maybe not… They were too kind and perhaps had decided to put up with a diseased dark child like herself. With a jumble of thoughts erupting in her mind and seeping into her heart, Ranika slowly realized that the darkness actually provided cover from the flesh-and-blood monsters of the day, the ones with their false sense of repute and heartless demeanor, the ones who could be judge, jury, and executioner in the name of social norms.

The lack of light, suddenly shut out when Pithambar first threw his shawl over her head, now made her feel safe, secure. So what if the world was etched in charcoal, if the once-vibrant hues of the plants seemed no more than a vivid dream now? But this new darkness, although comforting at first, quickly began to take a stranglehold on her, betraying her, squeezing the life from her and consuming her memories, turning them into lost dreams. Pithambar’s words had hurt her badly. Oh so sharp, so piercing… so cutting!

As for Dhananjay, he was a wounded father—stunned, angered, and hurt at seeing his daughter on the ground, her head hung in shame! He could imagine how sad, how broken her poor face must look under the shawl. He glanced at Sudhamini, who shook her head. He understood: he couldn’t remove the shawl, not now in front of these monsters he thought were friends! It was time they left—time to remove these bastards from their home!

His eyes transfixed on Pithambar and Bandhini, he screamed two simple words at them: “Get out!”

“I was only trying to help…” said Pithambar firmly, constantly pointing at Ranika.

“Leave!” Dhananjay cried, his tears of rage and regret held back by the tide of his anger.

Sudhamini looked on stoically, refusing to let her whirl of emotions leak from her face. Her poor daughter! But she’d be able to comfort Ranika in a few seconds when these… these people had been banished from their home.

“Staying here any longer will only bring us bad luck… we better leave!” said Bandhini as she grabbed at Pithambar’s arm and marched towards the entrance they had only entered a few minutes ago.

Although he felt insulted, Pithambar quickly caved to Bandhini’s words and started to walk, but not before giving Dhananjay a cold, hard stare.

“Eyes down! You’re in my backyard… Out!” fumed Dhananjay.

Pithambar bowed his head and walked away silently. Never had he seen Dhananjay so furious. Had he stayed in the backyard for a second longer, he was convinced that Dhananjay would slay him into two, like they sacrificed fattened goats at the annual Marikamba Jatre in town.

22

As Pithambar and Bandhini walked away, Sudhamini sunk to her knees and put her arms around Ranika, enveloping her as tightly as she did when she was a little child. Her attempts to take the shawl off Ranika’s head were in vain, though; Ranika held on to it tightly, sobbing inconsolably.

Still hugging her tightly, Sudhamini said gently, her voice now weak, “I’m sorry Chinnu. We’ll… we’ll never make you go through this again… Please don’t cry now, please…”

Her words seemed to have no effect on Ranika, who continued to sob. Helpless and hurt, Sudhamini looked up at her husband, who was now near the entrance, showing Pithambar and Bandhini the way out. Overcome by despair and deeply disturbed by Ranika’s gut-wrenching sobs, she suddenly cried out, “Stop trying to get her married to these monsters! It’s enough! We can’t do this to her again and again!”

Dhananjay, himself heartbroken, his eyes red and misty, rushed back towards them, taking some level of comfort from the fact that Pithambar and Bandhini had now left. He dropped down to his knees next to his daughter and patted her back gently.

“We learnt the lesson the hard way, Chinnu… This won’t happen again. NEVER AGAIN! Please forgive Appa.”

Just as he said this, distant bells from the Marikamba temple started to ring. Its gentle rhythmic sound gave some comfort to their bruised minds and hearts. When Ranika’s sobs grew softer and softer, Dhananjay was finally able to take the shawl off of her head.

“I’m sorry, Chinnu,” he whispered, tears of guilt and sorrow dripping down his cheeks.

“I-it’s okay, Pa… I-it’s not your fault… I don’t like it when you and Amma say sorry…” Ranika forced a half-smile through her tears. Both Sudhamini and Dhananjay finally released their embrace as she slowly stood up.

“I just want to be a-alone for a while… just want to enjoy the cool breeze in the backyard and forget about… this… I mean, what’s happened.”

Ranika walked away in the direction of the pond, both parents watching her as she did. Although Ranika gave them a smile before walking away, they knew just how hurt she was.

Sudhamini turned to Dhananjay. “What if… what if she does something to herself?”

Dhananjay wiped his tears, considering her words for a moment. “Never! She’s my Ranika… she’s a fighter!”

Sudhamini and Dhananjay tried to move on with the day’s usual tasks and routine but found they could not. A few hours later, they stepped out of the house again, still deeply hurt and upset by the day’s events, and after a long, silent walk around the backyard, they sat down by the entrance they had decorated in the morning. They didn’t speak a word to each other; no words were necessary and no words could lessen their pain or bring back their daughter’s pride and joy.

23

Ranika walked past the pond that was at the other end of the backyard and over to the hill at the edge of their land. The sun was at its highest beating down on her mercilessly as she stood at the bottom of the hill in her own shadow puddle. The shadow, her only companion now, moved briskly on the rocky ground as she made the steep climb.

After almost thirty minutes of climbing in the midday sun, Ranika finally reached the top of the hillock. It was funny, she considered, how in all these years she had never been to the top of the hill by herself—it had always been with her Appa. But today was different. Amma and Appa had been humiliated and hurt—not once but twice. She couldn’t bear to see their defeated faces any longer; she had to get away. And yes! The humiliation was all because of her and her stupid dark skin! Why couldn’t God have blessed her with fairer skin? Had she been blessed with fair skin, Rudra would never have chucked coffee on her father’s face and Pithambar would never have insulted both her parents to tears!

As the day grew hotter, a guilt-stricken, teary-eyed Ranika sat at the edge of the hillock, looking down and feeling the warm tropical air caress her skin. The small gusts of wind blew across her face, making her skin softly shiver. It made her sleepy, like the sun was singing a silent lullaby, discreetly blowing her disturbing thoughts away. She missed her father’s embrace and recalled those days they spent together atop the very same hillock when she was a child. It was just the two of them and their little helicopter ride each evening. Life was so perfect then! Tears flowed from her eyes as she looked down at the town below.

The more Ranika tried not to think about her parents, though, the more the images of their defeated faces came to her mind. As she tried to compose herself by taking a long, deep breath, she heard a little rustle behind her. Ignoring it, and with her eyes still closed, she wiped her tears and tried to drain her mind of all thoughts, taking one deep breath at a time.

But there it was again! A rustling sound, stronger now… Ranika jumped to her feet and spun around. Maybe her father had come in search of her? But to her surprise, she saw a bottle-green tree snake slithering through the dry grass. And there! Its prey—a large chameleon. Surprised by how much noise the chase was making, Ranika took a step closer, the two creatures now about fifteen feet from her. Although her heart went out to the poor lizard, she knew it was nature’s way of balancing things.

Suddenly, the snake stopped. Ranika heard its soft hiss and all she could see now was the snake and the dry yellow grass. The chameleon was nowhere to be seen.

A slight smile surfaced on Ranika’s dry lips. She knew the chameleon was still hiding in the grass but had changed the color of its skin to match the dry grass. The snake, now completely clueless, slithered through the dry grass frantically but without any luck. The chameleon had escaped scot-free, simply by blending in with its surroundings and tricking its enemy.

A soft cool wind blew against Ranika’s face, comforting her from the scorching heat of the sun. She sighed with realization as she walked away from the snake in the opposite direction, her shoulders drooped.

While Ranika witnessed this little reptile chase up on the hillock, Dhananjay and Sudhamini sat at the entrance in silence, hoping that Ranika would soon come back and eat lunch with them.

“Shall we go look for her?” Sudhamini suggested softly.

“She’s probably sitting by the pond; she’ll come back… She’s been through a lot these past few weeks…” said Dhananjay placing a hand on Sudhamini’s shoulder.

“But she hasn’t eaten anything since—” Suddenly Ranika’s red saree caught her eye in the distance.

“Chinnu!” they both cried, smiles now spread across their tired faces.

Ranika, though, merely stood still in the distance, an earthen pot in her hand. She didn’t speak, nor did she smile.

24

Sadness floating through her veins, dulling her mind, Ranika walked towards her parents, now just a few feet away. Her spirit was laced with a toxic gloom that dulled her; as it asserted itself within her, it banished any other feeling. It was as if a dark haze had settled inside her that no breath could blow away. Even the light of the otherwise bright day could not suffuse her, no joy of birdsong was echoed within. The world seemed lost to her. And she knew of nothing that could bring it back into focus.

She had to change or rather, camouflage her stupid skin, just like the chameleon had done. Yes, that was the only way she could heal her parents’ wounds and avoid being prey to heartless creatures, like Lankeshi and Pithambar, who fed on hapless people’s emotions and sorrow! She wanted to have a family of her own, but this… her dark skin was such a curse! As she looked at her parents’ defeated faces, she remembered the words her Appa had uttered before Lankeshi and Rudra had arrived… “If it’s a boy we’ll name him Rana, and if it’s a girl, then Kanishka!” he had said jokingly with hope and excitement brimming in his eyes.

Ranika stepped closer to them. No air stirred the grass or leaves. No clouds drifted in the sea of blue above. No water dripped or flowed, though Ranika’s heart bled… silently. There was so much grief within that even her breath seemed to die, the very second it was born.

As hurt as they knew Ranika to be inside, she seemed calm outwardly, a demeanor that scared Sudhamini and Dhananjay. Was she in shock? Or perhaps it was the harsh sun that had drained her of all energy and made her appear so lifeless. And what on earth was she carrying? Both wondered at the pot she held as she knelt before them with her head bowed.

As Sudhamini and Dhananjay sat back on the ground, Ranika didn’t blink; she just stared at them as if her eyes were venting her sorrow through the still air. Sudhamini scanned Ranika’s face for a reaction, silence still hanging in the air like a suspended moment before a falling glass shatters on the ground. She expected her to crumble, wail, or dissolve into tears. But she did none of those things.

“Shall we have lunch, Chinnu?” asked Sudhamini touching her face affectionately.

But Ranika, instead of responding to her mother’s words, grabbed her hand tightly and, fighting her tears as best as she could, firmly inserted it into the earthen pot, splashing the white liquid all over.

Sudhamini looked up, bewildered.

“Chinnu?” said Dhananjay, not knowing what she was trying to do.

Ignoring his words, and with her moist eyes fixed on the pot, Ranika bared her soul, aged by years of insult and self-shame, and cruelly revisited these past weeks. The silence of her flowing tears was eerie.

What does it take to mend a soul as damaged as this? Dhananjay wanted to scoop her up and take her inside, like he did when she was young, and pour love into her until she felt safe enough to cry out loud. But he knew he needed to stay strong; his tears would only make her crumble completely.

25

As soon as Sudhamini looked at the white liquid in the earthen pot she understood what it meant, what she had dreaded since Ranika’s childhood… The only way for her daughter to marry was to change her skin color. She would have to be fair skinned for a chance to build a family and lead a happy life. Or she would remain unmarried and the entire town would call her names: infertile! lesbian! witch!burden on your parents… No! She wouldn’t let anyone say that to her child—not now, not ever.

Seeing Ranika’s silent tears now, she realized this was a kind of crying that showed the child underneath, how the wound had cut right through the protective layers acquired in maturity. So, if this was what Ranika wanted, for her skin to be white, then Sudhamini knew her daughter would do it come what may. Sudhamini was crestfallen at her daughter’s decision, but it didn’t matter what she thought and felt. The world needed to accept Ranika—it wasn’t enough if her mother alone loved her. Sudhamini’s heart wept as she looked into Ranika’s moist eyes, her gaze asking Ranika if this was what she really wanted…

Another tear dropped from Ranika’s eye as she nodded assertively, her eyes again fixed on the liquid in the pot. She dipped Sudhamini’s hand into the liquid and then firmly placed it against her skin—on her cheek, neck, arms—pressing it firmly against her skin.

Sudhamini’s shoulders shook, her hands trembled as she applied the white liquid onto Ranika’s bare skin hesitantly, making no attempt to conceal or even wipe away the warm tears that trickled down her face.

As for Dhananjay, he was overcome with emotion, unable to digest the fact that this was what his daughter wanted. Ranika was a fighter, wasn’t she? Yes she was, but this time around she wasn’t up against one or two people… she was up against the world—a world that hated her skin color… She was dark and that made her disgusting and untouchable! Lankeshi used a stick to inspect her and Pithambar had thrown a shawl across her face! This had happened in their backyard—and he did nothing to protect his child from the humiliation! He watched the scene before him helplessly.

“Chinnu… No, please!” he said hesitantly as the white liquid caressed Ranika’s dark skin. “I’m sorry, Chinnu… I… You don’t have to…”

But Ranika didn’t respond, simply guided Sudhamini’s hand across her face and arms. She didn’t cry, she clearly had made her mind: she would change the color of her skin.

Dhananjay couldn’t watch his daughter being painted like a prop! He wanted to take the pot and throw it out of their backyard, but he reined his emotions in, realizing that never had he seen Ranika so frail and broken. What else could he tell her? To go through another round of insults? To meet more prospective grooms so they could drain her of the last of her self-respect and hope? Both his trusted friends had hurt his daughter, and beyond repair, it seemed. An emotional Dhananjay looked on as Sudhamini spread the white liquid all over Ranika’s skin.

Sudhamini cried until there was nothing left inside but a raw emptiness that nibbled at her like a hungry rat. Her crimson eyes hung heavy in their sockets as she painted Ranika white. Ranika’s whole body hung limp, like each limb weighed twice as much as before.

The sun still shone brightly in the sky, but not for them; the birds started to sing in bursts of melody, but not for them… For them, there was no beauty left in the world.

26

With crystal-clear water and pearly-white white clay at its bottom, sometimes, when the sun shone brightly, the pond sheened like a circular mirror had been placed in the middle; the only thing that ever gave it away were the ripples created by the turquoise fish that swam under the surface, especially when they came up to the surface to breathe. On some days, the pond looked like the moon, as if it had descended from the sky and made a home for itself in their yard. The white clay made for the moon’s surface and the little fish that swam created ripples, which looked like craters adorning it.

As a child, Ranika would often look at the shimmery surface of the pond, even using it as a mirror to apply kajal and to get the position of her just bindi right. And she had always been fascinated by the clay, wondering why its color was white instead of reddish-brown, the normal color of clay. She had never seen any clay in her entire life that was whiter than what lay at the bottom of their pond.

In the depth of despair, dejected and heartbroken, Ranika recalled the pond and its clay as she made her way down from the hillock. She never imagined that their beautiful pond, which she had always considered as the pride of their family, would one day provide her answer—the clay. The white clay could help her conceal her dark skin from the world.

Approaching the waterside, not once did she look at her face as she stepped into the water silently, breaking its surface into a million ripples. She dipped her hands into the shallow water, scooped the white clay from the bottom with a deep sigh, and threw it into an earthen pot that had been lying next to a huge tree beside the pond. She then mixed the clean water of the pond with the clay, turning it into a paste. Her warm tears blended into the cool ripples of the pond as she kneaded and blended the paste with her bare hands. The beautiful pond, once her childhood companion, was now a mute spectator, a silent witness to the chaos in her mind and the open wounds in her heart…

As Sudhamini applied the white paste on her bare skin, Ranika simply froze as she lay with her eyes closed on Sudhamini’s lap, hardly believing that this was the decision she herself had made. If she had been like a butterfly before, she felt now that she was regressing to the pupa. But what other rescue could there be from this sick feeling and embarrassment for her and for her family? This, too, felt like absolute torture—utter humiliation—but this was the only way! She could hear her parents’ sobs, a memory that would be seared into her brain forever, ready to resurface and torment her time and again whenever she was in a quiet moment.

She felt now that she was in that moment between action and consequence, fleeting but eternal. Her decision made, she dreaded the consequences, the repercussions. A seed of guilt was germinating inside her, ready to sprout upon her defeated face. And she knew, whenever she would recall the most emotional and humiliating moment of her life, her personal hall of shame, this would be where the memory would always start. She had asked her mother, the woman who gave birth to her, to change her skin color, her identity… stripping both her mother and herself of whatever self-respect and dignity they had remaining. And all while her beloved Appa watched on helplessly.

27

It had been just twenty-four hours since Ranika’s body had been whitewashed. She knew her parents were concerned that the color was only temporary, and that she had done this in a fit of rage and anger. But they would see it was the only answer. If the entire world wanted to see fair skin, well, she would give them that. Just that! It didn’t matter whether she had dark skin underneath; all that mattered was how she looked on the outside! She was beautiful on the inside, but how did that seem to matter? So what if she was honest and God fearing? So what if she was hardworking and respected her elders? No. None of that mattered.

Although with each passing minute, Ranika was starting to feel uncomfortable with her new skin color, she didn’t have much of a choice! Did she? Anyone—no, everyone—would know that she was hiding her real skin color with a coat of white clay. Maybe they would care, maybe not. Or maybe all they wanted to see was a white-colored prop, it hardly mattering if she looked like a dark-colored scarecrow adorned with white paint. Despite the grief in her heart, Ranika chuckled at the absurdity of the situation. The world was a strange world, she thought, where the beauty of a person was defined by the color of their skin. It was almost as if the bigger the idol of the lord or the bigger the temple, the more powerful the blessing one received!

As she contemplated the situation she was in, she realized that going back to her earthy skin tone would mean more humiliation and heartache for her parents. And she didn’t want that… No, she would keep the white color on, no matter how silly it looked. It was definitely better than her dark skin!

Upon Ranika’s request, Dhananjay invited his childhood friend, Saileshwar, and his family to their home. Saileshwar was the only friend of his that hadn’t deceived him or cheated him of any money. Why hadn’t he thought of Saileshwar before? Dhananjay scratched his head as he wondered. Saileshwar was a man of few words and also chose to live his life in a quiet low-key manner; maybe that was why it never occurred to Dhananjay to speak to him about a possible alliance for Ranika with his son, Dinkara. But it was never too late, Dhananjay told himself. Also, he recalled the time when both of them had met at the annual Marikamba Jatre; Saileshwar barely talked about his wife, Kumodhini, or Dinkara. He always brushed aside questions about his son and wife and proceeded to ask Dhananjay about Ranika and Sudhamini instead; not that Dhananjay had a problem answering, but he found it a little strange. Dhananjay had known Saileshwar since childhood. They used to play cricket together on most evenings and steal delicious tamarind candies from Gorakh Kaka’s store after they had finished playing cricket every evening; Gorakh Kaka loved kids and, although he would frantically chase them through the fields, he never meant any harm. Eventually, he’d hand them an extra sweet or two and ask them never to steal again! “Yes, Kaka!” they would reply with their heads bowed. That kind-hearted Gorkh Kaka probably secretly hoped that they would steal again, just so he could see their happy, smiling faces!

Gorakh Kaka passed away when they were both eighteen, which was when Saileshwar left for the city to pursue further studies. Dhananjay and he lost touch then. They met several years afterward, though, at the Marikamba Jatre. When Dhananjay had asked Saileshwar about Dinkara, he had said with a blank expression that Dinkara was back in town after having worked at his uncle’s shop in the city and that he was now keen on staying in town and helping him with his Sari shop. “That’s great!” Dhananjay had said and he recalled how Saileshwar had immediately embraced him. Yes, Saileshwar was a good man. Yet, still Dhananjay worried. He had brought other ‘good’ men to meet his daughter. How would Saileshwar react to Ranika’s new appearance…?

Inside, Ranika was pacing up and down. Although she had painted her face white, she was still very nervous before Saileshwar’s arrival. Her previous two experiences with greeting prospective in-laws had ended in insult and tears. But this time around, she had done all she could and had nothing to lose. As soon as she saw Saileshwar and his family walking towards their entrance, she walked over along with her parents, much to their surprise. This time, she didn’t want to be hiding in the kitchen or gardening in the middle of nowhere. She would face them with her new skin color. So what if it wasn’t permanent? She could just paint herself again. She would explain to them if they asked any questions and her parents would support her answers. They didn’t have a choice! Time jumped, and Saileshwar and Kumodhini arrived at their backyard.

Dhananjay stepped closer and folded his hands into a Namaste as he embraced Saileshwar. “It’s been forever!” said Dhananjay with a big smile.

“Yes! Two years?” said Saileshwar, he too folding his hands into a Namaste as he greeted Sudhamini, who stood right behind Dhananjay. Kumodhini, Saileshwar’s wife, stood next to him. She smiled gracefully and bowed her head in respect while she greeted both Dhananjay and Sudhamini.

“I’ve heard such lovely things about you,” she said in a soft voice.

Dinkara had been standing behind Kumodhini and now stepped out hesitantly. Saileshwar made way for him.

“Dinkara, say hello to Dhanu uncle!”

Bowing his head, Dinkara rushed to Dhananjay and touched his feet. But Dhananjay, instead of feeling happy, froze in disbelief as he saw Dinkara’s face. Milky white! Yes, that was the color of his skin. As Dinkara walked over to Sudhamini to touch her feet, Dhananjay could only manage a simple, “W-wow, you’ve… you’ve grown so tall and handsome, Dinkara!”

Saileshwar, on the other hand, had no reaction on his face as Dinkara greeted everyone. He behaved as if this was how Dinkara’s skin normally looked. He merely squeezed in a simple smile.

“Bless you!” said Sudhamini as Dinkara touched her feet and greeted her warmly. She, too, was a little taken aback after seeing his painted face, but inwardly she felt a sense of relief. At least it meant that they couldn’t ask Ranika about her skin color now. They had probably done the same thing to conceal Dinkara’s dark skin!

Dhananjay, still feeling a little awkward, smiled and walked over to Ranika, who was standing a few feet away. He held her hand and said, “This is our Ranika! Fair and lovely,” hoping to evoke a chuckle, although Saileshwar didn’t seem to think it was funny.

Sudhamini watched the players here in their backyard, sensing the awkward silence. Well, the only thing was to play out the visit. “Maybe they could go for a little walk?”

“I would love to!” said Dinkara enthusiastically, almost making Ranika laugh.

What was happening? she wondered. She decided to play along, though. Everyone seemed so serious; maybe this was how the world worked. Even if people knew something was not real, they pretended like it was.

As Ranika and Dinkara stepped away from the entrance for a little walk in the backyard, she felt eager to ask him why he had painted his face, what the story was; but she didn’t want to ruin this match—her parents had dealt with enough and more. Things had been smooth till now; she wouldn’t spoil it for anything in the world, with her wounds from her previous two experiences being still fresh.

Although Ranika’s mind laughed at the absurdity of the situation, her heart still cried silently. She never wanted to change! She had always considered herself someone broadminded—but she too had succumbed in the race to find acceptance in the world’s eyes.

As they walked farther away from the entrance, Ranika slowly started to feel empathy for Dinkara. Maybe he too had been discriminated against for his dark skin. Maybe he had been through worse. But maybe she would never find out. She felt like as if she were in a play. But well, that was how people behaved these days, she thought. Nobody was real, everyone busy pretending—skin color or whatever else.

28

Dinkara didn’t have the kind of face that would stop anyone in his or her tracks. Or maybe he did—Ranika might never know. Each time Ranika looked at him during the walk, he seemed to smile and the blush that seemed to accompany it was a giveaway that he was interested in her. Of course, whether he really blushed or not, Ranika couldn’t tell for sure, but she could feel it in the way his shoulderssoftened and the way he’d touch his hair from time to time in an attempt to tidy it.

“It’s well oiled… even a fierce storm wouldn’t mess your hair, sir!” Ranika chuckled.

Dinkara was almost taken aback by her comment, but he couldn’t help but smile. “My mother… she never listens!” he said sheepishly.

Ranika was pretty sure he was blushing now. But why did he have this fake paint on his body? Ranika wanted to grab his shoulders and ask him. Couldn’t he be himself? Yet, wasn’t that exactly what she had done, too? So she shut her mouth, put her head down, and kept walking, though the fact that Dinkara had been so gentlemanly and treated her with much respect made Ranika warm to him.

“Careful!” he said softly, lifting Ranika’s saree so it didn’t get dirtied by the mud of the damp area in the backyard. When Ranika awkwardly tried to hold onto it while trying to walk ahead he added, “Don’t worry, I got this…”

Although she didn’t know his background, she felt comfortable walking next to him. Each time she looked at him, he had looked straight back into her eyes. They didn’t speak too much during the walk, but Ranika did pay him a compliment.

“Your kurta… it’s nice!”

“Thank you!” Dinkara replied. As they looked at each other and smiled, Dinkara added, “I’m a one-woman-man, Ranika. I value honesty and thoughtful conversation above everything else.” He sighed a little. “People tell me I’m ‘old-school,’ even boring, though.”

A silence hung in the air. Ranika wanted to give him a hug but she stopped herself, so she settled for saying, “People are stupid! You should just be you…” She smiled, knowing in her heart Dinkara had said something perfect, what she hoped she might hear.

After they had walked around for a good twenty minutes, Dinkara suggested they return. “Our parents must be waiting. A pleasant walk for us is probably an anxious wait for them wondering about us.”

Ranika smiled. “Yes, you’re probably right. Let’s go this way…” She pointed to a little muddy path. “Shortcut!” she said with a childlike smirk on her face.

Dinkara smiled back warmly. “After you…” he said softly.

As they walked back, the gloom of the now overcast day began to creep into Ranika, like damp into bare timber. Dinkara had shown interest in her, yes. But did he really like her? Or was it just her painted face he was attracted to? The more she thought about it, the more sorrow she felt. The gloom began to seep into her pores, traveling to her heart, which beat morosely. Within a few minutes, they had reached the entrance area where everyone was still standing, talking.

“Here they are!” Dhananjay said. “I hope she didn’t trouble you too much, son!”

“Not at all, Dhanu uncle. My fancy kurta did the trick!” he said, evoking a warm chuckle from everyone.

The sun shone brightly in the sky, but Ranika felt cold… partly because of her fluttering thoughts.

Saileshwar, after studying Ranika’s and Dinkara’s faces, walked over to Dhananjay. “What are you waiting for… where’s my hug?”

Dhananjay grabbed Silaeshwar’s shoulders and turned to Ranika quickly; he hadn’t seen her so relaxed in weeks.

Sudhamini walked over to Ranika. Her expression asked her the question. Ranika smiled at her mother.

“He’s nice man…” she said cautiously.

Sudhamini turned to Dhananjay and nodded, a silent tear dripping down her half-anxious face. Dhananjay immediately embraced Saileshwar and Sudhamini walked over to Kumodhini and hugged her.

Dinkara stepped aside with Ranika, “Are you happy?” he asked politely.

Ranika turned to her parents quickly; never had she seen them happier. She knew what she should say.

“Yes, I’m happy… very happy,” she said with her head bowed, hoping no one could see that it was anxiety, rather than happiness, that showed in her eyes.

29

Overjoyed, both the families saw no reason to wait and they decided at that very moment, in Dhananjay’s backyard, that they would marry Ranika and Dinkara within the next two days.

Ranika and Dinkara had liked each other at their meeting, so what could be better? After all that Ranika had been through, it was in her best interests that the marriage take place immediately. Saileshwar and Kumodhini, too, were keen on getting Dinkara married to Ranika. They observed how respectful she was and felt that she carried herself with poise and grace throughout the morning when they visited. But surprisingly, not once did they question the white color on Ranika’s skin. Although the thought bothered Dhananjay, he bargained with himself: was it something he could easily overlook? Possibly. Having witnessed the heartlessness of Lankeshi and Pithambar, this was nothing! At the end of the day, Dinkara had the white coating too! Clay or paint, it hardly mattered.

Having learned that her marriage was to take place in two days, Ranika was growing more and more anxious with each passing minute. Oh, how she wanted to scrape the white paint off her body and stop pretending to be fair! The more she looked at herself in the mirror, the more disgusted she felt. She wanted to go back to being the happy-go-lucky girl she once was! What kind of marriage was this? Where both the girl and boy pretended as if they hadn’t noticed the thick white coating of clay on each other’s bodies and not asked each other about it! She cursed herself for having stooped to such levels of superficiality! But she had no choice now; she didn’t want to hurt or humiliate Amma and Appa anymore. She couldn’t! If all it took was for her to adorn that white clay and pretend like that was her real color, she would do it! Nonetheless, no matter how much she consoled herself, Ranika couldn’t sleep that night. She knew why she had painted herself white, but she didn’t know why Dinkara had done so—this bothered her like a thorn in the flesh. Had he been humiliated like her? Is that why he had returned from working at his uncle’s shop in the city? Or was he just a superficial man who was okay with pretending to be fair skinned? People these days were good at pretending and maybe he was one of them.

As Ranika tossed and turned in her bed, she recalled how when she was a child, the teacher at school would tell the classroom full of kids all kinds of stories happening around the world: floods turning people’s lives upside down, stories of dowry arguments, of dangers lurking in the forests, and so forth. The class would always end in a silent prayer asking God to help all the people in trouble. Ranika had always felt that she lived in a safe cocoon and that none of these incidents would ever harm her. She thought she would always be the one praying, convinced that she would only hear about these tragic stories but never be affected by them personally. Yet she, too, now had her own strange and tragic story. Here she was, perhaps destined to be a tale told at school: the stupid girl who pretended to be white and got married!! She sighed and turned over in her bed.

During the night, Sudhamini was woken by Ranika’s restlessness. She went to Ranika’s bed. “What’s wrong, Chinnu?”

Ranika sat up in her bed immediately. “I don’t understand what’s going on, Amma… I don’t like it!”

“But you were okay this morning.”

“He seems nice, Amma, b-but we were both painted white! You know why I did it, don’t you?”

Sudhamini nodded.

“But we know nothing about why he’s done it, and that’s making me uncomfortable! He was behaving like it was his real skin color! He seemed so comfortable pretending!”

A long silence filled the air.

“You seemed comfortable, too… Or at least you pretended well,” said Sudhamini softly.

The weight of her words sank into Ranika’s heart. Ranika lowered her head and sighed deeply. Sudhamini cupped Ranika’s face in her warm hands.

“Your hands are so warm!” said Ranika.

Sudhamini smiled, “There’s no need to feel uncomfortable, Chinnu… Look at it this way, maybe he’s just another Ranika? The only difference is that he’s a man and you’re a woman.”

Ranika looked up, wide-eyed.

Sudhamini added, “When we get hurt, everyone gets affected equally, man or woman. He must have been through a lot for him to take this extreme step!”

“I guess…” said Ranika. She closed her eyes and embraced her mother. “But I don’t know how long I can pretend Amma… I was angry and hurt and…”

Sudhamini listened carefully but Ranika never finished the sentence. Sudhamini’s warm embrace had put her to sleep.

Although Ranika slept reasonably for the rest of the night, her anxiety and discomfort seeped into the next day as well. But time flew by briskly and gave Ranika no chance to ponder. Before she could even understand what she had done and what she was getting into, the big day had finally arrived. Ranika’s face remained white and so did Dinkara’s. The wedding was just a few minutes away from commencing and Ranika started walking to the mantap. But instead of enjoying the moment, all she was thinking about was how stupid she looked! She wanted to scrape the disgusting clay off her face, but she couldn’t; all the wedding arrangements had been made and now it was too late.

30

Every marriage has its own story.

As soon as Ranika arrived in her wedding saree at the auspicious wedding area, which was right in the center of Saileshwar’s ancestral farmland, a surge of positivity engulfed her, mainly from the cheerful birdsong in the air, the golden sun in the sky, and the colorful outfits her Amma and Appa were wearing. Although she had seen them wear their outfits that morning, the bright smile on their faces now brought their outfits to life. It seemed like Appa and Amma’s anxious energy from the past few weeks had evaporated and all she could feel from them was a relaxed and positive vibe.
As soon as Ranika arrived, Kumodhini smiled at her warmly and talking a step forward she said, “You look so much like your mother!”
“Thank you,” replied Ranika with a sigh, an awkward smile now appearing on her lips. How could Kumodhini say that? She had the thickest coating of that stupid clay on her face!
And as Ranika walked forward, Sudhamini, noticing that Ranika’s saree was touching the ground said, “Careful, Chinnu, your saree…”
Ranika adjusted her saree quickly so it wouldn’t touch the muddy ground.
Sensing Sudhamini’s anxiety and nervousness, Dhananjay put his arm around her gently. “She’ll be fine, Sudha. Saileshwar is a nice man; I’ve known his family for over two decades. They’ll take care of our Chinnu like their own daughter.”
Sudhamini rested her head on Dhananjay’s shoulder. “I know they’re good people… but just the thought of Chinnu leaving us…” she said, her eyes now turning misty.
“Sshh… Not now, Sudha, please.” Dhananjay softly kissed Sudhamini on her forehead.
While Kumodhini smiled at them both, Saileshwar joked, “Is this discussion about what’s for dessert?”
“Sshh, now!” Kumodhini nudged her husband like he had said something he shouldn’t have!
Sudhamini quickly wiped her moist eyes, “Exactly! Dhanu wanted to know what’s for dessert”
“Kheer!” cried Saileshwar with a big smile, pointing to Dhananjay. “I know the man loves his kheer! There’ll be plenty of it, with coconut and jaggery and dry fruit!”
“Yes, sir! Come what may, I need my kheer!” said Dhananjay in a serious tone, evoking a warm chuckle from everyone, including Dinkara and Ranika.
Saileshwar smiled back warmly, as he walked over to Dhananjay and embraced him. “I hope everything’s okay?”
Dhananjay accepted the embrace. “Yes, all is well! Just that Sudhamini’s a little upset. Ranika is our only daughter, so…”
“Please don’t worry, Dhanu. Dinkara is our only son, too, and has been through a lot. Thank you for understanding… And please don’t worry about Ranika.”
“We’ll take care of her as our own daughter,” Kumodhini added.
“I know you will, my friend!” said Dhananjay as he pulled away from the hug gently.
“So shall we er, ‘kheer’ the way so Ranika and Dinkara can step in?” joked Dhananjay.
As always, it was a joke only Ranika understood. “Yes! Please clear the way so we can pass through!” she smirked.
And as the families stepped aside so the girl and boy could take center stage, Dhananjay felt like a huge burden was lifting from his chest. At least Saileshwar had admitted that his son had been through a lot. Walking over to Saileshwar, he said “Thank you for being honest Sailesh, but do you think Dinkara’s color can come off? Ranika can remove hers, too…” Dhananjay said as he looked at Saileshwar.
However, Saileshwar, brushed the question aside with an abrupt, “It’ll be fine!” before turning towards Dinkara and Ranika. “You’ll both look lovely… This the best time for the exchange of garlands.” He quickly checked the position of the sun in the sky, and then turning to Sudhamini and Dhananjay, he said, “Sir?”
Sudhamini nodded excitedly while Dhananjay responded with a soft, “Yes, it’s about time…” squeezing in a half-smile.
As Dinkara stepped in front of Ranika, she felt a surge of positive energy from him. Despite him standing so tall… he still was gentlemanly, respectful, and calm in his demeanor. Just as nice as he had seemed during their walk in the backyard a couple of days ago. But what bothered Ranika was the white coating on his skin. It had remained. Why wouldn’t he just take it off? She could take hers off, too, if he did, and they could still get married—nothing would change.
As Ranika and Dinkara were about to exchange garlands, Dhananjay started to feel restless… How damaged was Dinkara? Why had Saileshwar brushed aside his question? Dhananjay knew his daughter wasn’t comfortable in her new skin color, while Dinkara did seem to be. Was the white paint now a permanent part of his personality or was it something he could let go of? Despite a few beads of sweat on his forehead, he forced himself to smile enthusiastically. Had he rushed his daughter into the arrangement too quickly? Possibly. But that’s what society could do to you if you cared too much about what the world thinks. It made you feel victimized, through no fault of your own, ultimately leading to unnecessary life altering decisions, which, once done, cannot be undone.

31

Time seemed to stand still for Ranika, like a spectator watching the players, and soon she and Dinkara were circling around the holy fire in what was the most important ritual of the morning—the saat pheras. Ranika walked behind Dinkara as if she were a lifeless prop, ready to be sold. With each step that she took, the emotions in her heart froze, turning it into a dark dungeon.

What was she doing? Was this who she really was? No! And yet, she was comfortably holding the hand of a man who wasn’t being himself either. What she was feeling now was worse than the humiliation she suffered a few weeks ago. At least that was involuntary—this wasn’t! This was worse than being in a staged play she thought, fighting hard to hold her tears back. The only thing that kept her going was the happiness she saw on her parents’ faces.

But oh, why couldn’t they stop the wedding and wait for a better time? Maybe when they had all the answers would be better. Oh, this lack of communication! Yes that was what it was… Society’s stupid lack of communication being considered as a symbol of respect, making it somehow acceptable for people to remain in the dark and feel helpless; one had to abide by the rules of society!

And society had allowed Ranika to be pushed to the point where she had practically invited this tragic situation upon her and her family! And possibly, two lives were about to be ruined; although someone could stop it, nobody was likely to ever take such a bold step! It would be a grave apshakun, a bad omen, and Ranika just could not summon the will enough to overcome the years of conditioning to respect her elders and know her place.

Nor did Dhananjay have such strength. He stood to the side with a fixed a smile, equally worried—about his daughter, the white paint on Dinkara’s face, and Saileshwar’s indifference to the coating. At least the characters in a staged play knew that they were just acting and could go back to being themselves afterward. Yet, here they were, all pretending like the characters were real. Just the thought of Ranika having to live with the white clay for the rest of the life sent a chill down his spine.

Each step Ranika took saddened her more, so much that she thought she would actually be okay with being called names—scarecrow, demon, black witch! Yes, they had been cruel and hurtful, but people had done that anyway all her life. But it was better to live with those names rather than have this disgusting coating of clay lifelong. No she wasn’t going to keep it on forever! Even the thought suffocated her and she felt like a worthless bleached mannequin. This stupid white color wasn’t something she could relate to, either physically or emotionally.

Just as her mind was churning with these horrible thoughts, Dinkara turned to her and whispered, “I should have said this earlier, but you look stunning!”

Ranika raised her head gently to his soft voice, only to see him smiling from ear to ear. Although he had a wide smile plastered across his face, his misty eyes seemed to be hiding a whirlpool of dark emotions that spewed sadness and remorse.

Ranika responded with a simple, “Thank you… So do you like the white coating on my face?”

Dinkara continued to smile and said confidently, “What color? Don’t be silly, we both look perfect.”

He continued to clasp her hand tightly and circle around the fire. But his words made Ranika so restless and uncomfortable that she almost wanted to vomit. As a nauseating dizziness worked its way up her, she felt like a can of slimy white worms had formed in her heart, wriggling up and desperately trying to crawl out of her mouth.

32

As Ranika continued to circle the holy fire with Dinkara, Dhananjay and Sudhamini stood fixated in their spots, as if tied with invisible chains—invisible chains of societal pressure, culture, and tradition. Sudhamini and Dhananjay had been married for thirty years now and, although Dhananjay had a smile plastered across his face, Sudhamini could feel the uncertainty and anxiety brimming in her husband’s mind and heart. She knew him too well.

The same could not be said for Ranika, who knew nothing about her soon-to-be husband. This was Ranika’s big day and she was supposed to be at her happiest, but instead with each step that she took alongside Dinkara, she cringed, beads of sweat starting to form on her brow. Whatever was happening today was shameful—a shame on the institution of marriage!

While all the players stood still around the couple, pretending that everything was perfectly normal, the sun slipped suddenly behind the clouds out of sheer embarrassment. The golden light, which the ceremony was bathed in dissipated and all that remained in the sky was a gray blanket of clouds. It was as if Mother Nature was taking the stage and saying, “If you can’t protect this young girl, I shall!”

The discomfort Ranika was feeling now grew stronger as a cold wind blew across her face, making her all the more nauseous. And then, along with the ringing of the temple bells, thunder rolled overhead. It tumbled toward the little wedding area through the darkened clouds, slowly spreading out across the farmland, hailing the promise of rain on the land below. And as Ranika circled with Dinkara under the ominous blanket of cloud that had now enveloped Saileshwar’s farmland, she started to feel as if her wriggling worms had slid their way up her throat and out of her mouth, hanging in shame, mocking her as they sucked at the thick coating of clay on her face.

She looked upwards to the sky… Was it going to rain? Was Mother Nature going to come to her rescue…? This was no movie; this was her life, and a sad one at that. She swallowed back her vomit, preventing it from creeping further up her throat.

It was then that she noticed the change in Dinkara. His hands were suddenly trembling, she could feel. Amongst all of them, he was the one seemingly the most perturbed by the abrupt change in the atmosphere. Such a shift from his previously confident self.

Kumodhini and Saileshwar, meanwhile, smiled nervously at the couple as they circled the fire. The thunder had shaken them somewhat, but if they seemed anxious at all, they concealed it well and not once did they look up at the sky. They pretended to be extremely comfortable and jubilant.

Dhananjay and Sudhamini were now starting to sweat. What if it rained and they saw Ranika’s dark skin color? What if they stopped the wedding? Who would marry Ranika after a failed wedding ceremony? Dhananjay and Sudhamini’s hearts thudded against their chests as they glanced at the dark sky every now and then, each forcing a smile so that nobody could read their minds. But the discomfort was evident in their eyes, which grew mistier by the minute.

If he stopped the wedding now, nobody would ever marry Ranika, Dhananjay argued in his head. The world would call her names and her life would become a living hell. What might Saileshwar say? What rumors might he spread about Ranika? She’s infertile, a lesbian, a witch…? No! He didn’t have the courage ruin his daughter’s life. It would only make her life all the more miserable and the damage would be irreparable. With sweaty palms and a heart brimming with sorrow, Dhananjay forced a smile as he looked at Ranika, and with Lord Marikamba’s name on his lips he continued to watch silently, helplessly, hoping that the goddess would somehow pull his daughter out of this situation. Dhananjay was praying that it would rain and in the very same breath that it wouldn’t! Oh, how he had messed up. What pained him even more was that he had never asked Ranika if she was happy with the wedding. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t… Had he been a good father, he would have asked—a hundred times! But he simply hadn’t.

Ranika was on the verge of breaking down, but she held it all in. Her parents! Look at their jubilant smiles! They seemed so happy and content. She wouldn’t snatch away their happiness and self-respect… Not now, not ever.

The wedding ceremony unfolding under the gray sky was indeed a very strange and tragic one. A father, although he was only a few feet away from his daughter, was praying for help, instead of being happy for her. The daughter, instead of hoping that her parents would rescue her, was hoping that the clouds would burst open and wash away all her sorrow. Such miscommunication and all in the name of culture and tradition!

The wedding was about to conclude: there were only two more pheras remaining. Just as Ranika and Dinkara started their sixth phera, a startling low rumble rang loud through the cool air, the sky grumbling its dissatisfaction. Tiny trickles of water hit the ground with their pitter-patter. The rain began to fall softly, as if it knew of the hardships both behind and ahead. Each droplet fell on Ranika’s skin with just enough coolness to direct her mind to the present, to pull her away from the pain of the past and the uncertainty of what was to come.

33

The moment it started to rain, panic spread like wildfire. Dinkara screamed loudly as his white coating started to run down his forehead and his cheeks, washing away into the ground. He let go of Ranika’s hand immediately and dashed from the wedding area as if a hurricane inside him was waiting to erupt. Not for a moment did he care about Ranika, the pheras, or the marriage ceremony at hand.

For her part, Ranika was glad that it had started to rain. With Mother Nature coming to her rescue, she could finally be herself again! In contrast, she was suddenly taken aback by Dinkara’s behavior. He howled at the sky frantically, saliva dripping from his white lips, as he muttered sentences in fragmented form.

“Amma… mah… aah!” he screamed, like a little child who had been whipped. He appeared to be in some kind of mental freefall, unable to analyze things or take control of himself physically or emotionally.

Saileshwar, now completely drenched, froze in his spot, his face shrunken in defeat and anxiety, watching his son scream wildly. This wasn’t the first time he had seen Dinkara behaving this way. Why did it have to rain now? Just two more pheras and the marriage would be over! Saileshwar rued their luck as he looked at the gray sky with tears in his eyes.

Dinkara’s anxiety only increased as he started to gasp; his breathing was all-wrong, opening and closing his mouth like a fish, like there was not enough oxygen in the lush green farmland.

Kumodhini saw the horror befalling her son: the white paint—it was washing away… he was going to be exposed! She rushed up to Dinkara. By the time she caught up with him, he was mumbling, unable to catch his words.

“It’s okay, Dinu, it’s okay… we’ll paint you back!” she cried. “Nobody will make fun of you, I promise… They’re all nice people!”

Kumodhini’s words only bounced off Dinkara, like the hard rain falling. His fingers were white-knuckled as he held onto her saree asking her if it was going to be OK.

“Yes!” she cried as she consoled him over and over again, stroking his back and kissing his face, now dripping with tears and rainwater.

What he experienced in his childhood to break him this way, only his parents knew… Nobody ever cared and nobody ever asked. Society had scarred him for life and he had started to feel like a fish out of water without his precious white paint. When, in a fit of panic, he had let go of Ranika’s hand during the sixth phera, it was because he was desperate, like a mad dog suffering from hydrophobia. All he could think of was protecting his white color!

What must he have gone through to behave this way? The human race was a shameful one, often taking comfort in superficiality, wounding people with their shallow thoughts, actions, and judgement! Making beautiful people feel like they’re diseased and ugly. Oh, the mighty human race!

Meanwhile, Dhananjay and Sudhamini were in the grip of their own panic, eyes only on their daughter. What if Dinkara saw Ranika’s dark skin? What if he abandoned the wedding midway? No, they weren’t going to let that happen! With wild eyes and hearts racing, together they rushed toward Ranika to protect her face and skin from the rain. Dhananjay desperately tried to protect Ranika’s face with his shawl, at least partly, but the rain continued to form countless beads over her face, more numerous than even the freckles in her skin, joining to wash the white coating into a delicate cascade of trickles.

In this deprivation of light, Ranika’s skin was all the more sensitive to the freezing rain. It ran down to drip from her jaws, which were clenched tight to prevent the chattering of teeth. But she simply closed her eyes and savored the moment. For the first time in so long, Ranika felt her body relax. She felt… free. In that moment, there were no expectations of her, no deadlines, and no schedules to meet.

Dhananjay was beyond surprised! His daughter didn’t seem to care about the white clay anymore. Maybe she never did…

34

The water droplets began to grow larger as the light pitter-patter of the rain turned into wet thuds. As the icy water raced to meet the ground, a panic-stricken Dinkara crawled frantically towards a bunch of earthen pots in the distance, still screaming at the sky and blinking wildly as if the rain had snatched his identity away. Not caring for the rain, Kumodhini quickly followed him. Dinkara fell to the ground in desperation, before he lifted one of the earthen pots. He looked into it desperately and handed it to Kumodhini.

With his eyes wide, he gasped “Am-ah… Amma wh-ite… Amm-ah white!”

Kumodhini sat clumsily on the wet ground next to her son and took the pot; but before she could even dip her hands in the white color, Dinkara thrust both his hands into the pot, uncaring about scraping or bruising them in the process. He scooped the white liquid in the center of his palms and splashed it onto his face desperately. And again. And over again as the water from the sky streamed through his hair, down his neck, soaking his clothes completely. The chilly, unforgiving wind cut through him like a knife, but he didn’t care. All that mattered to him was painting his skin back to white.

Yet the more Dinkara painted himself white, the darker the sky became with the ominous rain bearing clouds now lingering low and the wind picking up, howling, crying, warning, baying like a wolf in the night. Cracks of lightning pierced the air and the rolling booms of the thunder reverberated overhead. As the rain danced in the puddles like watery sprites, a helpless Kumodhini tried to calm Dinkara down. But the downpour didn’t look like it was going to stop and unless it stopped, there was no way that Dinkara was going to calm down.

Saileshwar stood in the distance, looking up at the heavens helplessly, hoping against hope that the rain would stop; but instead, the lightning flashed brightly on the hillock bordering the farmland, like a serpent of sent to bite the earth. Finally admitting the rain wouldn’t stop anytime soon and that he could no longer hide his son’s tragic past, at least not from Dhananjay’s family, Saileshwar walked up to Dhananjay as Kumodhini and Dinkara struggled with the white paint in the wet mud.
***
Dinkara’s complexion was deep brown from his childhood days and ever since his first day at school, he was constantly made fun of for his skin color, both by his classmates as well as his teachers. Ugly lizard, blackie, stinky beggar… were some of the names he was given by his classmates. Each time Dinkara tried to mingle or play with his classmates during break time, they would mock him and ridicule him, saying his dark skin color would only bring them bad luck and make them lose the game! Although Dinkara didn’t take their words seriously at first, they soon began to bother him—too much for a young boy of his age to digest and fight against. Sometimes the words were so harsh that he would often come home and cry for hours on end, turning over in his mind the mean words his friends had uttered; on most days he wouldn’t even eat dinner, instead just cry himself to bed.

Saileshwar, busy with his business trips, was unaware what his son was going through while Kumodhini was so busy taking care of the farmland and managing its workers that more often than not when she returned home, Dinkara was fast asleep. Although Saileshwar and Kumodhini loved their son, they fell into their routines and never really gave him the care and attention he needed.

On certain days, during lunch break at school, while all the kids sat together in the lush green school grounds and shared their lunch with each other, Dinkara was always left out. Nobody ever wanted him around, nor did they invite him to sit with them. Nobody ever shared their lunch with him and nobody wanted a share of his lunch either. Instead, each time he walked around a group of kids with his lunchbox, they would scream, “The ugly beggar lizard is here! Here to steal our lunch!” before bursting into loud laughter and hi-fiving each other. On one such day at school it was Dinkara’s birthday and he had just turned thirteen; but nobody’s behavior changed towards him even though it was his birthday. In fact, nobody knew it was Dinkara’s birthday and even when they found out nobody seemed to care. On the same day, it was also the birthday of Ramana, another boy in Dinkara’s class; Ramana wasn’t as dark as Dinkara though he wasn’t very fair either. But Ramana was popular amongst his classmates and teachers since his father, Brijnath, was a trustee of the school and often distributed sweets amongst the school kids and teachers every couple of weeks, from chocolates to free water bottles. So this made Ramana popular amongst all the other kids. Dinkara, on the other hand, while good at academics and sport, at finishing his homework regularly and was one of the most punctual kids at school, somehow none of that ever seemed to matter to his teachers or his classmates; the fair-looking Manish or the tall and athletic Shrestha often enamored them. Dinkara was too puny and dark to draw their attention. And his father, what did he have? Just a small little saree shop!

So on Dinkara’s birthday, everybody at school was busy congratulating Ramana while nobody cared to acknowledge Dinkara, not even his own bench mate. Saileshwar had given Dinkara sweets the previous night, telling him to share them with his friends at school.

“Thanks, Appa. I’ll have so many new friends!” Dinkara had said while accepting the bag of sweets excitedly. But during break, when Dinkara stepped out to distribute his birthday sweets, he saw that Ramana’s bag of sweets was bigger and the sweets fancier. His smile faded. Wiping his tears, he quietly slipped the sweets back into his bag. What if nobody accepted them and what if they insulted him instead? No he didn’t want that on his birthday!

On the same day, during lunch break, everyone continued celebrating with Ramana while nobody even spoke to Dinkara. He looked at the full bag of sweets in his backpack and wept silently and walked back slowly to an empty classroom to sit alone, his little head buried in his slender arms. The more Dinkara wept, the more lonely and sad he felt.

It was then that he felt a sudden, but gentle, pat on his back. “What’s wrong?” asked master Bindukumar.

Dinkara was taken aback. “N-nothing, master!”

Dinkara’s geography teacher had seen Dinkara walk up the stairs silently and had followed him. “You can tell me…” he encouraged as he put his arm around Dinkara gently, aware that the boy was often made fun of for his complexion and he was low on confidence.

“I-it’s my birthday today and nobody has wished me… a-and…” Overcome by emotion, Dinkara burst into tears yet again.

Bindukumar took Dinkara’s hand and said, “Come with me, we’ll celebrate your birthday. Don’t cry for silly things!”

Dinkara followed his master, and although he didn’t know where Bindukumar was taking him, he felt comforted by his kind words. Nobody—neither his classmates nor any teacher—had spoken to him so nicely at school in a long time.

Bindukumar walked Dinkara to his room and inviting him inside, said, “We’ll celebrate your birthday in grand style today! How old are you?”

Dinkara wiped his misty eyes. “Thirteen, sir,” he said, smiling.

As Dinkara stepped inside, Bindukumar took a step forward and embraced him. “I don’t want you to feel lonely ever again. Happy Birthday, Dinkara!” he whispered as he brushed his lips against Dinkara’s.

Dinkara, although a little taken aback, smiled as he stood there enthusiastically in hopes of celebrating his thirteenth birthday.

Bindukumar also smiled. “I’ll be back. Close your eyes!”

Starting to feel a little uncomfortable, Dinkara couldn’t say no to his teacher’s request, so he closed his eyes. As the minutes passed, though, he grew restless and he couldn’t keep his eyes closed any longer. As soon as he opened them, he saw Bindukumar’s face right next to his. He could almost feel his breath.

“Tha-thank you s-sir!” he mumbled, seeing a small cake in Bindukumar’s hand.

“It’s for you!” cried Bindukumar before a heavy silence settled over them, thicker than the uneasy tension in the atmosphere.

Bindukumar’s lack of eye contact should have bothered Dinkara from the start… his father and mother had always looked into his eyes. Bindukumar’s kiss on his lips had made him uncomfortable, and in this moment now he felt like a worthless piece of flesh. Was he just a puppet to be controlled by Bindukumar? To perform a function he required? Dinkara stood there, his body shivering as Bindukumar made his advances bit by bit…

“Who said you’re ugly? You’re handsome… It’s important that you love yourself before anyone else does!” mumbled Bindukumar as he unhooked Dinkara’s shorts.

Tears streamed down Dinkara’s face. Being in this room now was worse than any physical pain he had ever endured, and he had had his share. He’d rather be called names and die alone than be a victim of Bindukumar’s sickly love. Still, he was frozen to the spot, unable to process the reality, unable to move, to flee from the room.

Nobody else knew what had happened that day in Bindukumar’s room; the incident had left Dinkara in a deep state of shock from which he was never really able to fully recover. After the assault, he had looked in the mirror and wept for hours on end, looking at his bruised lips and neck, cursing his fate for having the dark skin that had led to him being in that room… And long after his tears had dried and his abrasions healed, his sense of self remained in tatters. He felt like a distortion of who he once was, unable to find his way back. Each day was a thing in itself; he didn’t dwell in the past or look to the future.

His parents wanted the same boy they loved before, the boy who brought them sunshine. But how could he tell them those rays weren’t there anymore? That he was barely there? Perhaps, one day, he could find a way to help others and be a voice for the broken. But not yet.

Kumodhini and Saileshwar changed his school, and even tried home schooling, but the damage was done. The doctor prescribed pills; the counselor listened and had all the right words. But Dinkara had to accept that he was a different person now, more cautious, less trusting of strangers, more fearful. It was because of his dark skin that he had been so alone… so vulnerable. So he started using the white paint as a disguise from then on, fearing that otherwise, evil men of the world would take advantage of him and abuse him.

Each time Dinkara entered any large room, he could feel those cold and slimy fingers just crawling up his shorts… making him want to throw up. And on his birthday each year, his heartrate would automatically accelerate and as much as he tried, he could not control his breathing. He would always check his skin for the white paint, several times a day. He would never leave the house without a white coating of paint on his body. Otherwise, he would be dragged back into a full-blown flashback, checking himself for the blood that had run down his legs, seeing the face of his attacker on every man that walked by in the street. He had been hospitalized many times, lost in psychosis, fighting his torturer off again and again. But seeing was believing: white skin could stop the cycle.

Although Saileshwar and Kumodhini made several attempts to unravel the truth, by reporting their son’s wounds to higher authorities, by questioning fellow students, Bindukumar pleaded innocent. The students were busy celebrating Ramana’s birthday and so never witnessed anything and were thus of no help. Dinkara, in a state of shock, never betrayed any details, and eventually the lack of evidence worked in the teacher’s favor; he escaped scot-free, continuing to work at the school.
***
As the rain fell in crazy, chaotic drops during the pheras and started to wash Dinkara’s paint away, that day came flooding back in a full-blown panic attack. From the confident groom at the ceremony, Dinkara was suddenly turned into the thirteen-year-old panic-stricken boy who was sexually abused on his birthday, who could only care about repainting himself.

Ranika, herself scarred, stood in the rain calmly, letting the rain wash her color away, preventing her mother from covering her. She knew that something was terribly wrong with Dinkara and wanted to help, yet she couldn’t reach out to him, at least not now. She still needed to take care of her own demons, her own insecurities before she could help anyone else. The contrast between the two was there to see. For as the rain washed her color away, far from panicking, it was slowly restoring Ranika’s self-worth.

35

Unable to hold the truth any longer, Saileshwar walked over to Dhananjay and disclosed Dinkara’s past to him in the middle of the heavy downpour. Dhananjay was taken aback and in complete shock. “What are you saying? Why didn’t you tell me this earlier, Sailesh?” said an emotional Dhananjay, not knowing whether he should be angry or feel sad for Saileshwar. He stood in the rain unmoved, absorbing the enormity of what he had just heard. But after a few moments, he leaned forward slowly and embraced Saileshwar, who by then was weeping, guilt-stricken for hiding the truth.

“I’m so-sorry, Dhanu, I should have told you earlier but I was so scared and confused… Dinkara’s my son but he’s never going to be okay, it hasn’t been easy… I don’t know why it had to happen to my child. What did he ever do wrong?”

Dhananjay looked Saileshwar in the eye and said, “You’ve told me the truth. You could’ve hidden the real reason but you didn’t. Don’t ask for forgiveness when you’ve made no mistake. It’s okay…”

Dhananjay saw his words comforted Saileshwar. In a cautious tone, he added, “My heart goes out to Dinkara and to your family, Sailesh. But it’s only fair that Ranika gets to decide what she wants to do from here on… I don’t want us to interfere…”

Saileshwar wiped his tears and nodded. “Whatever you say, Dhanu.” He looked at Dinkara in the distance, who was still crawling in the wet mud, desperately trying to repaint his face.

Ranika felt calm, like she had finally found her freedom. She was free. Free from the prison of thick brambles and deadly thorns she had planted for herself. She would never be able to repay Mother Nature for her kindness, but she was going to offer her heart and give her soul. Always and forever. Kissed by the rain and glistening, the wet ground was now cold under Ranika’s feet, the water bubbling over her feet gently in the wet mud, tickling her toes. She rose, took a few steps forward with her head tilted towards the gray sky as the rain continued to fall like God’s own poetry, each drop a single letter in a song that had its own music, which called to Ranika in ways she could not explain. The melody brought serenity to her heart in spite of the chaos around.

As Sudhamini tried to make sense of Ranika’s behavior, she felt an arm around her shoulder; it was Dhananjay. “Chinnu’s paint… it’s coming off!” she cried. “Do something, Dhanu!”

Dhananjay tightened his arm around her. “Be calm, Sudha. She doesn’t need to hide anymore… And look, she doesn’t want to…”

Sudhamini embraced her husband and resting her head on his shoulders, she said, “I hope she doesn’t have to… I want her to be free.”

36

As Ranika continued to soak in the rain, all the white paint was washed away. She loved the rain. Everything about rain. The whispering hum as sheets of precipitation plummeted to the water-forsaken ground, the often-unanticipated flashes of lightning or the rolls of ominous thunder. She loved it all.

Finally, when there was no more white paint left on her skin, Ranika stood up slowly from the wet ground and looked around and saw Dinkara in the distance, still crawling in the mud, desperately trying to paint himself. She was reminded of how she had painted herself white a few weeks ago when she felt that there was no hope and no respite. Her heart reached out to Dinkara. She wanted to run up to him, embrace him tightly and say, “I feel you. I see you. I do. I see the pain in your eyes. I know it has sat there for your lifetime, trapped in the confusion we all carry. But don’t lose hope, for one day it will set you free. I’m not perfect, yet I haven’t lost hope; I’ve slowly come to understood what it means to find myself and be free again. So let me walk away, just for now. And one day I’ll know the right way to bring you home.”

She knew that only Dinkara could find his own way, just as she had done, for him to find his own light at the end of the tunnel. Her words, her embrace, her companionship would mean nothing to him until he learned to embrace himself for who he is. He needed to heal and heal on his own, she knew. Nobody could do that for him; he had to be his own rescuer, his own ray of hope.

As the lightning cut crazy zigzags into the black sky, Ranika started to walk away from the wedding area. With each stride, her mind became clearer. And as the cool raindrops caressed her skin, promising a new dawn, a new beginning, Ranika entombed her dark memories of the past in thick-walled ice. Then, abruptly pausing to close her eyes and take in a deep breath of dewy air, she steeled herself to only think of her future from here on. A future she would mold, build, direct. With each stride, she felt more in charge, more in command of her own mind, body, and soul. She was a girl walking to a future that lay squarely in her own hands. Determination drove her on and with her face now wiped clean of the white paint, she felt lighter and stronger than she had in oh so long.

The day was fading now, the coming night teasing the sky into twilight. Stopping briefly on her way, Ranika glanced back at her parents, who were hugging each other and smiling at her warmly. A wave of happiness and relief washed over her when she saw their happy faces, feeling it soak right into her bones. Along with her own, Dhananjay and Sudhamini’s suffering had ended, too, she realized. Dizzy with exaltation, she closed her eyes and savored the joy that fizzled in her heart. Using both her hands, she gently took the wedding garland from around her neck. She felt a slight tremble sense of fear as she realized the enormity of what she had just done—taken her wedding garland off before the wedding had officially ended. Eyes plastered to the floor, she stared at her wet feet, waiting to see if anyone might object or interfere. The wind threw her hair around aimlessly as she looked up and saw her parents still smiling.

Ranika knew she had won her freedom. So why did she still felt incomplete? Was it because she had only just won her own battle, and in doing so, had turned her back on a good man still fighting his…?

As the rain continued to beat down on the farmland, guilt washed over her. Slowly a silent scream formed from deep within and burst from her. Slow, desolate tears ran from her unblinking eyes and dripped steadily into her saree as she walked away with the wedding garland in her hand.

37

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