By Aarti Kalamangalam
I used to wish that my skin was lighter. I’d spend my days praying for good riddance to my bile skin and replenishment with milky white. I scratched tiger stripes into my body, captivated as the dead skin cells collected, a perfect amalgamation of snow princess. I stared at my palms for hours, hopeful that if I just wished hard enough, my paleness would expand, eating the darkness away until I was all beautiful flesh, sheer perfection.
II. It’s first grade. I sit next to my best friend in class, Delia. She makes fun of me for wearing socks with sandals, and I make fun of her for reading Magic Tree House. There’s a class play. The Little Red Riding Hood. I play the grandmother. Delia says this makes sense, considering how slowly I run. A white girl plays Red, and she’s instructed to kiss me on the cheek. She laughs, incredulous. I’ll never forget what she said: “I’m not going to kiss her. She’s brown- she’s dirty”. I don’t feel hurt, surprisingly. I agree with her. I didn’t, for some reason, think she’d actually kiss me, did I?
Under the dead skins, though, were words written in chicken scratch. “Dirty”, they said. “Unworthy”, they echoed. “Oh, god,” I repeated. With thy spirit, make me lovely too. I broke. He can’t make me lovely, can He?
II. It’s sixth grade. I have a crush. He has hazel eyes and a peach fuzz mustache, everything from my Disney Channel dreams. We’re friends: I talk, he laughs. I’ve never felt funny before. I didn’t know I was allowed to be funny. He thinks I’m pretty. I didn’t know I was allowed to be pretty, either. I indulge in his worship of me. I fall into it, pink and silky against my skin. He tells me, you’re cute for an Indian girl.
My light and dark grew deeper and more disparate. I looked in the mirror and saw two sides of a soul, one picturesque, the other reminiscent of a history I didn’t want to remember. When I bathed in the rain, I smelled my ancestors. When I looked at my reflection, I saw their downfall. Droplets, little by little, eroded my exoskeleton and left me shell-less, a cause without rebellion. Water smoothed my rough cracks and washed away the shelter I used to cover myself.
III. I’m officially a teenager. Kids from my school go on a field trip: Yellowstone. When they return, a rumor spreads. A boy was caught watching porn in the hotel room. He laughs it off, and everyone else does, too. I feel a deep shame materializing into plum splotches on my cheeks. He’s half-Indian, I think. Does he have any idea what he’s done to our reputation here? I avoid him in the hallways. My feet scuffle. I spend years wondering why I carry my country on my shoulders when I could just callously reject it instead.
Sometimes, old wounds reopen. New chasms bridge gaps between unbroken skin. New words litter my body, some different from before. They are smaller, less consequential. I am smoothly rough, a newborn baby.
IV. I’m fifteen. I meet a boy at summer camp. He has warm eyes and coarse, curly hair. He reminds me of me. He tells me he’s from Kerala, but can speak some Hindi. I smile as he stumbles through familiar sounds, marveling at how homely they seem while coming out of his throat. When he kisses me, I tumble into memories of sandalwood incense, aam patterned bedspreads, and glistening mishri. He tells me I remind him of rose falooda on his birthday. When we hold hands in the hallway, my heart calms, for once. The beats are soft and kind, like waves lapping on the shore. I pay no attention to stares or questions from others. I even tell my mother about him. He calls me Hindi pet names, sometimes. Dilruba. Chand ka tukra. Jaan.
My eyes soak in the world, color shifting into grayscale then back again. I collect my memories for the day and rinse them in rainwater, letting raw pigment pool in the crevices of my hands.
V. I invite my friends to my favorite Indian restaurant for my birthday. I wear my favorite kurti and speak to my mother in unapologetic Hindi. I introduce them to a different part of me, one they’ve only ever seen glimpses of. It’s the part of me that sings along to Bollywood songs and eats too many microwaveable idlis. They don’t seem to mind, though. In fact, they barely even notice that I’m any different.
I glance at my reflection. My face is a myriad of colors: all the pigments from old memories and experiences. I am a whole history, a unique time capsule. A vision.
Aarti Kalamangalam is an aspiring writer and speaker. She loves advocating for causes, especially those related to women’s rights and race relations. She is a fellow for the national nonprofit The Homegirl Project, through which she is organizing a story slam for youth of color in collaboration with ARTSpeaks. In addition to being a writer, she also codes and is Vice President of the Coding Club at her high school. In the future, Aarti wants to join her interests in problem solving and algorithms with her passions for social justice and truly make a difference in the world.