That’s me, Richard Victor Rodrigues in a Mahindra jeep driving down the Western Express Highway heading home to Borivali. It’s a Saturday afternoon and the road is jam-packed with traffic. I’m driving in the fast lane, which in Bombay Standard Time means I’m not doing more than 30. I stop at a signal. The sun bursts in through the open window, burning the skin on my arm. I don’t bother to move it. I don’t care. Not anymore.
I’m not alone. My mamma Theresa, my younger sister Jane and Aunty Alemao are with me. Aunty Alemao is not related to me but I call her aunty because she is older than me. Over the traffic’s noise I can hear mamma and aunty talk in whispers. Jane is sitting next to me fidgeting angrily with a crumpled hanky.
‘Poor Hero. How could she call him that? That that word… shee baba,’ my mother said.
‘I’m still in shock. Her father had agreed…’ said Aunty Alemao.
Jane turns around. ‘That bloody bitch Candice. If I see her again one tight slap only I will give her,’ she said.
Candice Francesca Sequeira. Have you seen matrimonial ads in Indian newspapers? This was the bride every guy dreamed about. Beautiful, fair, educated, good family, did I mention very very fair? You don’t know it but this girl was the fairest in the land. Snow White had nothing on her. When Aunty Alemao brought the marriage proposal, I took one look at her photo and knew I found my soul mate.
So, just an hour ago, we were in Hindmata Chawl, Santacruz East, walking down a narrow corridor. Candice’s home was at the end. We reached the entrance and her father came out to greet us. His name was John and he worked for a big ship building company in Mazgaon. We went inside and met Maggie, Candice’s mother. She was as Aunty Alemao told us: a faded beauty. Next came Pam, the unmarried elder sister.
The ladies disappeared into a small kitchen leaving us with John the father.
Their house was small and with all of us inside there was very little of the floor left to see. I was seated on the bed below the fan and John the father sat next to me. Mamma and Aunty Alemao were near a small table sitting on folding chairs. In the showcase, the TV was on. A song featuring my favourite hero was playing. Aunty Alemao caught my eye. With her chin she pointed in the direction of wall behind the bed. I turned and saw posters of my favourite Bollywood hero stuck on it. This hero was my good luck charm. If Candice liked him as much as I did, then this wedding was pukka.
The room was darkish even with the tubelight on. Then Candice stepped out of the kitchen with a tray and the place lit up like a cricket stadium when the floodlights come on in a day-night match. She just took my breath away. But she took one look at me and the smile froze on her face. With a small scream she turned and returned into the kitchen. There was a pindrop silence. Then a very clear voice said these words: ‘Mummy, there’s no way I’m going to marry that blackie.’
Blackie. Of all the times I was called that name, this was the worst. But the feeling was always the same. Shame. I hadn’t felt like this in a long time.
I must have been nine or ten at school when I was first called Blackie.
‘Hey Blackie, what you got in your lunch box? Gimme…,’ said a tall boy with a big stomach that made the school’s badge on his PT tee shirt look like a shield.
‘Why are you calling me Blackie?’ I said.
‘Because your skin is black, duffer,’ he said. From behind him a bunch of boys appeared. One had a trail of snot hanging from his nose. He took a quick deep breath and the snot went back inside. Another was fair with yellow teeth poking through his lips. There was a fellow with a round tummy and a pagdi. Another was slim with light eyes and brown hair.
‘My name is Richard not Blackie. I got beef sandwiches. Here take…’ I said.
‘Ha! My favourite. Give one to Chua also. He loves beef.’ The fair boy with yellow teeth stepped up and I gave him one half. He nibbled on it. He did look like a rat.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked the big boy.
‘Allan. But everybody calls me Baby Elephant,’ said Allan. “This brown-eyed chap here is Chikna. That one with the leaking nose is Shemdya. The fatty is Ponda. And Chua you already met.’
And that’s how Richard died and Blackie was born.
We grew older. Ponda became thin and was called Sardar. Nitin got braces and stopped being Chua. Shemdya stopped catching colds. Handsome Chikna made girls go ga-ga and turned into a stud. Allan? Allan stayed what he is till today. A big fat bully. And I remained Blackie.
Allanchristened me with that new name. Soon everyone began to use it. I hated it. But the more I fought it, the worse it got. So whenever I got called that name, all I did was become silent and wish I was in some other place.
I sat there like a stone statue. I couldn’t believe how everything had changed in a minute from paradise to hell. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
‘Arre, y’all called us to see her,’ said Jane, ‘we didn’t beg, y’all did.’
‘Jane,’ my mother said, ‘keep quiet. Mind your manners.’
‘Forgive Candy,’ said Maggie the mother, ‘she doesn’t know what she is saying.’
‘I know exactly what I am saying, mummy,’ said Candice, ‘I did not wait all my life to marry a fellow like him.’
‘How rude,’ said Jane, ‘your heart must be made of stone. How can you insult my brother to his face.’ She was crying by then.
‘Sorry ya Jane,’ said Candice,’ ‘you know how I speak without thinking. Maybe your brother should use fairness cream. The one his hero promotes. But what’s the use. Colour gaya tho paisa vapas.’
Jane started screaming and cursing‘Colvont... That’s what you are, Candy, a colvont…. malcreade… She doesn’t deserve you, Richard… we don’t want such a chedi in our family,’ she said.
All I could hear was Candice words: Colour gaya tho paisa vapas. It’s a taunt that people like me hear all the time. This time, enough was enough.
I got up and left without a word. The others followed me out. Jane’s yelling had attracted the neighbours. They had gathered outside the door and I had to push them out of the way.
Someone in the crowd said: ‘Dese dose rich people who came to see Candy? Why are dey acting like chawl people, men?’
Another, a female voice: ‘Arre, that boy looks like that hero only. But a carbon copy, men.’
Yes, you should know why my folks called me Hero. This happened when I was around 15. A new hero had emerged and he was the talk of the town. Me, Allan and the rest of the gang went to see the movie. We came out of the cinema and everyone said I looked just like him. OK, a darker version. That’s when the gang began to call me Hero. Hero! Instead of Blackie. It was like being born again.
I began to worship that hero like a god. He gave me a new life. I walked like him. Talked like him. Danced like him. Dressed like him. I became so popular. Walking down the street in the colony, people knew me. In the college canteen, people knew me. At terrace parties, people knew me. I was Hero because of that hero.
And now a zero because of Candice. You know that thing she said: Colour gaya tho paisa vapas. Outside Borivali station, you hear it from vendors selling cheap T-shirts. To convince buyers, they say: colour gaya tho paisa vapas. In Hindi it means: If the colour fades, we’ll return your money. Over time, it became a joke associated with dark-skinned people, fairness creams and their failure. And here’s the bloody truth.
I’ve been using that fucking cream ever since it came out in the market. And a bullshit lot of good it did me. My honour had been insulted. Revenge was the only way to get it back. Exit, Hero. Enter, Anti-hero.
That’s me, Candice Sequira in the black sunglasses, smoking my seventh cigarette of the morning. I’ve been up since 4.30, got to the location by 6 and started doing the cast’s makeup at 6.30. We’re shooting outdoors in a park. The film’s name is Meeti Seeti. My favourite film star – I have his posters around my bed – is the hero of the film.
I am standing below a banyan tree with my friends: Chandu the spot boy, Javed the third Assistant Director and Ratna the producer’s secretary’s daughter. The cameraman was setting up the lights. He always takes hours to set up so this gives us a chance to catch up.
‘It must have been the worst day of your life no?’ said Javed.
‘A beautiful girl like you deserves a good-looking hubby ya,’ said Rita.
‘Candy, don’t be a chutiya’, said Chandu, ‘you think you’re special because you look like a heroine? Arre good-looking girls are a dime a dozen. Look at that kaali billi’, said Chandu, pointing at a dark-skinned cop who’s talking to the film’s heroine, ‘see what a maal she is. You think you’re better than her? No chance. What if she catches your kaalia, haan? Then it’s game over. Arre, marry him, khalass. He’s rich, live like a queen.’
You should know that Chandu is a 50 year-old man who has been working as a spot boy all his life just as his father did. He’s like a father to me and always takes care of me on set, which is why I let him talk this way to me.
The film’s hero walks past us. A short distance away, the hero’s assistant unfolds a deck chair and raises a picnic umbrella. We fall silent as the hero sits down and makes himself comfortable in the shade. Looking at his face I’m reminded of yesterday. My head hurts even more.
Blackie. I shouldn’t have called him that. But what to do? That Aunty Alemao who made the proposal said he was a perfect catch. “Rich, well-educated, lives in a flat and when you see him you’ll get a fantastic surprise,” she had said.
Fantastic surprise, my bum.
That’s what I told my father after those people left.
‘So what if he looks like my favourite hero? He’s so black. I can’t help it. That was all I could think about,’ I said.
‘You gone mad, men,’ my father said, ‘Richard would be such a good husband. I asked Pinto – he lives in the same colony – if he knew their family? “Full marks,” Pinto said, “only son and two cold storage shops. Father working in the Gulf.” You would have got the best life. All luxury. And you kicked it away.’
Daddy sank onto the bed. Years of wrenching nuts and bolts on ship boilers had made his arms as large as a Dara Singh. But when he put his face into his hands, they looked weak. He was trembling. My mother went over to him and put an arm around his shoulders.
‘It’s all your fault,’ Pam said, ‘you spoilt her. Gave her a big head. Telling her she’s a princess.’
Mummy let go of daddy and her fingers went straight to the cross on her gold chain.
‘I swear on God, I told that to you also, Pam,’ mummy said, ‘you’re my first born. You were my bangaar, my golden child.’
‘That’s the problem,’ said Pam. ‘you treated me like a princess. Told me I deserved a prince. Who came to see me? Plumbers, carpenters, faltu types. Now I’m stuck. A spinster at 29. Do you want to end up like me, Candy?’
‘I won’t because I look like a princess,’ I said, looking at myself in the mirror on the steel cupboard.
‘Princess, princess, come here. See what I got for you.’
I must have been around eight or nine when I learned I was the luckiest girl in the world. Daddy was back from the factory. He smelled of grease and sweat. He’s holding a hanky tied at the edges into a bundle. He opened it and I saw my most favourite sweet in the world. Pedas. Daddy pushed one into my mouth.
‘There was a pooja in our workshop’, he told my mother who brought him a cup of tea. I gobbled down the peda and reached for another.
‘Bai, leave some for Pam. She will be back from tuition soon,’ said daddy.
‘Arre, let her eat. She likes it. Eat. Eat,’ mummy said, putting another peda into my mouth.
This was my life. My parents gave me everything I asked for. Every time. They were so proud of my fair skin. They never let me play in the sun because they said it would make my skin dark. Then no one would marry me, mummy would say. So like her, I carried an umbrella whenever I went out.
At family gatherings when all the aunties and uncles showed off their children’s achievements in studies and sports… everyone complimented me for my looks.
‘She will marry a prince who will take her away to his castle? You will let us stay in your castle, no?’ my father would say.
‘Yes, even Pam, although I hate her. She’s always pinching me when no one’s looking,’ I would say.
That, depending on mummy’s mood either meant a shouting or a slap for Pam. Nobody messed with Princess Candy in the Sequira kingdom.
Everyone was messing with me.
‘You insulted him,’ said daddy, ‘and you insulted me. Go away. I don’t want to look at your face.’ He looked down at his hands. I knew what he wanted to do. He just had never done it before. Not with me.
‘You don’t understand,’ said mummy, ‘daddy is becoming old. He wants to see you married before he retires.’
‘No I don’t understand. Why are y’all forcing me to marry that blackie. Mummy, remember how you called Paul Uncle’s wife “Black Beauty” when you saw her for the first time. And when we watched that English movie, how horrified we became when that negro actor kissed the white lady? And daddy, all those fairy tale books you got for me when I was small… You only showed me the pictures and said: this is what my husband would look like? Fair skin, fair complexion, princess this, princess that… That’s all I heard all my life. And now you want me to marry that blackie?”
We all were crying. My father said, ‘Candy, if you don’t marry Richard I will not talk to you again.’ I reached out to him but he turned his face to the wall. He had never done this before.
I ran out crying into the corridor and bumped into my neighbour, Loose Motion. From childhood Louis has suffered from a stomach illness that made him go the toilet all the time. That’s why the name.
He dangled his motorcycle keys in my face, ‘Hey Candy, coming for a ride?’ he said. He noticed my tears and immediately his face softened, ‘What happened, men? Who’s troubling my princess’ he said.
Not princess. Queen. That what I was became when I turned fifteen. You cannot imagine how beautiful I was. Fresh, innocent, perky. All the boys in the chawl panted after me. Especially, Louis. Tall with a good build. Fair, firm lips. His was the best house in our chawl. Full day he blasted latest hits… what a sound system he had! On match day the whole chawl comes to his house to see it on a 48 inch Sony TV. His mother worked in Bahrain so he had an easy life.
But this easy life made Louis stupid. He failed at studies. Did not even complete his Matric. The only job he ever got was when Chantall gave him a handjob after the farewell party for Johnny who was going to work in Saudi Arabia.
The chawl was full of guys like him. They would sit under the banyan tree in the compound and play carrom all day. Smoking cigarettes and drinking country.
Some girls would get involved with them. They would go for movies, long drives and dances. But whenever I was asked I always said “No”. Mummy and daddy had warned me to stay clear of these faltu types. After all, I was a princess. And one day my prince would come and take me away to his castle.
But only I know how often I had to tell myself that because every day I thought I should tell Louis “Yes” and do things with him that would make the padre blush when I go to make confession.
Rita squeals and I stop daydreaming.
‘Oh my god, look at that guy with the hero,’ said Rita.
‘Same, same, they look,’ said Javed.
‘Saala, double role,’ said Chandu.
I look in the hero’s direction and get the shock of my life. It’s that blackie Richard. He’s talking with folded hands to the hero. The hero’s bodyguard tried to push him away but the hero stops him.
Richard meets my eye and at once I know something’s wrong. The bloody bastard has come here to make a tamasha. I run towards them. The hero opens his arms to hug Richard. Richard unfolds his palms and I see they are black. As black as his skin.
‘WATCH OUT!’ I said.
And throw myself in between them.
That’s me, Angela Mathilda Soares, standing in a private room of my parish church on a fine Saturday evening. Outside, through the window, I can see a bunch of young men in their late teens. They’re dressed in oversized suits, sharing a cigarette and a conversation.
‘What a champion that bugger was, no? Imagine the balls it took to do that. Blacking that hero’s face,’ said the navy blue suit.
‘Now he’s a bloody hero, men. Interview in papers and all. What luck…’ said the grey suit who stopped mid-sentence to shout at the black suit who was looking at him with mouth agape, ‘Francis gandu, smoke the cigarette, don’t make a agarbatti of it.’
‘I heard a cop was involved. A female cop that too. Catholic, someone told me,’ said the beige jacket with pants that did not match.
Okay, no drama. I am that female cop: Sub-Inspector Angela Soares of the Mumbai Police. I was on special duty on the film set because some rowdies a day earlier had harrassed the film’s heroine with lewd comments. She wailed, the producer lodged a complaint and I ended up on the set of Meeti Seeti, which means Sweet Whistle in Hindi.
I was discreetly eyeing the hero asleep on a deck chair when the heroine came over to where I was standing. Light as a feather with beautiful bones shimmering below a short dress, the heroine mock saluted me. Holding a lit cigarette between slim fingers, she told me it was a childhood dream to be a cop. She shrugged, the ends of her mouth turned down. ‘Look at me now…’, she said, implying she had failed her ambition. I saw my reflection in the mirrored surface of her oval-shaped sunglasses. My childhood dream was to be you, I said to myself, and that’s what it will always be. A dream.
Just then, I heard a girl scream, ‘WATCH OUT!’
I sprang into action. The commotion was taking place around the hero. I leaped to the rescue. I saw a black-booted, black uniform-clad man beating the tar out of a man dressed in white. A slim girl in jeans and a white top covered in black streaks was sprawled on top of him. It looked like she was trying to protect him from the boots that jolted the man’s torso with every kick. I pushed away the bodyguard, pulled the girl off the man and yanked him to his feet.
The film’s hero said, ‘What’s his problem, yaar?’
‘Don’t know, saab but don’t worry… I will beat it out of the madarchod,’ said the man in black who turned out to be the hero’s bodyguard.
‘Oi,’ I said, ‘any beating-sheeting around here will be done by me only, got that?’
The pretty girl stood shaking on the spot.
In daze she mumbled something that sounded like ‘Poor blackie.’
Blackie! Did the goddamed bitch just call me blackie? I blinked away sudden tears. The way I did when I was eight or nine years-old and an aunt visiting home looked at me and said: ‘Poor little blackie. Who will marry you?’
I had no idea what it meant. The aunt’s eyes were full of pity. I turned to my mother, I saw the same in hers too. That’s when I ran to my room and cried my eyes out.
This was life. One day you know nothing about the curse of being dark-skinned in India. Then once you become aware, every day you learn in different ways that black is not beautiful despite what the glamour mags say. Black magic is jadu tona said the kamwali bai who came home to wash vessels. Black is the symbol of mourning I was told by the church. A blackguard is a man who behaves contemptibly according to English miss at school. Kali is worshipped as a goddess but a kaali is ridiculed as a woman wrote my best friend, Ruth the poet. Black means say goodbye to your chances of getting married as said by not just my aunt but the rest of world. All the time.
I began to hate to look at my face in the mirror. So I concentrated on my body. It was growing stronger by the day and I became an athlete. I was the track star, captain of the school hockey team, winner of half marathons. It there was a sport to play, I was the first to sign up. Rain or shine. Mostly shine since Mumbai baked under a tropical sun for most of the year. And the more I played, the darker I became, and the name Blackie became my constant companion.
I was about to lash out at the fair girl when I realised she was calling the beaten-up guy that word. Poor chap. He looked even more beaten up now.
I marched the guy off the set. We reached a banyan tree and stopped. He sat down on the cement that girded it, and started checking himself for bruises.
‘What in the hell were you trying to do?’ I said.
He stayed quiet.
‘You realise I would’ve had to arrest you if the hero hadn’t let you go?’ I said.
‘I want his blood,’ he said.
‘Easy tiger, easy’ I said, ‘why are you so mad at him?
‘I wanted to prove a point about…’ This is when he took a real good look at me and stopped.
‘About what?’ I asked.
He doesn’t say anything and looked away.
‘Come on, about what, tell me…’ I said.
He pointed at me.
‘Me?’ I said.
‘No…’ he said, moving his finger closer to me, towards my bare forearm, ‘…this. Your bloody skin. My bloody black fucking skin. I’ve had it up to here being taunted about it.’
‘By whom?’ I said.
‘That girl, the fair one who called me Blackie. We were supposed to get married but won’t becuase I’m too black..’
Rejection based on skin colour. That I knew a lot about.
‘But why attack the hero?’ I said.
‘Because he is part of the problem,’ he said, ‘telling people fair skin is a way to get ahead. It’s ruined my life.’
‘So your plan was to punch the hero in the face?’ I said.
‘No, I wanted to blacken his face’, he said, holding up palms.
I must admit I wasn’t expecting that.
‘You know how goons blacken the faces of people to humiliate them? I thought for a change, why can’t a good guy blacken the face of someone who deserves it.’
This guy’s words make me feel like I was fifteen.
It was my fifteenth birthday. I was at home getting ready for a basketball match against a parish team from Bandra. I was my room in front of the mirror tying a plait when my mother walked in. She placed a tube of fairness cream on the dresser.
‘Look Angie,’ she said, ‘soon we have to find you a good boy to marry. Chee, she how dark you’ve become playing in the sun. Start to use this cream… I hope it works. Otherwise who will marry you?’
I cannot tell you how much I hated my mother at that moment. I picked up the tube and flung it away with all my strength. It hit the trophy cabinet in my room, shattering the glass. A trophy fell off its stand, toppling other trophies, which led to a cascade of trophies, medals and certificates.
‘Is that so?, I said, ‘then I don’t want to get married. And I don’t want to use this dumb cream. If anyone tries to make me use it I will paint their faces black.’
A kindred soul… A soulmate… I found myself liking this guy’s fighting talk.
‘You know what? Put on some boot polish again. I’ll take you right up to the hero. I’ll see who will stop me,’ I said.
He removed a tin from his pocket. ‘But now they know the trick,’ he said.
‘I have an idea,’ I said, taking the tin and twisted off the cap. I bumped his head up at the chin with the top of my fist. ‘Holy Mother of God,’ I thought, ‘he really does look like that hero.’ I proceeded to smear polish all over his face. You could hardly tell the difference.
We walked back on the set and when the bodyguard stepped in front of me. I sidestepped him and stood in front of the hero. ‘’Sir, the chap wants to apologise for his foolish behavior,’ and leaning closer, I said, ‘Press is here, sir. Good opportunity for some P.R.’
The hero’s face relaxed with a huge smile. His handsomeness was overwhelming. ‘Okay madam,’ he said in a charming manner, ‘your wish is my command. Just make sure he doesn’t have boot polish on his hands.’
The guy raised his hands to show they were as pure as driven snow. The hero, Solomon-like in his forgiveness stretched open his arms to envelop his errant fan in a warm embrace. I could see tears roll down the guy’s eyes. Fat and tremoulous, they ran down his glistening face. Their cheeks grazed as the guy buried his face in the hero’s right shoulder.
The bodyguard was the first to notice. Before he could make a move I knocked him to the ground with a swift punch.
Other people started to converge on us. The fair girl is among them. Their voices creating a roar that the hero mistook for sounds of appreciation.
The hero basked in the moment.
“The magnanamity of a great man,” he must’ve been thinking, “this poor fellow will remember this day all his life.” The guy pulled away from the hero’s embrace but the hero was having none of it. He could hear cameras whirring and flashes going off. He pulled the guy towards him for another hug. The guy leaned in and his cheek grazed the star’s other cheek.
The cameras continued clicking.
A white car comes to a halt at the church’s steps. A nankhatai band strikes up When The Saints Go Marching In. Richard emerges, looking radiant. He’s dressed in a dark suit split by a white shirt and a blood-red tie. Someone lights up a string of crackers.
It’s a wedding.
I liked this damn fool for so many reasons. But mostly because of his honesty. You know, I didn’t tell you the one thing he told me that bound me to him.
When he was ranting about being called Blackie, he made a confession. It was his greatest wish to marry a fair girl.
That’s when I shared my secret desire. As much as I hated to admit it, my dream was the same.
‘So, if your wish comes true and my wish comes true, then what happens to blackies like me and you?’ he said.
Now you know.