By Maya Palit
Remember Tarun Vijay’s unfortunately phrased rebuttal against the possibility of Indians being racist? Of course, you do — sadly it isn’t that easy to erase a former Rajya Sabha member’s implication that Indians are gracious for cohabiting with ‘black’ people in south India.
What his explosive remarks did for popular culture and Indian media was interesting though. The outrage over it provoked actors (like Priyanka Chopra) to regret their previous endorsements of fairness products, and get vocal (like Abhay Deol) about why the ads were messed up. Just last month, actor Sonal Sehgal, who had featured in ad for a fairness product way back in 2003, decided to make a film (which has gone viral) to apologise for having destroyed “the self-esteem of beautiful dusky Indian women”.
Whether or not Sehgal’s ad led to the collective ruin of the (necessarily gorgeous, mind you) dark-skinned women across the country is besides the point, because the line she and her film take is that by fixating on light-skinned beauty you’re ignoring all the ‘dusky’ loveliness around you.
But what happens when it’s terrifying is that beauty (never mind fairness) is a point of discussion at all? When beautiful fair babies are on the market, for instance.
This week, several media outlets carried news that sounded like the plot of a sci-fi film. They reported that on Sunday, a workshop held by the Arogya Bharati (apparently the RSS’ medical wing) in Kolkata claimed to have a method to produce fair, tall, and ‘customised’ babies.
Of course, such things don’t come easy. Parents have to undergo three months of purification, which involves having sex only when planetary configurations indicate it’s a felicitous time, they have to forgo sex until the baby is conceived, and follow a pretty stringent diet involving Ayurvedic herbs to purify their sperm and eggs. To top it all, the office bearers claimed to have apparently been inspired by an even more bizarre and misplaced fantasy: Germany’s effective use of Ayurveda to resurrect itself with ‘signature children’ after WWII.
The surreal attempt at teaching people how to give birth to a ‘perfect’, tall and fair baby despite their tragic odds as dark-skinned parents, left many people wondering whether to howl with laughter, disbelief, or sadness. But doesn’t this Hindutva eugenics dream bear a striking resemblance to the baby dreams of the rest of the country?
Especially, for instance, when all the profiles of the women listed under the donors on this In-Vitro Surrogacy consultancy have their complexions categorised as ‘fair’?
A recent Times of India report tells us that agents hunting for egg donors for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) are apparently soliciting beautiful women, and paying over double the minimum rate (Rs 20,000) for them. That they are prepared to shell out Rs 50,000 for a beautiful graduate, while in other cases they are asked to send photographs of their existing children to gauge whether “the baby born through IVF using the woman’s egg will also be good looking” is quite telling about our obsession with fairness.
What this report omits is obvious enough from the super clichéd matrimonial ad — that a light-skinned complexion is a major part of what is considered beautiful. Earlier this year, a Gurugram centre for surrogacy said it gets more than prompt responses to their announcements about requirements for donors: “Fair complexion, B positive.” And fertility specialists across the country have said in the past that the demand for babies with fair skin (apparently about 70 percent of clients specify this as a requirement) and blue eyes had created a booming market for Caucasian babies.
According to the president of one hospital, scores of women from Georgia get free flights to India because of the sky-high demand for eggs from fair-skinned women. And even when the surrogates are gestational rather than traditional (which means they aren’t genetically related to the foetus), couples tend to ask for fair and beautiful women.
Not surprisingly, this trend also has a dangerous fall-out for women donors involved in surrogacy.
Journalist Gita Aravamudan, who authored Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy, a book exploring IVF trends in the country, revealed that women are frequently hyper-stimulated with fertility drugs if they are believed to be beautiful and fair-skinned because of the enormous demand for their eggs.
Of course, the neurotic requirements for babies who are fair and have wheatish complexions is bound up in deep-set caste prejudice. And honestly, when was the last time you spotted a dark-skinned baby in an advertisement — what do the baby in the Huggies ad, the one donning MamyPoko pants and the hip-swivelling babies in the KitKat ad all have in common?
We might now be in the era where characters in Ekta Kapoor TV shows like Dev DD hate on someone for ditching a girl because she’s too dark (this is happening in 2017, discuss two progressive light-skinned people in one episode). And the noble ‘Dark is Beautiful’ awareness campaigns for women do exist. But advertising hasn’t changed its tack on dark-skinned babies one bit: perhaps it’s because handing babies or their parents the small mercy that they are still desirable isn’t an amenable option.
So the Arogya Bharti workshop might just be one extreme, unhinged and stray case. One article even declares it as fake news. It also quotes the general secretary of the Arogya Bharti going on the defensive and saying that they can’t possibly think being dark is a handicap because they worship Krishna, which sounds like a hilarious echo of Vijay’s apology. But the widespread search for fair surrogates and the predominance of fair-skinned infants in ads are based on the exact same notions about caste superiority.
Are we giggling at the RSS dream of perfect babies without realising that it is fed by our own nightmarish hopes, dreams, and actions?
Co-published with Firstpost.