by K. Gajendra Singh
"How good-looking +- my wife?" Obama's compliment to Michelle before one of 12 inaugural balls. --No one -- could doubt that glamour has returned to the White House. It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie and created images of fashion and celebrity to rival anything that emerged from JFK's vaunted "Camelot".
' The Guardian, UK.
The white vs black debate reminded me of 1978- 81 summers I spent in Dakar, Senegal's capital city on the peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic ocean, with many excellent beaches along its coast with hundred percent sun guaranteed throughout the year. The cold ocean currents make for cool climate from December to July. Then the warm hot weather attracts a large number of wealthy holiday makers specially from the north Europe, with many taking a second winter tanning vacation in November 'December at beaches of Senegal and down south in Gambia and Ivory Coast.
From mid July to end September, the Senegalese elite following the practice of their erstwhile rulers, the French, led by President Sedar Senghor, with his French wife and a villa in Normandy in France absented themselves from the country, with the government functioning on a skeleton staff. Most diplomats followed suit, except some like pauvre moi made to do what we could in the hot humid climate. We got together in the evenings, had a few drinks, played some bridge, I even taught 'Scrabble' to some. Even with the release of a new Indian film every week in Dakar's cinemas, with little to do even during normal times and visits to 4 neighboring capitals, I was concurrently accredited to, the summer afternoons were difficult to pass.
How ever there was one pleasant escape. For some reason, perhaps to add glamour and international flavor, Ambassadors were permitted free entrance to French Club Mediteranne holiday resort at Dakar, otherwise restricted only to customers. So after lunch we would some times drive over to the Club, to watch as I would say exhibition of mammary glands; tourists there went around topless to soak in the sun and at a secluded spot even in their birthday suites to acquire some bronze tint, which is recognized in Europe as a sign of having had a vacation , a done thing. Of course there are nudist clubs in many places. In general taking off the tops is considered a sign of advanced civilization by many Westerners.
I had a way to describe these sun starved white or pink creatures from Sweden, Denmark, Germany and elsewhere. Those who had spent a few days looked liked grilled lobsters, a week stay gave them Tandoori chicken tintage. Those nearing two weeks stay or so looked like Sami kebabs, real dark brown black, almost. Mischievous Indian writer Khuswant Singh, although an anglophile, once compared the European complexion to the bottoms of the Rhesus monkeys. Among people of Europe, whose hair are generally straight, limp and lifeless there is a tradition, almost a craze, to curl and wave them, ruining them by the time women reach their 40s and 50s.
While white or pink Europeans in the resorts were curling their straight hair or tanning themselves even at the risk of skin cancer, outside the resorts, black Senegalese, specially women, were ruining their beautiful dusky skins by using whitening creams. It is quite an effort for Afro-American women including Condi Rice or Michelle Obama to straighten their hair and then impart mild curls to conform to the au courant hair do. To straighten out real crinkly hair and make pleats say like the Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds would easily require many hours by a coiffeur or a friend to accomplish the feat. Therefore many men including Obama sport shaven heads with a few days growth. As for baring of breasts if not almost everything; women go topless not far from the cities, in Senegal and elsewhere in Africa. African dance troupes which performed regularly at cultural centres in Dakar were always a joy to watch; full of abandon, rhythm, melody conveying ecstasy and permeated with spiritual fervor. When the dancers were bare breasted, they were a great hit among Westerners as if the advanced civilizations merged with each other.
There fore it is a matter of sadness, when Indians blessed by nature with curly hair and clear brown skins, from one spectrum to another should hanker after whitening creams. Of course the model or ideal concept of beauty as disseminated and popularized by Western beauty care industry and fashion houses is the so called Caucasian model. Indian models suddenly became popular with this western industry a few years ago, not because there was any genetic change in India but to cash on the rising affluence of India's rich and middle classes, brainwashed into Western mores and values .So there has been an increase in Indians being crowned Miss World and Miss Universe.
Curiously, most of these young Indian aspirants when questioned by the judges at beauty parades cite Mother Teresa as their ideal and proclaim to follow in her footsteps. But from day one of their strenuous preparations for the pageants their sites are firmly fixed on Mumbai's film and modeling industry and associated activities. Yes rising incomes and leisure has made Indian women and even men more conscious of cosmetics use and designer dresses. Ironically till 1970s we all wore tailor stitched shirts and suits as readymade clothes were imported and very expensive.
To enter Nigeria, Africa's largest market based on its oil riches, when a Nigerian model fitting the Western concept of thin slim model was selected Miss Universe, among ordinary Nigerians it was met with derisive laughter as the local ideal is a healthy buxom figure.
Having grown up in small towns with vacations in ancestral villages and at Banaras, Patiala and Delhi before being posted out in early 1960s as a diplomat to Cairo, I encountered the usual bias for fair /wheat complexioned females. And even for males, to improve the progeny's whiteness, unless they were rich or earned fat salaries. In Patiala, a friend's mother was in raptures over the beauty of a bride. When I enquired, she said," she is Angrez vargi gori - fair like the English. (In my view the West European women in general are generally very ordinary looking even by the Caucasian parameters. On this subject some other time) Not being fair, I would be consoled that as I was educated and would get a good job, so what if I am dark. After all many Indian Gods like Rama, Krishna and Shiva were dark and black .
In Egypt my first foreign post, like many Arab countries they were not too hot on darker hues, even though some of their ancient rulers the Pharaohs from Upper Egypt and Nubia bordering Sudan were dark complexioned with curly hair and thick lips. In Islamic culture the concept of slave or ghulam is quite different from Western civilization specially Anglo-American, as manifested by the ill treatment of natives by the British and other Europeans in their colonies; of African slaves in America being the ugliest and the most inhuman. In USA, the children born out of White 'Black union were meted out the worst treatment, verily a crime against the innocent. This strong cultural divide exists in USA with the Blacks evolving their own subculture in arts and social interaction. The trial of former American Black football star O. J. Simpson for murdering his white ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her white friend exposed the racial divide in USA (Simpson was acquitted in 1995 but a civil suit was filed.)This divide is unlikely to be bridged. In fact some people believe that a volcano is bubbling underneath which could erupt if the coming collapse of US economy creates social unrest.
Slave girls in Muslim society, many came down from Caucasus to Ottoman Istanbul, but once they bore children became part of the family. Slaves could rise on merit and even become rulers like the those from Turkestan or from the Caucasus and Balkans in Ottoman empire and elsewhere. In the Saudi dynasty, children from black mothers now occupy key posts. In India rulers like Balban, ltutmas and many others were slaves.
It was while traveling on an Italian boat from Alexandria to Algiers in 1964 that I was pleasantly surprised at the coiffeur and his woman assistant on board admiring my black hair. However it was in Turkey during late 1960s and early 1970s that one saw unabashed appreciation of black; hair and complexion. Many visitors, specially women form India were thrilled when they got admiring glances or compliments for their dark complexion and black hair. The ambassador's two daughters were the cynosure for their dark skin; described beautiful like black satin. Members of a Turkish delegation, which went down to Madras just could not stop talking enough the beautiful dusky saleswomen of an emporium they went for shopping.
Unfortunately when I returned to Ankara in 1992 after 20 years, in their urge to join the Europe Union, the Turkish elite had gone blonde. In fact so many women in big cities sported blonde hair that I joked with my old friends if they had abducted blondes from northern Europe. Their embarrassed answer was, no we have taken to manufacturing blonde dyes. With little chance of making to the EU, I hope the Turks will revert to their preference and pride for the black.
For some decades after India's independence the new ruling elites bias for white color with Kashmiri Brahmins ruling the roost, remained ascendant. I heard an apocryphal story by a south Indian victim from a group selected for the diplomatic service by the Union Public Service Commission. With many of being of darker complexion they were presented by the establishment on a muggy afternoon, to a tired Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, who was also the External Affairs Minister. The UPSC merit list was set aside and those selected instead were described by a magazine as illiterate cavalrymen, dispossessed princelings and well connected knitwits.
The color bias was also popularized by Hindustan's mainstream cinema located in Bombay, now Mumbai, with many leading stars hailing from Frontier province and united Punjab before the partition of India. With the ruling elite becoming more defused, many actors, not white chocolate complexion struggled up in this rough field. Some of them being Smita Patil, Rekha, Shabana Azmi and among males Amitabh Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha, the two not even good looking in the conventional sense. It was hoped that the era of fair complexion prejudice would disappear but evils of globalization including whitening creams is a negative development. In any case in matrimonial advertisement for brides and grooms the preference is still for fair spouses.
K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. Copy right with the author. E-mail: