My high school friend and neighbor, Juhi, and her elder sister, Komal Di, had skins the color of milk, so pristine and flawless that I used to think my brown fingers would leave a mark if I touched them. Her family hailed from the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh in Northern India, the natives of which had the characteristic light skin tone. It could be attributed to the indigenous gene pool or the watery sun of the mountains that lacked the intensity to elicit the fierceness of melanin.
Juhi, with her long golden tresses, big brown eyes, porcelain skin and tiny gold earrings was well aware of everyone’s gaze, in our predominantly brown state of Uttar Pradesh, pausing at her face. She was a good friend but her pride in her pulchritude was evident in her comportment − sometimes subtly and sometimes glaringly.
I didn’t despise her hubris at the time. I even thought it was justified. Maybe my head would be in the clouds too if I were that white and pretty, I used to think.
I remember her being very upset and angry when her parents arranged the marriage of her fair sister, Komal Di, to an Air Force officer who was the color of coffee. Upon meeting her preordained fiance, Komal Di liked him and was happy with the engagement. She was married and was pregnant soon.
Juhi confessed to me that she was frenetically praying to God that her sister’s baby be born white like her or it would be hard for her to love her own nephew or niece. I told her she was being silly and unreasonable.
When she got the news of the birth, she did not want to know whether it was a boy or a girl but whether he/she was light or dark-skinned.
Her niece, she told me, with a hand on her heart and a sigh of relief, was born the purest white. Thereafter, she went to the temple and even fasted on Tuesdays to thank God for answering her prayers.
At times,when Komal Di visited, Juhi, the fawning aunt, used to sashay around our neighborhood with the angel-faced baby girl in the stroller, showing her off. I remember her beautiful face then, all red and puffed up.
After a few years, Juhi’s family moved out of state because of her father’s job transfer. She and I wrote letters to each other for some time and then lost touch. That was the fate of the best of friendships of that time because cellphones and Facebook were not ubiquitous.
Recently, I received a Facebook friend request from Juhi and hence the story. Her beautiful face in her profile picture had me stare in awe and admiration. In all these years, I had almost forgotten how pretty she was. She is clearly the prettiest face in my current friends’ list.
After accepting her request, I began poring through her uploaded photo albums. I clicked every picture, where she was with others, twice, with bated breath, but those two faces smiled with her in each one: her husband, with skin the color of coffee with little creamer, and her adolescent daughter, just a few drops of creamer lighter. But they looked happy together.
I wanted to ask for her number to find out the whys and hows but the decades that hung between us marred my questions. I simply commented, ‘Gorgeous You!’ on her pictures and ‘Beautiful Family!’ on the ones with her immediate family.