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March 04, 2015

Life is Fair

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Hemant Sapre

A faux-royal wedding in Rajasthan, marked by the absence of dark women – each of the young lovelies fairer than the next, thinner than the next and as bare-backed as the next – leads Madhu Jain to question, ‘Where have all the not-so-fair maidens gone?’

This friend of mine — ah, oh-so cosmopolitan and world-weary — never reveals any sense of awe. That would be akin to letting a slip show from beneath a dress, or allowing a petticoat to peep out from under a sari. Rare is a person, event or work of art that impresses her. Forget about leaving her bedazzled. And yet, when we meet for lunch, the day after she returns from a wedding in one of those princely forts in Rajasthan, she can’t wait to tell me about the moving, sparkling splendours amongst the ruins of the Rajputs.

“It must have cost at least Rs 70 crores, guests flown down from all over the place…and what jewellery the women wore! The necklaces were like the shining shields you see in all those Gladiator sort of movies, one of them had diamonds cascading like a waterfall. The lehengas were blindingly blingy and were almost falling off their anorexic bodies. And the young men were almost as resplendent….”

My friend has a way with words and a penchant for alliteration. Disclosure: I cheated a bit and embellished her description. And as she goes on and on, a chorus line of bare-backed item girls wearing an emperor’s ransom of diamonds and emeralds materialises in my mind’s eye. Standing by, and occasionally shaking a leg, are equally sparkling young men in loud sherwanis and jewel-encrusted turbans. Well, it seems, the men at this wedding as in many others I have attended, did not want to appear like drab wallflowers.

Show of wealth
It isn’t, however, the Gatsbyesque show of wealth and overpowering bad taste that triggered such a visceral reaction and near-purple prose. In a wedding closer to home in Gurgaon I went to recently, the ceiling was covered with what appeared to be a mile of flowers — predominantly white orchids. And, the gems weighing down the bride and her bridesmaids were also almost as big as the Ritz, as F. Scot Fitzgerald would have put it — did actually put it — in a short story he wrote. Besides, I discovered that the singers had been flown in from across the border to the west.

However, what had truly shaken my friend about the faux-royal wedding in Rajasthan was the absence of dark women: each of the young lovelies was fairer than the next, thinner than the next and as bare-backed as the next. Where had all the not-so-fair maidens gone? Had they been banished, not invited? Was it some sort of desi version of apartheid? Or, equally sinister: had they all been using fairness creams — the men too it would seem. Or, was it some miraculous make-up that had made them all almost-white?

Were these fair and lovely lasses our equivalent of the stereotypical image of Californian blondes: the Baywatch kind with freshly-washed, glinting-in-the-sun hair, lustrous teeth and surgery-enhanced perfect bodies that could easily have been disgorged from the assembly line of a Perfect Body Factory in a sci-fi novel or film? “It was hard to tell one from the other,” explains my friend. “They all looked alike, interchangeable.”

Thousands of weddings bring the capital to a halt, with bumper-to-bumper traffic and drunken members of baraat parties creating havoc on the road. But it isn’t only the inconvenience and the unseemly and obscene display of wealth that disturb — something which increases exponentially with each passing year.

It is graciousness, a generosity of being, that is being edged out of the picture in the weddings now taking place. Banquets with delicacies from all corners of India and elsewhere are laid out, followed by a free-for-all stampede to the tables, where employees from catering companies ladle out food. In this new world of hospitality the line between the hosts and the guests blurs. It wasn’t too long ago when family members, no matter how grand, would personally serve the guests. The hosts would eat after everyone had been served. The pehle aap tradition was de rigueur.

Perhaps, I am being too judgmental, stuck in a nostalgia-induced quagmire. We are, I suppose, meant to change with the times. So, wedding planners and caterers taking on the role of hosts — breaking the protocol of traditional pecking orders and rules of hospitality — is part of progress. Yet, as the year comes to an end and we hurtle into January, I can’t help but hope that the New Year ushers in more sense and sensibility, prodding us to offload obscenity and usher in more civilised behaviour.
To list what made the last year an annus horribilis (famously uttered by Elisabeth II about the year 1992 when things went horribly wrong in the royal family) would take up too much newsprint. Sexual crimes against women, honour killings, violence, riots, fragile borders, climate — the past year has not been kind to us in India. Apart from such major aberrations we haven’t quite behaved the way we should have.

The obsession with fairness has become almost contagious. Apparently fairness cosmetics have catapulted to a Rs 3,000 crore industry. Advertisements extolling the virtues of fairness creams are ubiquitous — there is no tiptoeing around their suppositions claiming that only fair girls are lovely, and bag the richest, most powerful husbands.

Men, too, are being told that being fair will take them much further.
Black, or for that matter brown is no longer beautiful. Strangely enough, the fairness ads had disappeared from our screens for years after they first appeared because of protests from various women’s groups. Now, they are back with a vengeance.

Joh jeeta woh fair.

But the eternal optimist that I am, I will say — cheers to an annus mirabilis.

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