Chaiwala and our obsession with fair skin


Maria Sartaj

Only very few Pakistanis, in recent times, have made headlines all over the world for something positive, the humble tea-seller from Islamabad was one such lucky lad. He caught the fancy of many Pakistani females, and was catapulted to overnight fame, as women over-exercised their social media power. His story, however, is also representative of Pakistan’s preoccupation with fair skin. This obsession is essentially a residue of an inferiority complex ingrained in her people after years of being under the British Raj. The British are often lauded for laying down our existing and intricate railway line system, but they also extracted from the mines of our hearts any sense of pride that we had in our skin tone. The blue-eyed chaiwala (tea-seller) would not have created any flutter online if his features were drowned in hues of cocoa or even chai; his non-merit based stardom is unfair to other poor chaiwalas who prepare and pour tea in dhabas (roadside eatery) and stalls all over. The silver lining of course is that there will be one less poor person in the millions out there; the flip side being his viral fame has reinforced the notion that only fair skin can completely overhaul someone’s life, much like the promise of a tacky fairness cream commercial. We like our daughter-in-law to be fair skinned, some desi (local) men now get regular whitening facials, and the fairest and most blemish-free goats and cows get the highest bidding during Eid-ul-Azha. Given our absurd ways, it wouldn’t be too shocking to hear women preferring certain chaiwalas over others now to serve them their high tea. Where does this obsession leave the rest of us, the ones with wheatish to dark skin tones that no cream can ever fix? Can we ever expect an adequate and fair representation of our complexion on the visual space? Will we be bestowed with similar collective public kindness as the Chaiwala? The answers are in the negative at the moment given that TV, films and commercials have been quietly white-washing our screens with tubes of whitening creams for years now. In Bollywood, for instance, the Katrinas and Jacquelines have steadily replaced the earthy toned, relatable Kajols and Ranis of the 1990s. Out went the desi looking backup dancers in songs; their place has now been taken up by Russian dancers.
Remember the versatile lead actor of the movie Ranjhana? Audiences did not really warm up to him in the Northern India because they prefer Greek gods and goddesses onscreen much like us Pakistanis. Majority of the celebrated personalities in both Pakistan and India are endowed with Caucasian features so the Chaiwala fits into the spectrum really well. Pashtuns are generally regarded as good looking by most, but Seraikis and Makranis with modelling or acting aspirations will continue to fail many auditions based just on their looks. Pakistani TV serials, as lovely as they are, better than their Indian counterpart surely, are also populated with people having Aryan looks. So much for diversity and multi-ethnic acceptance.

Socially speaking, it is quite common for Pakistanis to refer to someone as maasi (maid) in heated arguments and jokes simply because of her complexion; I have been called maasi innumerable times owing to my skin colour. In the South Asian dating world, dusky skin tones tend to score very low in terms of desirability. Just like how cinema and TV serials keep realistic and relatable-looking actors such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Manoj Bajpai confined to art-house narratives filled with third world issues, social lives of brown-toned individuals are filled with unnecessary hurdles that are placed before them, while several doors are opened automatically for those with gori rangat (fair skin). Our caste-conscious selves regard people with dark tones as inferior to fair-skinned people.

Our neighbours usually adjudge Pakistanis to be generally better looking than them because they are also afflicted with the fair-and-lovely-complex, but what they are unaware of is that many Pakistanis are simply dissatisfied with their skin tone almost to the point of it affecting their mental health. If we could put the sun under a burqa we would, and it would certainly not be for religious reasons. Most females in Pakistan possess an array of cosmetics with whitening labels, and several home remedies learnt from a TV program to bleach her skin.

Ironically, Islam has no room for discrimination based on race or colour; Hazrat Bilal (RA), a slave of African descent, was the one who gave the first call to prayer in Medina. And in a country ostensibly created on the basis of religion, ours should have been a society that embraces all and was not so stuck on regressive ideals of beauty such as skin colour.

The Chaiwala’s stupendous success is not surprising at all because when Pakistanis aren’t discussing politics in their living rooms they are evaluating the beauty of other folks using their crooked yardsticks. So can we ever expect a kaamwali (domestic worker), a regular maid, to make it big like the Chaiwala soon? Not if she is bestowed with an ample dose of melanin in her skin.