Becoming an Indecent Bengali Girl

By Humaira Zakaria

It has not been an easy road to recovery after Imperial Britain. My father came to America after he witnessed the atrocities of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971; a war that was fought for Bengali language, identity and independence from what was then West Pakistan.  Through the horrors of the struggle for identity and independence, people had to escape, prompting a new diaspora of Bengali people. Brown people took with them the internalization of what beauty, intelligence, culture, and opportunities meant for the ones who possessed “fairy-white skin” and they carried with them the discrimination of dark Indian skin to their new worlds from the old world because of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s re-education of India.

Thomas Babington Macaulay served as a member of the British parliament and was the first Law Member of the Governor’s General Council.  After the Saint Helena Act of 1833 (Government of India Act 1833) passed, Macaulay went to India and served on the Supreme Council of India from 1834 to 1838. In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s memorandum Minutes expressed how utterly useless Hindu, Arabic and Indian traditions and knowledge were in reflection to the goals of the British empire.  T.B. Macaulay stated that he was on a board that wasted “the public money . . . for giving artificial encouragement to absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, absurd theology . . . for raising up a breed of scholars who find their scholarship an incumbrance and [a] blemish . . . [and this was] positively noxious.”  The goal was to do their “best to form a class who may be interpreters between [the British] and the millions whom [they] govern, —a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect . . . to render them . . . fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”  This privilege was bestowed upon the upper caste of Indian society to serve as the link—the bridge between the British and the “ignorant” people of India. The Indian people were forced to assimilate with the restructuring of Indian education. The preference for being westernized became entrenched within the populace. To be light skinned became the pathological mindset of the people who were suppressed, shifted, stripped and transformed by their “educators.”  To be forsha was to be more than the poorer, darker skinned Indians . . .  and thus, to be forsha was to be better, more desirable— more British.

Indian traditions, customs, economic opportunities and identities were suppressed, shifted, transformed, and stripped with British colonialism. After World War II, Britain could no longer afford to imperialize India. With the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, millions of people were moved and planted in specific sectioned areas; at least one million more were lost and were unable to be accounted for in the transition to their new lands. Years later, my family left Bangladesh because of a war that was a direct result of the Partition.  They first transitioned to Queens, NY, almost two decades after the separation of Indian lands, and eventually settled in Long Island.

Skin has always been a focal point of conversation between the head matriarchs as a bargaining chip to make better transactional marriage deals.  This was the norm since I could remember covertly listening in on women at parties and other social gatherings. My mother, aunts, Dadus and Nanus expressed their revulsion of my tanned skin after I played in my backyard during summer breaks from school—and I knew that their disgust was in direct relation to the prospective sale of my skin color, even if their disgust was passed off as them being “in jest.” The Bengali women that surrounded me would pity and castigate any girl who was “unfortunate” enough to have naturally dark skin. They all mirrored each other’s disgust when my cousins and I visited each other during the summer breaks— “Oh, your skin! It’s moila! Kuishta kalo! Stay indoors! Don’t go out there! Play in the shade! You can only go out when the sun is starting to set! Ahtho kalo!” I couldn’t understand this because the brown skin of a Bengali woman looked like smooth hazelnut cream spread over flesh and limbs, and they were beautiful. We wanted independence from Britain, and yet we strived to emulate them in beauty and power while somehow, simultaneously, keeping our traditions and celebrations in reflection of their whiteness.  

When I attended wedding events, I always noticed how the brides would be layered with pale-peachy foundation and face powder that was blended down to their collarbones, but their arms, hands and feet were left their natural brown color; as if a ghost was floating out of that brown body that was draped in that beautiful burgundy sari, layered with chains and bangles of gold. Was that what it meant to be a Bengali woman?  To be no more than a ghost once the ownership of her body was signed over to her husband? Were we always meant to have that little of an existence?

  From what I observed, this existence meant to be unhappy, to be subservient to her husband and his family, to lack an identity of her own other than that of a mother to her children, to sacrifice her profession –  but to cook and clean and be indoors, to make sure she’s well dressed and groomed for parties, to not have friends, to always ask permission, to be monitored and escorted, to be insulted and denigrated not even in the privacy of one’s home, but also out there for the world to witness, because she was barely human . . . she was property to be cut down and remolded in whatever her husband chose for her. 

” When I attended wedding events, I always noticed how the brides would be layered with pale-peachy foundation and face powder that was blended down to their collarbones, but their arms, hands and feet were left their natural brown color; as if a ghost was floating out of that brown body that was draped in that beautiful burgundy sari, layered with chains and bangles of gold. Was that what it meant to be a Bengali woman? “

All the women around me were miserable and yet they too wanted to bestow this misery upon their daughters, nieces, sisters, and granddaughters. Misery was our tradition. These angry husbands, along with their ancient history of caste, were generationally stripped and cut down by powerful white men who believed that Indian men were no more than dumb children because they wrote in Sanskrit and had their many gods and ate with their hands—these barbarized brown men in turn placed this level of dehumanization on their wives — and the wives never outrightly complained about their unhappiness. Instead the mothers took their frustrations out on their daughters with beatings to curb their girls’ behavior into something worthy of a wife.  This was the only outcome for us . . . to go to school until someone was interested in a marriage arrangement and to be a mother; shut away from everything else the world had to offer and continue the cycle.  It wasn’t a life I wanted for myself or any other girl.

Humaira with her mother and younger brother; Long Island, NY 1989.

It started as little jokes when I was a child.  People would comment on the lightness of my skin and make a quip about being able to find a good husband.  What was a good husband, anyway? All anyone seemed to care about was if he had a lot of money. Good looks were a bonus, and other very superficial qualities were welcomed.  No one cared if this future husband of mine treated me well, respected me, or let me pursue my interests.  The jokes about arranged marriages evolved into nudging suggestions once I had my period and one breast started to grow before the other one . . . I was thirteen and anxiety about this impending doom metastasized.

My mother had taken me to the salon one day to get a trimming the spring semester of my 8th grade year, and instead I showed the hairdresser a style out of a catalogue that was short; cut longer in the front and buzzed in the back.  Bengali girls were only supposed to have long, thick, flowing hair; a sure sign of health and fertility, I didn’t want to look like the women in my life.  With my new haircut and me being compared to a boy, I then proceeded to cut school and hang out with my friends in the eighth grade; my grades dipped so much that it made my mother cry to my aunts on the phone, but not so much that I wouldn’t be promoted to the ninth grade.  Bengali girls were supposed to have good grades. I couldn’t be a scholastic failure – that inferred that my kids inherited the “stupid” gene passed to them in utero.  

Later, I started to date older boys and go out when I wanted to.  My mother tried to berate the tastelessness out of me and keep my unbecoming behavior a secret, but I openly told my cousins and their friends. They in turn told their mothers and I was gossiped about relentlessly. I was shameful, and I was sure the nudging suggestions would stop because my reputation was deracinated; instead, my grandmother threatened to find me a husband as soon as possible to set me straight. Bad behavior can be broken with the “right” husband; I was still marketable. The asset of my forsha skin outweighed my perceived salacious and obscene history. My grandmother was on a mission and repeated “after graduation, we’ll really start looking.”  I stopped going to my grandmother’s house and stopped calling.

I only applied to two colleges and the one that offered me a scholarship was far  enough away to justify living on campus.  Attending a nice little Catholic college in Riverdale on scholarship would theoretically help balance my past. I assumed my family believed Catholic school to be strict. I think this was why my mother didn’t stop me from going away to school.  When I came back home after my first semester, I visited family.  Threats of marriage still loomed over me. I was about to be eighteen, meaning I was finally the “appropriate” age.  My mother was married at eighteen and my aunt, who married my father’s brother, was sixteen. 

At eighteen, I made friends with a couple of Desi girls in college who lived double lives.  Their parents didn’t have a clue that they didn’t wear their hijab, were having sex, drinking, doing mild drugs and partying, and yet my friends still prescribed themselves to the same fate of an arranged marriage.  They were okay with having their freedom for a few short years and then living the life they prepared for.  I was amazed and at a loss that my friends would submit to living a life they didn’t want for the sake of virtual tradition and I was equally amazed at how good they were at hiding themselves from their parents— they were stunning pretenders.

  The swell of desperation bubbled in me and the all too familiar wave of panic and angst consumed me. I don’t remember my eighteenth birthday. But a few days later I do remember my longtime childhood friend, Carol, saying something about tattoos and I made a snap decision, “Yeah! I want to go get one.” I already had multiple piercings that I got underage with a terrible fake ID. Each piercing was met with disdain from my mother, but they could be removed. Carol didn’t even talk me out of getting a tattoo or bring up what my mother would have thought about me.  We got into her car and drove to a strip mall that was ten-minutes away from her house.  A tattoo could not be gotten rid of or be hidden forever.

When we walked up to Tattoo Lou’s off Sunrise Highway, I was shaking with excitement.  I didn’t have an idea on what I wanted. I had no plan. I looked at the rows and rows of off-the-wall art.  I saw this teeny non-threatening butterfly.  It reminded me of Sung- Hi Lee’s tattoo.  Sung-Hi Lee was my only other Asian representation I saw outside of Bollywood movies and Miss Universe and Miss World pageants.  I assumed that her Korean culture and traditions probably didn’t let her family approve of her posing nude for Playboy, and yet she did, multiple times. I imagined her having the same type of expectations of piety and being a “good” daughter placed on her. She chose what she did with her body and the only conclusions I could make in my eighteen-year-old mind was that she had gotten that tattoo and then she gained agency over herself.  I needed to get a little butterfly. I needed to be able to own and do with my body, with myself, what I wished.  

This woman from behind that counter asked if I knew what I wanted.  I pointed to the generic little butterfly decaled on the wall of the tattoo shop.

“What colors do you want?” She asked.

“Colors?”

She nodded.  “Yeah, you can change the colors on the wings.”

“I guess . . . red and orange?” Like fire.

I laid down with my pants pulled below my waistline.  Carol offered to hold my hand. I refused.  I needed to feel the needle cut and inject color into my forsha skin without any consolation.  I shut my eyes tight and winced with the initial prickle.  After a few seconds, the heat of the needle dulled, I relaxed, and its humming serenaded me.  I felt release with each hammer of the needle.  I stole quick glances at the artist working, and within thirty minutes, I had this small butterfly with orange and red wings permanently stamped on my lower left abdomen.  The artist sprayed it with disinfectant and wiped away the blood.  

“What do you think?” she asked.

I knew she didn’t think this was her best work, but simply asked out of routine.

I looked down and examined. It was not a great tattoo.

Upon my return home, I ran to the bathroom, unpeeled the saran wrap, and wiped away the plasma lightly coating my decorative wound.  I stared at it,inspecting it from different angles. My mother knocked on the bathroom door.

“What are you doing in there?” she asked.

I could have easily hidden the tattoo with the waistline of my pants.  But I didn’t.  I opened the door with my pants rolled down.

“I got a tattoo!” 

“What?”

“A tattoo!”

“It’s real?”

“Yes! It’s real!”

She gave me a face of both disappointment and abhorrence, muttering something about ruining my skin.  I could not really hear her over my thrill of having this cheap butterfly freshly stinging and pulsing.  It is one thing to have a “sordid” past that could easily be “fixed” through complete submission to religion and the  “right” husband; it was wholly indecent of a Bengali girl to physically mark herself, no matter where the diaspora led us.  

” Once I got that tattoo, none of those questions applied anymore. I was never going to be anything traditionally Bengali ever again.”

Being American was not seen as a good enough reason to do what I wished. My people’s history is of oppression and displacement. We were supposed to be Bengali first before anything else. What did that even mean? Being Bengali was riddled with western colonial oppression, and a desperation to establish and hold on to an identity that left my family with unhappy, unfulfilled lives.  For so long, I tried to figure what it meant to be a Bengali girl.  Did it mean to be a quiet girl who prayed five times a day? Did it mean to be a pious girl who served all the males in her family and never served herself? Did it mean to be an introverted girl by choice who hid indoors as much as possible to protect her skin from becoming any darker? Once I got that tattoo, none of those questions applied anymore. I was never going to be anything traditionally Bengali ever again. The threats of an arranged marriage stopped because I was no longer marketable as a permanently inked woman. Over time, I collected more tattoos that were visible to my family’s eyes.  They labeled me as defiled, repugnant, wholly indecent, both in morals and now in appearance; the whispers and gossiping ensued, while the women in my family pitied and castigated me like a kalo girl— I couldn’t be any freer.  I was no longer valuable to the pursuit of my family, in elevating their status in our community through the sale of my skin . . . I could make my own choices from that moment on without the lasso of my family’s traditions and expectations. They gave up on me.  I was allowed to transform into a woman of my own choosing and I could do with my skin, my body, my life what I wanted and wished with the first hammer of that tattoo gun’s needle; to float and fly and flutter like the little butterfly picked off the wall of a tattoo shop, etched permanently into my ruined forsha skin.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Ben Maust says:

    you have brought up a very good points, appreciate it for the post.

    Like

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