Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Sudhu Kalu

Recently I met a lady at a dinner in Kandy who decided to describe to me the plethora of potential suitors for her precious daughter. Sipping daintily from a glass of mixed fruit juice she informed me of the criteria she used to dismiss her daughter’s various wooers. Being a woman who considered herself a Kandyan of good caste (or as my cousin says “a K.G.B. [Kandy Govi Buddhist] Agent”) she declared that Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese of the non-Kandyan variant were out of the equation and had no chance of snagging her wonderful daughter.
Being a Kandyan myself I am well aware of the superiority complex that Kandyans suffer from when it comes to important matters such as marriage. So this lady’s prejudicial logic came as no surprise to me. However, what struck me the most was the story of how she dismissed one particular suitor who apparently did meet her prerequisites of class-caste-creed-etc., etc.
After she gave me a detailed description of the kind of high born family this strong candidate comes from, his educational credentials, the Intercooler that he drives and his house in Cinnamon Gardens, she leaned towards me with an inscrutable expression and said, “But we had to say no to the fellow.”
Bemused, I asked her what could possibly be wrong with him?
“Aiyo! Ei miniha kalui nei!”
I stared dumbfounded as the lady settled back in her chair with the satisfied demeanor of someone who had just made a crucial point that clinched a heated political debate. She slurped the last of her mixed fruit drink as I floundered for something intelligent to say.
This view of a hierarchy of desirability based on skin color, like the other prejudices in my society, is not a strange concept to me. However, in light of my recent exposure to American society where skin color is a very touchy subject in the prevalent movement of political correctness, this lady’s comment took an additional meaning. It made me question why the Kandyan Sinhalese, after sifting out the rest of the world based on race, ethnicity, caste and geographic location (“he’s a good person, habai down-south nei!”), also make the additional, more subtle discrimination between the sudhu and kalu Sinhalaya.
Indeed this preference for the pale skin is not an issue that is limited to the situation of marriage among Kandyans but is a topic that crops up in many instances in the everyday life of the Sri Lankan. For instance, when the birth of a child is announced, one of the first questions asked by those who have not yet seen the child is: “Baba sudhuidha?” No one would dare to ask “Baba kaluidha?” That would be too crass and a surefire recipe for a family feud.
The hegemonic image articulated by popular culture in this country also indicates that the pale skin is the more acceptable physical form. Often the movie/teledrama heroes and heroines are fair skinned- invariably fairer than the villain. The popularity of the Indian lotion “Fair & Lovely” is another indication of the attempts at attaining this seemingly pre-eminent look. It was both an amusing and sad day for me when I caught one of my classmates at Trinity applying this cream with the hope that the miraculous transformation that the product promises will bring him better fortunes with the girls.
So what is it about the pale skin that makes it so desirable? Why has the image of the “maha kalu Sinhalaya” fallen out of fashion?
Is it our habit of aping the Hindi movie culture that extols the virtue of the fair skinned North Indian image? Indeed it is inconceivable that Shah Rukh Khan would be so successful had he the complexion of MP John Amaratunga. Or do the roots of this social phenomenon run deeper into history-is it possibly a vestige of our colonial and neo-colonial mindsets that lauded the white man’s way of life? Or is it merely the universal human view that associates white with purity and black with the opposite. The pursuit of the answers to these questions promises a very interesting and revealing anthropological study.
Whatever the root causes of this mentality of the relative desirability of the fair skin maybe it is clear that it is a prominent feature in our culture. Indeed, even the language lends to this discrimination! Note the alliterative quality of the following phrases: “lassana sudhu”, “ketha kalu.” Each pair of adjectives seems to be in comfortable congruence when expressed in the vernacular. Thus, lexically, the descriptive words sudhu and kalu take on meanings that go beyond a mere description of color but also signify degrees of quality and goodness.
What is particularly troubling is the racial overtone that this color based discrimination sometimes takes. Once upon returning home from playing outside in the midday sun, a visiting relative commented on my appearance with great consternation thus: “Aiyo! Dhemala kollek wagei hondatama kalu wela!” While it is true that Tamils are generally darker skinned than the Sinhalese, to me, her comment connected the undesirability of being dark with being Tamil. Thus, this discriminatory practice of favoring the fairer skinned has implications that reach beyond the seemingly innocuous and laughable situation of a Kandyan woman rejecting her daughter’s Kandyan suitor because he is kalui. Indeed, it is a social outlook that is woven into the complex latticework of our society’s greater prejudices based on ethnicity, religion, caste etc.
Thus, this preference towards fair skin functions as just another factor that creates hierarchy and sustains separation in an already fractured society. The wide spectrum of complexion seen in Sri Lankans is a silent testimony to the rich, diverse ethnic histories that pervade this tiny island nation. It is a visual aspect of this country and its people that speaks of the harmonious multiculturalism that we yearn and pray for. For after all, we are all Sri Lankans and these sudhu-kalu differences are but skin deep.


Blogger Haren said...

But how lucky for you that you are a 'Maha 'chocolate brown' Sinhalaha"!?!? :-D

7:31 PM  

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