The Skin I'm In
(You can find the audio version of this article here.)
All my life, I have been accused of having the wrong skin colour. My body’s wrapper—loosening and crinkling slightly around the eyes and mouth now, like the bow-tie-shaped foil around an old toffee that has come half untwirled—has always been stubbornly pinky white from a middle distance and, close up, a pointillist painting comprised of thousands of tiny red and brown dots against a milky background. In the two photos I have of my father, a bald man in what looks like his late forties or early fifties, bending over a wedding registry with my mother, wearing a shiny polyester suit, his skin sleek with the sweat of a Pakistani June, is a blend of almond and olive, with a touch of dove grey: sallow, pale but unmistakably brown. I still remember the smell of that skin: papery, leathery, faintly sour—perhaps from the beer he drank—like ancient, dusty cumin that has lost most of its aroma.
At boarding school, aged perhaps twelve or thirteen, I once passed those photos round a circle of girls, who were comparing pictures of their parents. “That’s not your dad,” they jeered. “That guy’s a Paki!” It was a response I got often growing up: that can’t be your father. I didn’t show the photos again, since I was always met with scepticism, suspicion and scorn. I knew he was my father; I could see from the way his profile traced exactly the same line as my own, but I felt illegitimate in a deeper, less literal sense.
My father was a Parsi, a member of the tiny but ferociously ambitious and extraordinarily successful group of Indian Zoroastrians, descendants of people who, legend has it, crossed the Arabian Sea from Persia in around 800 AD—before the Maoris first canoed to New Zealand—fleeing persecution as the country was Islamised by the sword. (In fact, archaeologists have found signs of Zoroastrian settlement in India predating that: piles of bones enclosed within stone circles, the remains of the Parsis’ famous Towers of Silence, where corpses are picked clean by vultures in accordance with Zoroastrian sky burial traditions). After a millennium and a half in India, though they retain a strongly distinctive culture, religion and cuisine, Parsis feel Indian (and Pakistani) and look it too. Even those who are pale skinned don’t usually sport the pale pinky-orange or warm beige tones of European skin, but more closely resemble a chai tea to which more and more milk has been added until only a hint of tanniny brownness remains.
I left Pakistan at age 8, my mother died about a year later and my father two years after that, after which I grew up completely British. I went to an old-fashioned boarding school, gripping hockey sticks with freezing fingers, eating canned oxtail soup and stodgy puddings drowning in lumpy custard, yawning with painful boredom through the compulsory chapel services and losing myself in Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I studied English Literature at Cambridge and I ferociously adored the place: the wisteria-draped walls of my college, the after-dinner sherries, the Shakespeare plays and punting and Benjamin Britten’s music and the poetry of Alexander Pope.
But I always felt a niggling sense of incompleteness. The innocent question Where are you from? made me squirm. Whatever answer I gave felt like, at best, a half-truth. My Indo-Pakistani heritage was clearly there, somewhere, but to lay claim to it felt like stolen valour, since I had no contact with any relatives from the subcontinent, I had forgotten every word of my childhood Urdu and Gujarati, I was unfamiliar with the religious and cultural traditions. And, above all, I didn’t look the part. I had the wrong skin. I couldn’t shake that conviction—even though I learned that skin colour inheritance is complex and often unpredictable, that siblings and even identical twins can occupy different ends of the colour spectrum, that there are prominent Indians with western looking skin. I perused photos of the mottled pink face of Salman Rushdie—what he once called “my extraordinary paleness”—and wondered whether Rushdie’s obsession with people who straddle two cultures and feel at home in more than one country or in none, was influenced by the mismatch of his rosy pallor and his Indian parentage.
My return to my own Indian heritage was glacial, a decades-long shifting, abrasion, cracking and creep. But the ice was on the move. It began with a fascination with the literature, which became more and more infused with my own nostalgia and longing and culminated, in 2017, with an 18-month stay in Bombay to explore my Parsi roots. I was very anxious about visiting the Parsi community: Parsi identity is zealously guarded and strictly policed. Non-Parsis are not permitted to even enter the fire temples, sacred wells or gardens of the Towers of Silence. By most interpretations, I was a Parsi by birth, through my father—but I felt like an interloper all the same. I was a spy in a ridiculous and unconvincing disguise: my skin announced that I was not Indian, couldn’t be Parsi. I was the one glistening pink thing in a brown throng: a bead that had strayed into the wrong compartment of the sewing box. But I was accepted—or at least not confronted or questioned—almost everywhere. More than that, I found many Indians surprisingly eager to claim me as one of theirs.
One day, as I perched on a stool at his stand in Colaba, a watchmaker asked me, “Where are you from?” This time, I answered confidently: “My mother was Scottish, but my father was Indian.” “Your father was Indian? I knew it!,” he proclaimed. “I knew you were Indian as soon as I saw you.” This was perhaps pure suggestibility on his part, or more probably a spiel to butter up the naïve tourist, but I accepted it gratefully. He was one of many. And when I returned from two weeks spent in Galle, Sri Lanka, loping along the beach and tanning my skin a pale brown in the sea-glare, for a brief, halcyon interval a few people addressed me in Marathi, assuming I was a local. I lapped it up like a thirsty spaniel.
It took me more than a year, after returning from India, to wear anything other than a rainbow of coordinating desi outfits. I couldn’t alter my skin, but I could at least try to wear the clothes. But gradually, my cheap thin cotton kurtas frayed and tore and my leggings split along the seams like over-ripe bananas. I’m back in jeans and T-shirts now: I learned to let go of the costume, but my visit to India had a deeper, more healing effect on me. It felt as though the two frayed strands of my life had been crocheted back together. The thread that was severed when we left Karachi, when my father died and when my connection with that part of my heritage was ended had been reattached.
Nevertheless, my personal vulnerability on this topic remains: I’m clad in psychic crochet, not chain mail. The current obsession with race and, often, race viewed in the narrowest terms—in terms of skin colour—unnerves me. For many, in these culture wars, your race is defined by how you look. This is partly because they are most worried about casual racism—and a racist thug on the street will hurl abuse, a racist cop will assess you as more dangerous, based on your skin tone, without waiting to see a complete DNA analysis. They use the awkward term racialised to indicate several things: that there may be a mismatch between how you look and your actual ethnicity; that you may be discriminated against in a way analogous to racism even if you are white (if, say, you are wearing a hijab); and that the concept of separate races makes little sense. Yet despite this, there is a strong tendency to cling to an essential dichotomy between “white people” and “people of colour.” The deference to lived experience and the injunction to listen to people of colour both assume that the west, at least, is split into two basic categories of human being, whose lives, opinions and sensibilities divide along skin colour lines.
In this environment, skin colour has renewed political currency. If the person concerned has political opinions that align with yours, extra melanin adds authority, making the browner-skinned useful spokespeople—“Look! I don’t just think this because I’m white. This person of colour agrees.” And affirmative action programmes, diversity targets and racial quotas provide incentives to fake a “non-white” identity. After centuries in which lighter skinned people infiltrated respectable society by passing as white, now many new Rachel Dolezals are scrambling to appropriate the places reserved for POCs by inventing exotic ethnic identities for themselves. As a result, many people feel it’s important, once again, to patrol the boundaries, to enforce the new racial sumptuary laws and to prevent upstart white people from brownfishing their way in.
I’m not woke. I reject identity politics. I think a person’s skin colour is irrelevant to the validity of their opinions. I think we should strive for a colourblind society. I oppose affirmative action as just one more form of discrimination. And, while racism clearly still exists in the west, I think other factors, especially poverty and ill health, are much more important in determining people’s life happiness. I think our societal obsession with racism has skewed our priorities and degenerated into an excuse for witch hunts on the one hand and empty corporate gestures on the other and will obstruct real change. Some of you who are reading will strongly disagree with me on this. And you could be right. I could be wrong. But none of those opinions have any bearing on my parentage.
Yet, once again, I find myself accused of being an imposter. You’re 100% white. I only have to look at you to know that, I’m told, repeatedly, by the woke. And it’s even more uncomfortable when anti-woke people, hoping to co-opt me, try to portray me as an oppressed, mixed-race woman of colour. Neither label fits.
Legend has it that when the first Zoroastrians arrived on the shores of Gujarat the local ruler initially refused to allow them safe harbour. Then the head priest called for a large clay vessel, brimming with milk, and a hunk of jaggery (palm sugar). He stirred the jaggery into the milk to demonstrate how his people could live among the native Indians. I sometimes fancifully think of my white skin as the ripply surface of a jar of milk whose pale colour disguises the sweet jaggery dissolved within. But in reality, everyone’s skin is a disguise, a superficial coating, a red herring that leads us astray as we investigate the mystery that is an individual. To find out what is within, we need to take the cup to our lips and sip.
My book Our Tango World (two volumes) can be found here, here, here and in Kindle format here. My book on eighteenth-century essayists, Anxious Employment, is available here and can be ordered for libraries. A selection of my political writings can be found here.