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  • Platinum Snow
  • Juned Subhan (bio)

Fight the darkness from within, the glossy label on the pot of Platinum Snow moisturiser stated, and a ripple of discontent surged through Nilima Bhadhuri because the day and night cream had failed to lighten her skin. The leaflet inside the box revealed that 89 percent of women reported a difference in their skin tone after four weeks, but after using it for six weeks she couldn't discern any alteration. Prior to travelling to work at St. Catherine's All Girls' Private School in northern Sylhet, Nilima looked at her dusky face. Her mother, Parvin, and father, Imon Bhadhuri, were lighter skinned, and she couldn't fathom how she'd been born dark. She scanned the ingredients on the back of the pot, which listed various vitamins and plant extracts. It cost almost a week's wage. She told herself she had to be patient; it would work in time. An image on the box showed a young woman with black skin looking miserable, and then after four weeks she looked jovial with her skin transformed to an iridescent sheen. Nilima looked at her face again. Perhaps that's why the recent marriage proposal arranged by her mother had dissolved. Despite her mother feeding the guests heartily with chicken rezala curry brimming with melted ghee and pilau rice, the parents of the groom appeared uninterested after seeing her, and though they said they'd call to clarify their decision, they never did, nor had they answered her mother's phone calls.

"Sister Parvin, listen to me," she'd overheard Aunt Leena, her father's younger married sister who lived with them in the same commune on Kamal Bazaar Road in the Rampur area, southern Sylhet, say to her mother, "no decent Bengali family wants a girl who looks black. And not just any black, but charcoal black! You understand what I'm saying? Charcoal we throw away after burning wood! Plus, sister, mothers-in-law in Sylhet are very, very fussy. They only want fair-skinned brides for their sons. You and I would want the same, wouldn't we, huh? Just the other day I was watching television and they were showing Africans. I feared I'd [End Page 64] die in shame! Most of them were hardly wearing any clothes, I didn't know where to look, but I did look at them! They also have the same problem. No one wants to marry them because they're so black! Allah somewhere must have made a mistake. Instead of wasting all this money on Nilima's marriage, why don't you give the money to me my dear sister? I still believe you and I could open a beauty parlour."

Her mother had simply nodded her head in disappointment.

Putting the cream away, Nilima understood that not being fair-skinned meant no one wanted or desired you. Eventually, you ceased to exist, turning thin like mist and disappearing into the background. She glanced outside the wide, spacious bungalow Nilima shared with her parents. The early morning sun shimmered brightly in the September sky and the heat started to rise and sizzle. The smell of buttered parathas and fried red cabbage drifted out of the kitchen as her mother clattered about preparing breakfast. On the opposite side of the lawn, in the guesthouse, fringed with banana and guava trees, Nilima saw her Aunt Leena strutting out with her two teenage children, Aanya and Adit, while her husband, Uncle Rafiq, lay dozing in bed, not getting up until midday at the earliest, and lying no doubt about searching for a job. Having been evicted from their home outside Sylhet for rental arrears, her father had taken pity on his sister, thus allowing them to reside in the commune, though Aunt Leena showed little inclination toward leaving soon.

"Ish! Allah, I'm so hungry!" her aunt announced, loud and clear. "I feel I haven't eaten in six months! May Allah not even keep my own worst enemies starving for so long."

"Mama, you ate two bowls of rice yesterday with chicken," Aanya reminded her mother, giggling.

Aunt Leena snapped, "Chup! Foolish girl! So what...