What shade am I?
Brown, beige or neutral?
Where do I belong on a palate of life?
I used to wonder.

It’s just skin, I mean. One day it will lose elasticity and eventually develop wrinkles. It will get dry, damaged and evolve into something completely different over the years like my soul. But at the end of the day how can the colour of my skin or where I come from define who I am and what I could potentially become? I am an old tree with my roots crawled deep into the core of the earth and my branches reaching for the sky full of stars.

But the world works differently. Where you come from and how you look still determines the height of the ladder you will be presented with. My friends from so called affluent parts of the world find it hard to believe that equal opportunity is a concept that is best left untouched in the famous Little Red Book of Chairman Mao.

I am not complaining. Simply stating facts. And I am not bitter. I was presented with few opportunities over the years. I grabbed those that came my way and created a great life for myself. I was able to do that because I am not new to this game and I am a survivor. I am a fast learner who can maneuver around the bends rather beautifully. Being fluid like water has helped me flow into the unknown with courage and conviction. My biggest strengths have always been persistence and adaptability.
From the time we enter this world, we are constantly pushed to embrace the life that has been created for us. World continues to compartmentalize our existence from the get-go.

If you are brown or any other shade of black, then your rightful place is to exist among the shadows. If you are from one of the forgotten parts of the world you will never be able to climb out of the hellhole you live in. But if you are an exotic shade of silver and come from the land of the privileged, then the road is not likely to have many speed bumps. Truth of the matter is how you look, the connections you have and passport you possess will open multiple doors. While for the rest of us we would need a visa to use a toilet at an international airport.

Then there are those who have managed to break through the glass ceiling after going at it for years. This kind of unexpected success can be seen through many different filters. Some call it karma. Some call it destiny or luck. I call it bone breaking consistent hard work.

My entire childhood standing next to my fair skinned sister and cousins who were models, I felt out of place as if a piece of dhokla had tumbled onto a bowl full of penne pasta. Oddity is what I have always lived with and embraced. The ‘normal’ was never meant to be my path. I am grateful that I possess the ability to see the world upside down like a caterpillar. Very few can boast of such odd yet useful skills.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I landed a job of a flight attendant in my teens. I had somehow managed to leave 20,000 stunning girls behind to find my rightful place in the spotlight. When I questioned the interviewer why I was selected, her replied left me stunned.

“We hire middle class ordinary looking girls to whom this job will be of value. Models and actresses use this job as a steppingstone and leave in few months. But girls like you tend to work for many years and are a profitable investment for the company in the long run!”
I had no idea if I was to rejoice at that revelation or run 100 miles an hour.

I landed in Hong Kong for my initial training at the age of 18, and it opened my eyes to a whole new world. How does a girl from a middle-class Gujarati family compete with make-up queens from China, Japan and Korea? I had no idea about foundation, eye liner, lipstick and its effects on men. I thought I had signed up for a job of a flight attendant where I will be serving food and cleaning toilets midair. Instead, what I saw were girls trying to outdo each other to look as white as a scoop of laundry detergent.

First few months I was in awe of them, as they applied careful strokes to their chiseled faces to look a shade paler. Honestly, some of them looked like ghost of Geishas with perfectly lined red lips. My skin tone in comparison was considered hopeless and after three days of makeup training, I realized that no matter what I applied on my face, I remained ME!

As months went by, I eventually mastered the perfect curve of the eye liner, learnt to enhance my beige cheeks and appreciated how a neutral shade of brown looked amazing on my thin lips. Lo and behold I turned into a butterfly that had left the cocoon behind. But I was always aware that I was a distinct shade of brown, like the slowly cooked pakoras on a rainy evening. Changing how I looked on the outside was never going to whitewash how I felt on the inside.

I spent many years drifting through life and saw that my skin colour and nationality always got more importance than they should have. Many times I lost out on suitable opportunities altering the course of my life. But what is not meant to be is not meant to be. I know that now. There is no right or wrong. We end up walking on a path that is destined only for us.

The roller coaster ride eventually landed me into the Middle East in my late thirties. I thought I had finally arrived at a place where I would be able to bloom and explore my potential. The entire state of Kerala had long moved to the Middle East lock stock and barrel, so I was not alone in my quest for the perfect opportunity.

How wrong was I.

Everything on the surface looked amazing. I had landed a great job. I was entitled to staff accommodation. I was to have a decent salary. On paper it was all rainbows and unicorns.
But was it really that colourful?

I soon started getting a glimpse of reality through the uneven cracks under layers and layers of biases.

British national? Higher packages.
German or American? Just tell us what you want.
Indian? Don’t say anything or ask questions. Just be grateful that you are here.

I was two days old in the company and walked into the HR office to complain about the cockroach infestation in my staff accommodation. I found the head of HR sitting on the floor. Her neat blond bun was a perfect shape of a ball that looked like freshly formed mozzarella cheese. She had piles of cv’s on the floor. Indians on one side. All the European cv’s on the other side. She then asked her PA to toss all the Indian cv’s in the bin as she didn’t want more dark people hovering around her. Just like that years of degrees, hard work, experiences were all at the bottom of a bin.

She then delicately carried all the European cv’s as if cradling her newborn baby in her arms. I knew then that she was not someone suitable to work in a multicultural environment. Her deep blue eyes rested on my face as she heard my complaint. It took her less than a minute to dismiss my genuine complaint.

Her exact words were, ‘Many are standing in a line for your job. You Indians behave as if we need to treat you like Royalty. As if there are no cockroaches back home. Take it or leave it’

My degrees, work ethics, years of experience, knowledge – nothing mattered in that moment. What mattered to her was the colour of my skin and where I came from. I found out six months into the job that though I was on the same grade as my European colleagues and doing exactly the same job, I was earning 1/3 of what they were earning. I was deeply wounded that day. But I desperately needed the job. I was going through a painful divorce, had no savings, no support system back home and was at my lowest. So, I gulped the insult with my usual dose of never cry optimism and decided to turn the tables.

This incident taught me a very valuable lesson. No one in this world can define who I am. I know my real worth. No one can tell me what I can or cannot achieve. My work has to be so dazzling that people must sit up and take notice of this unknown girl who had showed up out of nowhere to conquer the world. And I did just that.

At the end of my three-year contract when I decided to resign to set up my own business, the same Head of HR came running to see me and begged me to stay for days. They didn’t know who else could run the program like me. She even offered to triple my salary and offer me all the perks that I should have got in the first place. But by then I had developed beautiful wings and I was ready to fly solo.

For once I agreed with Frank Sinatra who had realised that the best revenge is massive success. It had felt good to be noticed. To be seen for what I had bought to the table. I was no longer a faded print of a fabric that people could overlook.

I am aware that this world is not a perfect place. There will always be judgments about the colour of your skin or where you come from. And that’s ok. As long as I don’t allow someone else to write my narrative, I am perfectly ok.

Every now and then when I look into the mirror I ask myself again, what shade am I?
Brown, beige or neutral?

Actually, I know it’s none of the above.

I am made of one bright giant shade of magnificence!

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Shivani Adalja

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