Guess Who Came to Dinner

I must have seen the film in ’68, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier, all three immortals united in a single Hollywood comedy, the tremor could be felt as far away as Kolkata – Calcutta in those days. ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ is about interracial marriage, which was still illegal in 17 of the 50 states of the US as of 12 June 1967: that’s when the Supreme Court struck down the anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia, I’m not joking, the case was Loving versus Virginia, Wikipedia will tell you. Loving won, I presume.

Otherwise we Bengalis have nothing to learn from the Southern states. There’s the story of the Bengali girl returning home with a black husband from the US, who had conveniently forgotten to tell her family that her hubby was an American but black, a black American. The mother opened the door to welcome her American son-in-law, saw who was coming to dinner and fell over – dead. She’d had a heart attack. So don’t talk to us about who’s coming to dinner. But you can tell the feminist joke about the man who went to see God and came back to report: ‘To begin with, she is black.’ Must have run into our Goddess Kali.

Loving won in my case as well. I left the diplomatic service and we settled down in Germany, not without certain cultural conundrums. My wife was asking me all the time about the colour of the hair or the colour of the eyes of whichever lady I might have chanced to encounter on the street or wherever and I had to confess that I did not know, since I was not used to noticing such things. Everybody had black hair and brown eyes where I came from. The thing to notice had been the skin colour – dark to fair, ‘light dark’, ‘somewhat dim’ (the colour of the skin, not the person) and so on, the fifty shades of grey of Bengali racism. A Bengali bridegroom – or his family – always looked for a bride with a fair skin, even if the fellow was dark as sin, especially if the fellow was dark as sin. I had explained all this to my wife and my step-daughter even before they set foot in Bengal for the first time.

Imagine my chagrin when I heard the two of them laughing over our ‘colour bar’ – they did not seem to find a certain grandaunt of mine as fair (milk and lac-dye) as we (the rest of the family) did, or a certain uncle of mine as dark (the underside of a rice-pot) as we did. And then my wife let me in on their secret: apparently we Bengalis all seemed dark when seen through European eyes. More than that, these white Caucasians did not seem to care about skin colour, or about one’s class or station in life: my wife and my stepdaughter were finding a certain young maidservant of ours sweet to look at and oomphy and with a nice figure and all that – when she was dark as sin (don’t ask me why it’s a greater sin for a girl or a woman to be dark than for a boy or a man). They were even asking why I had not married somebody like her – just imagine, yours truly, a Gentoo and a gentleman, marrying a maidservant!

Which makes me feudal, apart from being a racist, I know. Serve me right that my own skin colour is nothing to write home about (why should I? Mother should know). I was made painfully aware of the fact in the black-and-white photographs an uncle of mine, the family photographer, was taking with his Rolleiflex camera. He was not getting the aperture right, my uncle was complaining. The photographs on which one could see me, my wife was overexposed, looking like a white female ghoul; the photos on which her features were discernible, I was underexposed, looking like my own silhouette.

Until they discovered colour. We’ve been all light since then, as the Chinese say – trust me to end with a racist joke!


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