(This was published in Times of India Crest)
In 1979 when I was 6, my dad, who was a pilot with the Indian Air Force, moved our little family to Iraq where he would be working for the next two years. There were two things I remember most fondly about my time there. The first: Because we were in the boondocks of an Arabic speaking nation the only school available to us was Arabic medium. And so for the entire duration of my stay I did not attend school. To say that these were the two most blissful years of my childhood would be putting it mildly. Some of the other Air Force bases had more industrious mothers who had gotten together and home schooled their off-spring — thankfully, none of these schoolmarms had made their way to where we were, and so I was allowed to run about like a wild animal all day long. I had two friends – Sher Singh and Zora Singh, two brothers around my age, and our entire day was playtime, we would go home for our feed and water and then go back to doing absolutely nothing constructive.
The other thing that made my life worth living was television. We had not owned a TV until then so just having one was fantastic, but the truly brilliant part was that at the time the Iraqis were in to broadcasting all the big American TV shows. I watched as much TV as humanly possible, including several shows that were clearly for adults only. Lucky for me my mother was not one to worry about what was and what wasn’t appropriate TV viewing for children and so I was allowed to watch American people kill, steal and have sexual relations with abandon.
I thought that my life was complete, until a year later, when thanks to some of my aunties, I got to watch my first ever Miss Universe pageant. Beauty competitions are to little girls what porn is to little boys, the proceedings are not in our immediate future but we know that at some point they can be. And so that night my fate was sealed. I knew then, buck-toothed and flat-chested as I was, that one day I would morph, just by sheer will, in to a blonde haired, blue eyed woman called Shawn Weatherly (1980’s Miss USA) thus winning the Miss Universe title, snatching it, as she did, from under the nose of Miss Scotland – who looked genuinely surprised to have lost. I could see myself, parading about in a swimsuit with a sash identifying me as ‘Miss India’. How proud I would make my people.
We returned to India a few years later and eventually I forgot about Miss Universe. My boarding school had no TV, and even if it had I could hardly expect Doordarshan Circa 1985 to feed me the nutritious mix of beauty pageants and B-grade American soap operas I had become accustomed to. Then I went to college in Mumbai and everything changed.
It was the 90’s, Madhu Sapre had lost the Miss Universe title by a hair’s breadth, but in a watershed moment the following year Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai won Miss Universe and Miss World and I went quietly mad with glee. Finally the world had realized how beautiful we Indian women truly were, this was my moment and I was going to carpe diem the shit out of it. Of course I didn’t have a plan or a modeling portfolio, I was too cool and good-looking for that, instead I decided that the best way to get my career rolling was going to be ‘spotted’ by a model co-coordinator as I went about my daily business. There were a surprising number of them floating about Bombay spotting models all day long, I merely had to wait. I was lazy and an idiot.
Of course the reason for all these beauty championships was not because Indian women were all of a sudden prettier than everyone else but because the international cosmetics companies needed a growing market. That I missed this point despite majoring in Economics is depressing times two. But I missed other stuff as well – I missed the fact that ‘Beauty’, like automobiles, is an industry, I missed the fact that beauty pageants are like car shows, the shiniest models get the most attention despite the fact that they represent less than 1% of the total number of cars on the street, and last but not least I missed the fact that if you are born a Fiat you can not become a Ferrari.
It’s possible that if my years in Iraq had been spent in school rather than at home watching TV I might have been smarter but I wasn’t, and sadly girls like me were a dime a dozen back then as they are today. I recently read that more teenage girls would rather be models than Nobel Prize winners. Not surprising. We belong to a worldwide culture that continues to reward women just for being pretty. And we start early, we are more likely to tell a little girl that she is pretty rather than that she is strong or smart. By placing good looks and a great rack above all else we send a message to women – no one wants you for your ability to design a space shuttle, and by ‘no one’ we mean men. This attitude is a difficult one to un-learn because it’s so deep-rooted in our female psyche.
But hope springs eternal and I believe that the next generation of women will be braver. Many of my friends now have daughters and I hope that they will grow up unafraid of being smart. But for a truly liberated society it’s not enough to leave everything up to the women. How about if we focus on our men and teach the next generation of dudes that there is nothing hotter than a thinking chic.