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“Why can’t I look like that?” Muthu sighed, staring at the billboard by the roadside.

The actress in it looked flawless with alabaster skin that glinted in the dark. She sported a dazzling smile and an iridescent string of pearls. The pearls were what captured Muthu’s attention the most. She felt an affinity towards them. They shared the same name after all.

Muthu’s full name was Muthumalai which meant ‘necklace of pearls’ in Tamil, her mother tongue. Ironically, pearls were everything she was not.

Ethereal. Lustrous. White.

But there were other things she was.

A good student. A fast-learner. An obedient daughter.

But none of these accomplishments amounted to anything. If there was one thing people remembered her for, it was her skin tone. Her swarthy complexion invited unwanted ridicule and unfounded concern from strangers and well-wishers alike. The word fairness could mean light colour or equality. Yet, no two words were so opposite.

Where was the fairness in fairness?

Muthu made her way towards her home in the slum. Her mother was crouched over the stove stirring rice porridge for their dinner. Kanthimathi their garrulous neighbour, hovered around Amma, gossiping.

“We found a match for Geetha’s daughter, finally. The girl is very dark, and Geetha had to buy expensive gifts to appease the groom’s family.”

“Tsk, tsk.”

“You must do something about Muthu’s skin too. Don’t let her go out in the sun much.”

“Muthu is only fourteen! Let her study and become something.”

“Where will you find the money for her higher education?”

Muthu cleared her throat, making her presence known, before the conversation went out of control.

“Oh, hello, Muthu! I must take my leave now.” Kanthimathi hurried out.

“Child, don’t take Kanthimathi’s words to heart,” Amma pacified.

Muthu plastered a fake smile on her face. Suddenly, her younger brother Velu, pounced on her.

Akka, let’s watch TV!”

The television was a prized possession in their two-room house and was their main source of entertainment. They switched the set onto a channel that was airing a popular song. The hero gyrated to raucous beats, with golden-haired foreign backup dancers accompanying him. The lyrics paid tribute to the heroine’s captivating looks, hailing her as the hero’s ‘fair one’.

Muthu sighed. Why did the world have a singular template for beauty? Why did it all come back to one thing?



It was a busy day at school. Muthu beamed as the teacher handed out the class’s math answer papers. She had topped with a perfect score! On the other hand, Kathir, the class bully, had failed miserably.

“Kathir, take notes from Muthu!” the teacher admonished, while the class sniggered.

During break time, a seething Kathir mocked Muthu, calling her Karuppi, or black one.

The teacher called you bright. Tell me, can anyone spot you in the dark? Your new name is power-cut!”

Muthu’s eyes filled with tears. Her best friend, Srivalli, intervened, threatening to box Kathir’s ears. The bully retreated hastily.

When the school bell rang ushering the end of the day, Srivalli handed Muthu a torn piece of newspaper, pointing to an advertisement.

“I may have a solution.”

“Fairness cream?”

“Haven’t you watched the advertisement? A girl gets rejected by many suitors. Her sister gives her a tube of cream. After five weeks of use, she turns milk-white. Then, she gets engaged, and lives happily ever after!”

Muthu was sceptical. Once, she had liberally smeared talcum powder on her face. Her nickname changed from Karuppi to Pei, or ghost. She never touched any powder again.

Would the cream work? Only one way to find out.

A puny tube of cream was priced at a hundred and twenty rupees.

The price of two kilos of tomatoes. The price of a ticket. The price to become beautiful.

Thankfully, she had some stashed-away prize money she could use.

When Muthu asked the shopkeeper for a tube, he looked at her with sympathy, as though her ‘problem’ was written on her face. She smuggled the tube home in a brown bag, clutching it tightly to her chest.

That night, she squeezed a tiny bit between her fingertips and applied the cream in circles. She glanced into the old mirror that was covered with spots.

Was her skin lightening a little already? Hard to say in the dim light of the bulb.

She applied the cream every day, asking Srivalli anxiously if there was any difference at all.

“Maybe a little. I’m not sure,” her friend fumbled.

A month later, Muthu glared at the mirror. Her ebony complexion and wistful brown eyes stared back at her. The spent tube lay bent and twisted, much like her dream.

Her olive skin was too stubborn for the likes of cream.


Muthu’s father, her Appa, decided that they would visit the nearby Krishnan temple. The family offered prayers and circumambulated the perimeter. Muthu’s fingers traced patterns on the walls that had mural paintings depicting stories of Lord Krishna’s valour. He was also quite the charmer and mesmerized onlookers with his bewitching smile.

In all the paintings, Krishna was depicted with a black or blue complexion. Yet, he was also considered the most handsome among celestial beings. No one would ask him to use a fairness cream.

But then, he was a God. Only he could be dark-skinned, and still be worshipped.

Akka, what are you doing?” Velu demanded.

“Just admiring Krishna. He looks so beautiful!”

“So are you!” the six-year-old exclaimed.

“You think…..I am pretty?”

“Of course! When Amma tells me stories of princesses, it is your face I remember!”

Muthu felt her eyes filling.

At six, Velu adored her. Would he still feel the same way when he was older? 


Muthu was at the market to buy cucumbers for Amma. Was it because Kanthimathi had told her that cucumber peels whitened skin?

She chided herself for being paranoid; the world didn’t revolve around her.

In her hurry, she didn’t notice the woman ahead of her, and collided head-on, sending the cucumbers flying. Muthu quickly gathered the strewn vegetables and stood up to apologize to the stranger.

The woman’s hair was a shade of red. She wore ripped jeans and a colourful jacket. Accompanying her was a man with a camera.


Photographers and journalists were not uncommon sights in slums. Every nook and cranny brimmed with stories, and there was often a documentary being shot or an article written.

“She’ll be perfect!” the woman whispered to her companion in excitement.

“Hello, what is your name?” the man asked Muthu in broken Tamil.

Muthu felt uneasy. Not feeling comfortable enough to reply, she did the instinctive next thing. She bolted. The woman called after her, but she refused to turn.

This was a slum. Visitors came for different reasons. Sometimes legitimate, other times, not so much.

Reporting. Adoption. Cheap labour. Kidnapping.

It was better to not get embroiled in any trouble. As it is, Amma and Appa had enough to worry about.


Muthu had forgotten about the unexpected encounter in the market. She returned from school that day and found shoes outside their home. Not ordinary shoes; branded ones.

Who could be here? 

She peered through the gap in the wall and held her breath. It was the same couple from last week!

How had they tracked her here? What did they want? 

Velu spotted her and squealed.

Akka! The guests have been here for an hour. I can’t understand what they are saying, but they brought along a man who speaks English and Tamil. They keep asking for you. Now, they are talking about money.”


“Maybe Amma and Appa are selling you off because you didn’t give me your boiled egg!” Velu added wickedly.

Dread filled Muthu’s heart.

Why would strangers offer them money? Were they going to harvest organs from her? She had heard stories. Amma-Appa would never agree!

Akka is here!” Velu announced, much to Muthu’s chagrin.

So much for a quiet entry.

The red-haired woman stood up.

“Hi, Muthu! I am Rhea, and this is Harsh, my photographer. We work for a fashion company called Venus and are looking for new faces to model for us. I was discussing with your parents that you would be perfect to showcase our latest jewellery line for young adults.”

When the translator explained, Muthu couldn’t believe her ears. This sounded like a joke!

They wanted her to be the face of a brand. A face that no one found beautiful. Why?

Amma and Appa looked anxious and upset. They kept staring at each other, bewildered.

“If you agree, once the contract is signed, we can arrange for the shoot. One of you can accompany Muthu to the location. Our make-up artist will help her get ready. All she has to do is wear our designs, look into the camera, and smile. We assure you that she’ll be in professional hands.”

Appa asked for some time to consider. The offer seemed too good to be true, and he was wary. The visitors left after giving him their contact details.

Why me? Muthu wondered. 

Why her? The family concurred.


After much deliberation, and repeated assurances from Rhea about Muthu’s safety, Appa agreed. The money she had offered them was no small sum.

Muthu was convinced that this couldn’t be real.

If this was a dream, she didn’t want to wake up.

On the first day of the shoot, Muthu reached the set along with Appa. It was holiday season, and she wouldn’t miss school.

When school reopened, she would be the cynosure of all eyes. Srivalli would be delighted and envious at the same time.

The makeup artist helped Muthu get ready. She expected her face to be coated with white paint. She was surprised when the artist merely touched up her face. Muthu changed into a pretty summer dress and tried on the various necklaces and earrings. She fidgeted nervously as Harsh clicked a few trial shots.

Rhea intervened.

“Don’t be stiff. You are young and strong. You own the world. Give me your best look.”

Something clicked.

Perhaps it was Rhea’s tone. Appa’s assuring eyes. Harsh’s encouraging looks.

Muthu let go of her inhibitions. She thought of all the slurs and taunts. Fighting back her tears, she stared fiercely at the camera and posed. This was her moment.

Dark. Light. Black. White.


The photographer clicked away.


“It’s a wrap!”

How had time passed by so quickly? These had been the best days of Muthu’s life.

“Muthu, what does your name mean?” Rhea asked curiously.

“It means pearl,” she mumbled half-apologetically.

“I think it suits you. Do you know that black pearls are rare and precious? You ARE an elusive gemstone, girl!”

Elusive, precious. These were words she would cherish and relive. Again, and again.


While the payment was made promptly, Muthu didn’t hear from Rhea for weeks. The initial euphoria died, and life went back to normal. Then one day, Appa got a phone call. His face shone with excitement. He summoned the family and shepherded them to the main road. Amma kept complaining about her pending chores and wondered what the fuss was about.

Muthu was curious as to what had gotten Appa so worked up. Soon, she found out. Her family gaped with astonishment and pride.

A new billboard had sprung up, replacing the previous one. It was for the Venus fashion company. Staring back at Muthu was her face, radiant in its ebony ebullience, sporting glinting earrings and an intricate necklace.

Defiant. Radiant. Ethereal.

Muthu had always been stunning. Why had she never seen it before? How had she let someone else’s warped obsession with colour affect her self-esteem?

“I am beautiful!” she whispered, blinking away her happy tears.


This story is the second place winner of the 2024 Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature organized by Mr. Gopakumar Radhakrishnan and Bharat Award International.



One Comment

  • Latha Prakash says:

    Wow. This story is radiant, ethereal Nd precious just like Muthu.
    Beautifully narrated… Touched the right chords

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