Dark Like Kali: The Black India Experience

It was November and the thick Indian air wrapped my face like a wool blanket. My first whiff of Mumbai transported me to Kingston, Jamaica, where the familiar smell of roasting peanuts and burning charcoal beckoned home. Meeting India was like encountering an estranged sister. And as my sistren and I walked this land where fuchsia, mango, teal and nutmeg colors oozed from mountaintops and mainland, we found sisters trapped in the dark.

I traveled to India in the guise of wanting to research the history of Indian fashion and its impact on global style trends. But, corny as it sounds, I was soul searching. The end of a quasi-Goth, Alanis Morissette circa Jagged Little Pill era saw the birth of a faux-Indian goddess (me) grappling with her early 20s. Blame my roommate, who played A Little Princess one lazy, dateless Friday night and completely changed my life.

I was working at the original Honey magazine, arriving to work draped in heavily embroidered fabrics that bled with color, texture and a history I knew nothing about. That season, Fashion Week was an ode to paisley prints, dramatic embroidery and backless choli tops. As I watched models (none Indian) traipse up and down the catwalk, I felt like the White guy who rocks dreds, smokes weed and wears a dingy Marley T-shirt but doesn’t give a damn about the Rastafarian movement and its place in Jamaica’s identity.  

So I went to South India. My sistren and I were generously received by the Indian tourism board, who took us to Kancheepuram, a city renowned for its silk weaving. We also visited the centuries old, sky-tickling temples that inspired many of the patterns often seen on Indian sarees.

We were greeted warmly by the people and enjoyed interacting with them. My editor was adamant that we photograph dark-skinned Indian women for our story, and as a dark-skinned woman, I embraced the mission. But it wasn’t as romantic as I imagined. The dark women walked with hung heads so heavy, they seemed half-decapitated, their dignity strung up by silky ropes of obsidian hair. I knew Black women personally who would’ve done anything for hair like theirs, and I knew White women who crisped themselves in the Miami heat, longing for a tone they weren’t naturally born to have.

But in this lush land of color, it appeared that black was untouchable. Before I went to India, I heard the “untouchable” rumors, but hoped they weren’t true. I questioned our lovely lighter-skinned tour guide, Muhamida, about the social status of India’s dark-skinned women and the “untouchables” phrase, but she struggled with refuting or confirming them.

As I watched models traipse up and down the catwalk, I felt like the White guy who rocks dreds, smokes weed and wears a dingy Marley T-shirt but doesn’t give a damn about the Rastafarian movement. So I went to South India.

One of the women was bald, having given her hair as a sacrifice to Lord Shiva. I explained that where we came from, she was beautiful; but even though she agreed to take the photo, she wasn’t moved.

What did she think of me? Here I was—dark with big, unseamed hair, strutting through her streets wearing elaborate Hindu attire mocking the mystical swag of her birthright. Did I disgust her? Did I remind of her of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death?

Kali is the only Black Indian goddess, and her identity is controversial. She’s defined as a deity associated with violence, sexuality and death, but several writings describe her as a divine mother and destroyer of egos. Kali is celibate, and she enables spirit to conquer flesh. But when you look at Kali, you see her dark blue or black skin, long, black tongue, nude body, skirt of dismembered arms, and garland of severed heads. (In India, I was told they were babies’ heads).

Why does the only dark-skinned goddess appear so dreadful? When I looked through the lens at these women’s joyless faces, I saw an old schoolmate we’ll call Jerry (she had a jheri curl in the 1980s). If you weren’t “the honey with the light eyes,” sometimes Jerry treated you like Kali with the dark tongue.

Jerry grieved over her dark skin and longed for a light man to balance her. Why didn’t I grieve for my clove-colored skin? Being an artist has enabled me to live in many shades, but in India, I was an untouchable. I wanted so much to convince these women of their beauty, but I knew history had claimed them like Jerry. And so I stood with my Kali sisters in this colorfully dark space in time as my sistren squeezed the shutter.

Dinkinish O’Connor is an award-winning writer whose food sojourns have taken her everywhere from the shantytown bistros of Kingston to the gnarly vineyards of Bordeaux. She's written for Wine SpectatorCondé Nast TravelerThe Miami Herald and other publications. To see what’s happening in Dinkinish’s sumptuous little world, check out “Gourmet Squatter,” her blog that explores how to sip high on a low budget.