I buy a bottle of sandalwood-scented sunscreen lotion. Yes, yes, I hate the fairness-driven notion of beauty as any self-respecting Indian should. But I don’t particularly want splotchy multi-coloured skin either. Along with my lotion, sits my spray-on foundation. No.5 is closest to my skin colour, according to the salesman. I wondered how he can tell since all three (identical-looking) shades he selects for me, turn up reddish patches from being rubbed vigorously into my arm. Hooray, my blood is still red and turns up under the dermis to say hello!
I go shopping on Tuesday evening, Wednesday morning, nights after work and weekends to prepare for a fourteen-day (and night) journey. Among my purchases is a grey vest with red lining on the neck. To be worn with black cotton track pants with a red lining down the sides. For deck wear, for nightwear, for ‘I’m so sporty-I’m so cool’ wear, never mind the fact that I’ve never seen the inside of a gym.
The next day, dad decides to play homemaker with the laundry. I pull the clothes out of the washing machine and in horror, exclaim,
What happened to my grey vest????!!!
It is now very pink with a red lining. Pink and Red! Ghastly, ghastly, ghastly!! And I don’t have matching track pants to wear it! Dad looks quite contrite and then asks, rather timidly,
You don’t like the pink colour?
At the airport, I discover that my flight has been delayed 4 hours. A discreet door tucked away at the far end looks interesting. Entry only for travellers who have a Gold Card. At 4 a.m. as I walk out, stomach full of delectable cutlets, sandwiches, hot soup and fine tea, I conclude that life in plastic is fantastic indeed. And Gold continues to open doors.
The breakfast shift is packed. I spot an empty table, the plates of its previous occupants bearing mute testimony to their appetites. I sit down.
Five minutes later I stand up so I can see over the bar and beckon to the servers. In vain.
Then I approach a tall, blond steward standing at the bar and wait for him to finish whatever he is doing and turn around. He does but his gaze glides smoothly over my head to a distant table.
Can I have someone take my breakfast order, please?
He fixes steely eyes on me and mouths,
Sit down and keep waiting.
Twenty minutes later, I flag down a Filipina waitress who smiles sunnily and brings me my breakfast immediately.
The next morning, I arrive early and have the satisfaction of bagging a prime seat with a view of the deck as well as the serving staff. I can be patient today, I decide, ignoring my growling stomach. At the table in front of me, the blond steward is charming two Americans. He dashes off and swishes back with the menus, in a smooth move and a pleasant,
And what may I bring you lovely ladies today?
I wait for him to finish. Waving now would be rude but I’m sure he can see that I’ve been staring steadfastly in his direction. He finishes, snaps the menu shut and looks up and away.
Another group of girls approach. I’ve noticed them the last evening. Youngish, mini-skirted, very made-up. They never seem to leave the ship and a video camera follows them around everywhere. Models for a cruise brochure, I guess. One is blonde, another looks like a teenage Catherine Zeta-Jones and their friends are various versions of Christina Aguilera. They sit down, chattering and fluttering. The steward materializes from nowhere and a gaggle of giggles break out. And a few minutes later he brings them their breakfasts – yoghurt as white as the young Zeta-Jones and fruit.
I’m still hungry.
The next evening I join two couples for dinner. We select the biggest table. Ten minutes later, in good cheer, we move to another (equally big) table on the other side of the room where we decide the serving staff is hovering. But we don’t seem to be able to catch the steward’s eye.
As he swings by us for the fifth time, one of my group calls out,
Could you please taken our order?
He spits out without breaking his step,
It is not your turn. Keep waiting.
The man who runs the ship restaurant offers a polite apology adding firmly that it has never been his policy to discriminate on the basis of nationality or race. He also tells us about his life in another country as an alien and promises us that he understands what we mean. An hour later, after many anecdotes about travel, belief and culture, he leaves us, charmed and smiling. I’m forced to conclude that Greeks are marvellous storytellers…indiscriminate of their audience.
Maybe it is windchill, maybe it’s skin unaccustomed to clean air but my face has turned a funny shade of orange. It isn’t tomato-red like the sunburnt Brits, not pink like the pretty Ukrainian stewardess, not chocolate like the African-American passenger in the neighbouring cabin. It isn’t even brown anymore.
My friend laughs at me and points to his sneaker lining to show me what orange looks like. I scowl and think to myself,
Orange-flavoured caramel, then.
“A city like every other”, I think to myself, remembering my own Island, home. The malls, the skyscrapers, the busy people, the money and the flash. Then I look at the grey pavements and the white kerb-stones, stainless and clean. It’s Mumbai minus the paan-stains, I surmise.
Everything in Europe is so expensive! I complain. I’ve gotten used to not converting to rupees in my head by now but even so the shops seem to be trying to palm off touristy junk to me for 10 or 11 euros apiece. I walk down the roads thinking of Colaba Causeway and I tell my companions,
Shopkeepers world-over do this!
I stare at the ocean and then I chance upon a man sprawled on the ground, next to an array of trinkets displayed on cloth. I can never resist these.
I ask, holding up a curious black stone. He tells me that is from the ancient island of Delos, where he brought it over and carved it. I smile back and inform him that I was in Delos that morning and didn’t see any black stones since they were all white pebbles and blocks.
He doesn’t bat an eyelid as he says,
You, an Indian. I am Indian too. I won’t cheat you. You also don’t tell me what you say to Indian shopkeepers.
I shrug and say,
I sputter and tell him that all the stuff in the shops is 10 euros. He leers and says,
Okay you go back to India and buy there only.
The firang couple next to me bursts into loud laughter, apparently very amused. I toss it back and walk away.
I hope it turns their pink fingers green. And I hope that racist pig never shows his brown face back in the country that links him to me.
The sea varies from turquoise to ink to cerulean, depending upon which island I’m on. Each time it has a personality of its own and each colour introduces itself to me in its signature style. Indigo, at the start of the cruise, looks at me through lidded eyes and tells me that I can take my time but I’ll have to come to it, eventually. Blue, mornings, welcomes me with a bright cheery ‘Hello!’ and asks me to come out and play. Turquoise crooks its mischievous finger at me and commands me to follow it without a splash. Silver makes me bow my head in respect as it reminds me that water covers most of the planet that human beings haven’t been able to conquer.
Lunch alone since everyone is sleeping in. A friendly, American co-passenger waves to me as he passes but he declines my offer to eat with me telling me he’s already eaten. He’s on his wave to relieve his wife from her vigil on their sunning chairs on the top deck.
She arrives a few minutes later and sits down with her plate. We eat the unfamiliar casseroles and savour the fruits in companionable silence. Then we talk about what we’ve seen, where we are from and what we do for a living. She tells me that she works in a tanning salon. I listen, interested and then tell her that the concept is completely alien to where I come from. She looks surprised and says,
But you are such a lovely colour!
Over the bay, the water has turned steely-grey, like the sky. The wind is chilly too so I shut my book and prepare to move indoors. The tables next to mine are emptying too.
At least the night is the same colour over everyone.
*Based on a fortnight-long cruise tour of Europe in October 2008.