IT and Beauty in India: The Traumas

India’s success at producing IT and international beauties hides dark realities that have recently been revealed

Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal

[This article originally appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Kathmandu Post today. See it here as it appeared on the paper.]

Ene Adobunu, the Nigerian Girl in India
Ene Adobunu, the Nigerian Girl in India

[To read a related story in Nepali- काली काली हिस्सी परेकी– about beauty in south Asia, click here. This PDF file will open the complete four page issue of Kantipur Koseli.]

As India experienced splendid progress in bringing out some of the world’s best information technology (IT) companies and beautiful ladies on the world stage in the 90s, many people considered IT and beauty as two hallmarks of India. The 90s witnessed the phenomenal rise of tech firms like Infosys, Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services and the pleasant arrival of beauties like Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen and Priyanka Chopra on the international arenas of Miss World and Miss Universe pageants. But although India is thriving in both sectors, the ride hasn’t always been smooth. There are countless instances of failures in both industries. Not all Indian beauties make it to the top positions and not all IT companies make the amount of profits they claim. Last month was of particular interest as it saw a missed chance for an Indian beauty on the world stage and the exposure of the largest ever fraud in India that involved an IT company.

Ene Adobunu, the Nigerian Girl in India
Ene Adobunu, the Nigerian Girl in India

In the Miss World pageant held on December 13 in Johannesburg Parvathy Omanakuttan, a beauty from the southern Indian state of Kerala, had to be satisfied with the First Runner Up title as Miss Russia Ksenia Sukhinova walked away with the coveted crown. Parvathy reportedly criticized the jury for unfair results which drew mixed reactions from other beauties and models in India. Some criticized her for acting like a loser while others praised her for speaking out. The next day it appeared that Parvathy retracted her statement as she clarified that she was satisfied with the results.

That was a small controversy that disappeared as soon as it erupted. Three days after the beauty contest another controversy erupted in India that has shocked country and has shown no sign of fading away anytime soon. On Jan 7. Ramalinga Raju, the boss of Satyam Computers, India’s fourth-biggest software firm, admitted to fraud saying that the company’s cash and bank balance sheet had been inflated and fudged to the tune of about one billion US dollars. “What started as a marginal gap between actual operating profits and the one reflected in the books of accounts continued to grow over the years,” said Raju in a statement. “It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten.”

But let me continue with the appealing topic of beauty for now. The 21-year-old Parvathy narrowly missed out on joining five Indian glamour queens — Reita Faria (1966), Aishwarya Rai (1994), Diana Hayden (1997), Yukta Mookhey (1999) and Priyanka Chopra (2000) — who had won the title of Miss World. The two who have won the Miss Universe title are Sushmita Sen (1994) and Lara Dutta (2000). The success of these women contributed a lot to the growth of the beauty market in India. After all who doesn’t want to be beautiful (or handsome)?

But the desperate efforts of Indian youths to look beautiful have surprised Ene Adobunu. The 23 year old girl who came from Nigeria two months ago is a student of Media Studies in a prestigious film school in Noida, a city near New Delhi. “They are very much conscious about their looks,” said the girl about her Indian friends. “They judge themselves from their looks. There is inferiority complex in those who don’t have good looks.”

Stating that she met many young Indians who spend a lot of time thinking about their hair, face, physique and the clothes they wear and judge themselves based on those factors Ene continued in a philosophical tone that “the excess of such attention shadows other human qualities.”

“Don’t you want to be fair?” I asked.

“No,” she said clearly and confidently. “Not even if someone offers me millions (of dollars).”

Fair enough. The cultural standard of beauty in Nepal and India is different from that of Africa. There is a craze among many people in this part of the world to look fair. That’s why they are willing to spend lots of money to bring a glow to their faces. Radhika Kharel is one of many whose career thrives on that craze.

The woman from Surkhet, western Nepal, opened a beauty parlour in south Delhi last month hoping to serve women in the area who want to look fair. Customers are flocking to her, which has made her enthusiastic about business prospects. “Who doesn’t want to look good?” she said in an interview.

Of course, everyone wants to look good. Thus the profitable business of cosmetics is booming worldwide. But some efforts to sell those products become controversial in a country like India where people with both ‘dark’ and ‘fair’ complexions live and many of them can’t afford to have enough food. A few years ago a ‘Fair and Lovely’ TV advert that linked fairness to beauty and darkness to unemployment and inferiority came under heavy criticism from women activists and a large section of society in India. The company that made the ad, Hindustan Lever Limited, immediately withdrew the commercial. By the time the ad went off air, a debate in India had already started: do you have to be ‘fair’ to be ‘beautiful’?

That question is still alive. There are ongoing efforts that try to delink fairness with beauty. For instance, Mail Today, a tabloid from Delhi has been publishing an advert these that tries to portray the ‘fair-is-beautiful’ concept as outdated. A smiling girl with dark complexion and clad in a beautifully designed outfit is seen holding a glass of wine. Below her photo are these words: “I am not fair but I am lovely. I am not yesterday.”

Despite these new efforts people still feel to be dark is to be ugly. Ene from Nigeria has seen many such youth in Noida.

“Unconsciously they are flowing with the wave that says fair is beautiful but black is not,” said Ene. “And they behave accordingly. A fair girl has boldness and she walks confident. Black guys are reserved and maintain a low profile. I feel terrible for them. I don’t know how long it has been going on but I want to tell them ‘hey stand up, black is beautiful. You can’t buy black from market. No one wants to be black. That is why this is beautiful’.”

Sometimes she gives her own example. “Look at me,” she tells them, “I am black and I feel I am beautiful. I don’t want to change this. Why do you worry?” The Nigerian said the western media which influences media elsewhere in the world was to be blamed for associating fairness with beauty.

Oh, the media. The Indian media these days are filled with the Satyam (truth) scandal. Newspapers have renamed the company ‘Asatyam’ (untruth). Chairman Raju has been arrested, agencies have started investigation and government has disbanded the old board and replaced it with new one. More than fifty thousand jobs are stake. More than that, India’s reputation as outsourcing hub is at stake. Along with this devastating news came a report that the World Bank, in addition to banning Satyam for bribery and data theft, debarred another prestigious Indian IT firm Wipro for its involvement in unfair activities that included providing its shares to World Bank staff.

As the investigations are going on, many are anxiously waiting for the confirmation that the case of Satyam is an isolated one and other companies are well and healthy.

(The writer is the New Delhi bureau chief of The Kathmandu Post.)