It was a conversation about skin that had hurtled him into her orbit, planets and stars colliding.
Hers was the mythological kind that fairness creams used for ‘before’ pictures. His was bereft of melanin, stained with a forever flush.
‘Adnan is Kashmiri,’ an awestruck voice had whispered when he first walked into evening class. Nina had not looked up from her notebook. Between that name and her face; what chance could there be?
One evening, under the hum of a rickety fan, the girls discussed the chromatics of complexion.
‘You are pukka fair,’ Renu said to Lila.
‘Oof, not buttermilk like you.’
An unintelligible whisper followed by giggles.
The fan creaked on. Nina dug pen into paper. Furious strokes.
‘Arabica. With just the right dash of cream,’ a deep voice said.
Nina looked up before good sense could kick in. The gentleness of his smile punched her to the core. She said nothing; did not even glance at him again. On the last day, he left a sketch on her desk. It was of a doe-eyed girl, the colour of her skin missing amongst the graphite flourishes. Nina felt like her heart would fill all the world. Later, in the mirror, all she saw was a face carved from a mound of ash.
After exams, Holi brought a glorious chaos of flying colours. Her gang skipped through the streets to the tune of roadside speakers. Near the mosque, her heart and feet stopped. Adnan had just come out, prayer cap on his head, his long shirt untouched by the kaleidoscope outside.
Her suit, every bit of her skin was hidden under gulal. She was not Nina, the dusky one. She was just a girl, happy to see a boy. She did not care if people talked, if the barriers were insurmountable, if it never came to anything. She strode to the boy who had made her feel beautiful for one bittersweet moment and caressed his face with vermillion.
He looked struck.
He touched his cheek, drew the pigment to his lips and then to hers. Her mouth pressed into his fingers. Porcelain and ash breathed together once before she walked on.
It was the sort of moment that could see her through a life.
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