If the Kajal is Not for Me, What is?

By Ananya B. Chetia

I’d always observe mama as she applies her makeup. The cherry blush kisses her caramel skin. The dark kajal eyeliner contrasts against her large honey eyes while her thick lashes flutter like butterfly wings. Her bindhi, the small decorative sticker above her eyebrows, known as the third eye, completes the finishing look of a beautiful Indian woman. Then she’d repeat the same steps on my face, brushing her foundation onto my darker skin and applying excessive shades of pink onto my cheeks. She’d let me choose a bindhi and I’d pick my favorite from the collection, hoping the small ornament could magically make me look like her. I never looked like her. My monolid eyes were unsuitable for thick black eyeliner as I did not inherit my mama’s double eye creases. Her powdered foundation was far too fair for my skin and the bindhi always failed to compliment my ambiguous face. As much as mama attempted for her daughter to look like a typical Indian girl, no makeup brush was successful for that kind of transformation. No makeup was designed for me.

There is an instant magnetic force between the public and my family. Whenever mama and I are in any large crowd, every individual stares in disarray, wondering how an Indian woman ended up adopting her “Malaysian” child. As mama tells her doubtful friends that I am actually her daughter, they become silent, often amazed by our physical differences. “I love your high cheekbones and freckles and large arched nose,” one aunty comments, “you are exotic. ” To which mama would proudly respond “the Aryan nose is all mine. Thank her father for her sharpened cheeks and almond eyes.” I’d simply nod in agreement as I stare at mama’s round face layered in light makeup. Makeup did not conceal mama’s natural Indian features, it exhibited them profoundly. While her friends praised me for my foreign looks, I developed an insecurity over my own mama. She is exceptionally beautiful in makeup because she is fully Indian. I thought. But I don’t have enough eye creases for eyeliner. I don’t even have enough “Indian” in me to be beautiful. Not like her. 

I believed the public was attracted to mama and I for the wrong reasons. They admired our mixed backgrounds by identifying particular physical differences, all of which were my biggest insecurities. That’s why I loved when mama applied her makeup on me. I loved how her right index finger cautiously painted tinted cherry red onto my lips. I loved how she made me laugh for my cheeks to compress, just so she could place glitter on them. I loved makeup, because I always anticipated looking exactly like mama–for looking exactly like an Indian. However, every anticipation was automatically destroyed. Makeup simply exhibited my exoticness, making me more distant from being mama’s Indian girl. 

During high school, my fascination for makeup grew more as it made me feel put together and confident. I wore the infamous MAC Lash Zoom Black Mascara, an extravagant, yet successful approach that made my lashes thick just like mama’s. I studied Bollywood actresses and their iconic looks: long black hair, full pink lips, and the notorious bindhi centered on their foreheads. I mimicked these styles during several Indian parties and honestly, I enjoyed many Indian parents exclaiming “Ananya! You look very Indian today! Just like mama.” These comments were my coupons, easily giving me public approval that I was a brown girl. To clarify, I love my father and his east Asian features. I never was ashamed of his background and his struggles as a minority in India, yet there is a great level of insecurity when my mama’s own best friends do not believe I am her daughter. 
Right before I began college mama took me to visit her friend Ms. “Octavia”, a successful makeup artist from Indonesia. In her salon, Ms. Octavia examined my face closely, smiling at both of our physical similarities. She gave me her golden highlighters, lash curlers, Korean face masks and eyeliner specifically designed for east Asian eyes. I remember Ms. Octavia telling mama “now these are the correct beauty products to enhance Ananya’s face.” After mama took me to Ms. Octavia’s, my worries of not looking Indian enough slowly vanished. Indian culture has their own unique methods for applying makeup and while that works on mama’s face, it doesn’t work on mine– but that’s okay! The truth is mama never worried about the public’s approval of our family’s ethnic mixtures and neither should I. While we couldn’t look more different, Mama and I still share the same laughs and love. Nowadays, she observes me applying my own makeup and is fascinated how different the traditional Indian method is from mine. “But it works,” mama always says. “Your face, the eyes, that smile—it’s so different, but it works jaan, it works.”

About Ananya

Ananya is originally from India and currently is a student at the University of Richmond. She’s grateful and excited to be a part of the South Asian Productions family! 

Instagram: @ananyabchetia

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