By Annie Zaidi
When I was a kid, my favourite colour was red. I still remember a red silk dress I had, with thick silver trimming all over the bodice and sleeves. And if you’re a close friend of mine, you’ll probably have heard my little story about the huge tantrum I threw in Hazratgunj, Lucknow, once — all about wanting a pair of red shoes.
I don’t know at what point I stopped saying that red was my favourite colour, and when I went through a shifting spectrum of favourites — ‘white’ and ‘black’ and ‘sea green’ and, at one point, ‘lilac’. Pink, however, was never ‘my’ colour.
Nevertheless, there was a lot of pink in my wardrobe. And I didn’t have a problem with that. Pink was just another colour — nice. Lots of other girls wore pink and I was told it suited me. That was all. I never really thought about it much until I grew up and heard phrases like ‘baby blue’ and ‘baby pink’.
It was the women’s magazines, I think, that started me off on this gender association with colours. Magazines like Femina and Cosmo would educate me about which colours to wear in which season, and what men were supposed to wear and what not, and what look marked you out as what type, and what colour to paint your room when you started to plan a family.
Pink still didn’t start being my favourite colour. What did happen was that my brother stopped wearing it. And he gave up red too. And bright yellows. Actually, by the time he went to college, my brother’s wardrobe was reduced to shades of blue, white and black.
Still, I never paid close attention to this ‘pink’ing of the female half of the globe until recently, when I bought a pink and white shirt for myself and suddenly realised that it was the only pink item of clothing I had bought for myself over the last six years.
And then I began thinking about why. It isn’t as if I have anything against that particular colour but there’s something in me that’s sort of turned off by a certain kind of pink. Not hot pinks. Not pale, rusty pinks. Not shades of maroon. Just the particular shade of pink that’s typically associated with girls — the one shade most men will not be seen dead in. Maybe it was my feminist streak rebelling against the stereotype.
Perhaps, it’s all psychological. I did get quite exasperated when one of my landlords had his entire barsaati whitewashed pink, when he realised that his next tenant would be a single woman. Not that I particularly like powder blue, but I insisted on his repainting a room blue instead — just to make a point.
At any rate, all this got me obsessing about colours. I notice colours on walls, on cars, on street signs, at cafes, corporate furniture, logos, banks, advertisements, electronic goods.
And I notice that pink doesn’t really figure in our world. There are no pink cars in showrooms. Over the last few years, I have spotted only one baby pink Ambassador (it reminded me of a giant upturned cradle for some reason) near a shopping complex in Delhi. It had a laal-batti on top, so perhaps a woman sarkaari official. I’m assuming that this is because the assumption is that women won’t be the ones buying the cars, even if they do learn to drive them. Car colours are therefore mostly greys, whites, blacks, blues, and a couple of ‘safe’ ones like red and yellow, which men wouldn’t mind being seen in.
There were no ‘pink’ sign-boards. No pink cafes. No pink computers. No pinks on bank doors or cheque books. And even goods that are traditionally handled by women weren’t really available in shades of pink. No pink refrigerators or washing machines or even mixer-grinders, for instance.
Where I did find pink was for services that were exclusively for women. There’s a taxi service in Mumbai that’s supposed to be especially for women. And sure enough, it had a pink thing going — the cars had a pink line painted somewhere and the female chauffeurs wore pink uniforms. More googling revealed that similar women’s only taxi services in the UK and in Russia and almost everywhere else also had pink names and pink themes.
In small towns and villages where there is no conscious, generally accepted gendering of the colour spectrum, I see a lot more pink. Men wear pink turbans. Walls, doors and windows are painted a very pink shade of pink. Pink-n-gold parandis glitter around rear-view mirrors in autos and cycle-rickshaws. The horns of cows and bullocks are painted pink and so are many shop signs and the nails of several men with big moustaches.
It is clear that pink is seen as a women’s colour in many places, and it is also clear that wherever this prejudice prevails, pink seems to vanish from the public eye. And it is not like I am surprised. If something is defined as definitely, exclusively meant for one group of people, the other group is made uncomfortable by it. In a world where everything must sell, nobody can afford to alienate customers.
But of course, the final clincher is the fact that women are never alienated — or so the market assumes — by typically male colours/contours. They rarely protest at things always being blue or black or grey. They don’t mind things not being pink. In fact, if they’re like me, they may even wrinkle their noses at pink, perhaps subconsciously resenting it.
Now, having thought all of this out places me in this weird situation. What do I do about pink? Get more pink? Get rid of it? Ignore it? And what do I do about blue? What does a modern feminist do?
I don’t know, of course. But for starters, I’ve bought myself a new pink toothbrush — a first in over a decade, (I refer to the colour, not the newness of the brush). Maybe I’ll find a few answers in the sink some morning.
Annie Zaidi is a writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. She has been anthologized in First Proof (2), 21 Under 40, India, and the forthcoming issue of Atlas. Her first collection of poems, Crush, was published in 2007 and she is currently working on another book. She also blogs at www.anniezaidi.com