NONFICTION – Skinned by Nithya Vijayakumar

Akash means sky in Sanskrit.

Akash held his skin to the light

I hid in long sleeves.

A diaspora shared by our parents, leaving the same dilapidated city of Chennai.

We slept under the same roof but barely talked. The diaspora raced him to the desert world of fast cars and brown skin covered, while I grew up with a single Christmas present each year, under pale Michigan sunlight too shy to share its smile. This aching, distrusting curiosity permeated whatever friendship we had.

He died late one night, of leukemia, disease of white blood cells,


colonizing his body.

My friends and I huddled in silence as wood chips crumbled under our soles, absorbing the shock in our bodies. Mark held the cell phone that brought us news. Numbed by the shock and dark dry nights, no humidity to hold us in insulating water. I thought of his skin, matching mine.

We took off, Jenny and I, with our running shoes tied. She stayed 10 steps behind me. Step after step, quicker then slower, breath ragged then lost in darkness. We ran from our skin and the woodchips underneath, from the tears and broken faith.


I escaped the dark womb in sunny June. My mom took tomatoes for her first pregnancy.

Tomatoes for a fair complexion, my grandma advised.

At 26, she was slight.

Light-skinned and lightweight.

Pounds packed on with pregnancy, stress and age, and her skin darkened with sun, developed cracks from dryness. I was born fair, skin brown but not as brown as my dad. Sand to his dirt, mere fragments of his earth.

Don’t wear dark colors my dad advised.

Red palms and fingers pushing back against the skin encasing him. Black sweaters were his least favorite.


I always did like tomatoes- pureed, in soup, as gazpacho or rasam my mom made. Last summer was the summer of tomatoes- growing from the vine outside our house and in every dish I learned to cook.

Tomatoes are light,

water and redness exploding in sun.

Tomatoes are summer fruit,

waiting from gardens to pop in dark crevices of our pink mouths.

Tomatoes are just skin.

My skin is deficient; it makes vitamin D sparsely.

Wintertime calls for vitamin D capsules, once a day at 2000 IU to keep darkness at bay.

My winter mind explores caves and watches bats as they

crawl up skin and bring out claws.

It sits still,

paralyzed when teeth sink in.

Winter is vitamin D pills and lighter skin in darker air when the sun hides behind a hemisphere.

In the summer it deepens to balance the light,

reddens to an even

cinnamon, as Blaire defined one humid day.

I take pride in the cinnamon, darkness highlighting stretches of blue veins

protruding from hands,

pronouncing purple lipstick.

Seasons are a constant game to balance yin-yang, cycle in flux with leaves on the Maple trees next to my window.

It took 20 years to accept cinnamon.


When I was young, the villain that scared me most was Ursula, from The Little Mermaid. Purple skin, voluptuous black dress, and electrocuted white hair like my deceased grandfather’s.

Dusky, they’d call her skin in India, the same dusk featured on Indian matrimonial sites. Dusky that my cousin considered changing to wheatish for her profile.

Dusky skin flushed under red saris

Dusky skin haloed in white scarves

Dusky skin embracing the earth and exposing

Blinding white


How do you label the damp soil clenched in your palms, grainy and cool, after monsoon mornings?

The only problem is her dark skin, but that’s the climate, that can change.

My aunt advised on her.

Dusky, not dark.

Vishnu, reincarnation of god, stands in a portrait on my grandfather’s bookshelf, dusky skin resplendent with golden chains and embroidered fabric, flower garlands and a gentle halo. The vedas paint his skin the color of laden rainclouds preparing for downpour. Skin so dark it surpasses the brown and jumps to blue. He is revered in the south of India, where skin runs dusky, but not blue. He wears the sky as I wrap myself in a blue blanket my mother bought years ago

cocooned by skins.


The sun sets, and I walk home as the last strands of purple and pink fade to blue.

I grab on tight, the pink strand claimed mine.

I died my black hair pink last summer, desperate for futile semblance of change. The bleaching process took an hour, stripping

elemental coal pigments, exposing

gnarled split ends, praying

for color to lie down


For weeks my hair reflected light, translucent rather than opaque, glowing in sun. My grandpa laughs at the pink shimmying it’s way out of my braids. God unbraids his hair, unraveling the purple and pink.

Nithya Vijayakumar grew up in Michigan, and is interested in learning about the immigrant experience. In particular, she is curious about the resilience, displacement, and sense of home that accompany these narratives. She studied creative writing at Stanford University and is currently working on a series of short stories.

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