Why a 19-year-old’s suing of Hindustan pencils shouldn’t be dismissed as a frivolous lawsuit.

I hope Chirayu Jain has sufficiently thick skin. Surely the law student must have expected the onslaught of scoffs (“Oh what a waste of time!”“What are our lawyers coming to!”) that would accompany his consumer court complaint against a crayon company.

Colorama crayons, manufactured by one of the biggest stationery manufacturers in India – Hindustan Pencils (remember Natraj pencils and Apsara erasers back from the time when you used pencils and erasers?) – apparently sells a crayon with the colour label “special skin colour”.

But Chirayu found that this colour did not match his own skin colour. “This can only be explained by the fact that the ‘special skin crayon’…is either defective or labelled misleadingly or both,” he inferred in this The Hindu article. How do you you argue with that?

The crux of this incident is more than Chirayu’s indignance, however. Obviously this law student has thought things over, and it is highly unlikely he is in it for the Rs 1 lakh compensation for “hurting his sentiments” (he is also seeking a payment of Rs.9 lakh to the Consumer Welfare Fund). Maybe he’s doing it just to decorate his CV, but what’s wrong with that? I think the country could do with more of this kind of ambitiousness.

Our cream-coloured friends

Stationery forms a big part of childhood. I drew a lot as a kid, and I distinctly remember the ‘cream’ colour I used on the boys and girls I drew. There was no ‘cream’ coloured person in my life but that was still how I thought my one-dimensional people should be coloured. I wonder what gave me that idea.

Now if three-year-old kids begin to be told what colour skin should be by crayons named “special skin colour”, won’t the experience remain a subtle reminder to him/her of what the ideal skin colour is?

I doubt much thought goes into naming crayons. Nobody is accusing Hindustan Pencils of having racist propaganda. Neither did American art-suppliers Crayola, when they came out with their “flesh” (later renamed “peach”) and “Indian red” (later renamed “chestnut”) colours.

The question that is being asked here is: is this worth fighting for?

Time to do a Crayola?

It’s easy to dismiss an incident that can be summed up as “teenager sues company over racist crayon” as frivolous. But in a country where fair skin is glorified, is it completely unthinkable to expect a little more sensitivity from corporations who have nothing to lose if our society grew out of this obsession? Forget the cosmetics companies who capitalise on precisely this; but what does a crayon company have to lose if they named their colours more accurately?

Going by the news report, Chirayu Jain’s attempt to bring this to the notice of the company reportedly met with a reply that the “the label, skin, has been used for a long time [and] cannot be changed now.” I have not read a full copy of the letter but this sentence seems to suggest that Hindustan Pencils is treating this as a non-issue.

Crayola’s voluntary decision to change their “flesh” crayon to “peach” in 1962 was seen as a response to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. “Indian Red” on the other hand supposedly referred only to a red-brown pigment (exactly what pigment I could not identify) made in India, but they changed it to “chestnut” because children began mistaking it for the colour of Native Americans’ skin.

Even if Hindustan Pencils ultimately does go the Crayola way it may not result in a magically awakened society, but it will at least mean that they are taking their customers seriously enough to not unwittingly feed into social prejudices.

(Nandita Jayaraj writes about her encounters with the strange and interesting. You can send her feedback at nandita.j@thehindu.co.in. You can also tweet her @nandita_j )