Two years ago, during a long stint in India, my husband and I and our toddler holed up in a tiny cottage in Kodaikanal, a hill station in Tamil Nadu. We spent a lovely month there, writing and walking. I never thought of myself as a nature person, but Kodaikanal converted even me. The flowers! They are just ridiculously beautiful. And they are everywhere. Not just in the gardens, but along the sides of the muddy red village roads, uphill and downhill. They insisted on being seen. I feel exhausted at the thought of describing them because I always skim descriptions of flowers in books. Who could possibly be interested in reading about a flower that looks like a furry purple string, soft and delicate to touch, almost animal-like in its energy? Tiny flowers that would never make it into a flower vase because they are too wispy and delicate. Giant flowers that look like sophisticated bombs, created in a beauty lab. Purple and orange and ruby-red flowers and one that was the faintest, tantalizing blush of lilac.
Anyway, in short, happy times were had in Kodaikanal. And so, hearing about the Mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal lake, I am especially outraged. In 1982, Ponds moved their thermometer factory from USA to Kodaikanal, because, you know, Mercury poisons. So can't have that in the US. A few years later, the factory was acquired by another cosmetics giant, Unilever. The company was long suspected of not following the correct protocol for pollution control, but things came to a head in 2001, when a pile of broken glass thermometers (with Mercury in them) were found in the forest. Unilever was forced to shut down the factory.
But the Mercury remains -- in the water, the soil, in the bodies of factory workers. And environmental activists in south India are asking Unilever to make amends and clean up. In a fun fun fun music video, set to the tune of Nicki Minaj's Anaconda, rapper Sofia Ashraf sings: "Unilever has been hiding behind/Their PSAs and fake Pepsodent smiles/They washed their hands off Kodai with Lifebuoy/There's nothing Fair or Lovely about this trial.."
Yes, the same Unilever who also makes the "No.1 selling women's fairness cream." For me, there is a direct line between these dots -- fairness creams and Mercury poisoning. When a corporation is willing to cash in on racist prejudices, it's a short skip, hop and jump to environmental irresponsibility. The skin of the earth is the skin of our bodies.