By Jasmine Kazlauskas
A young woman born to Indian parents with red hair, white skin and freckles was shunned and bullied because people think she’s DISEASED.
With her flaming ginger hair, deep emerald eyes and snow-white skin, you could be forgiven for thinking striking Pooja Ganatra, 24, is a true Gaelic lass hailing from Ireland.
But the proud Indian was actually born and bred in the bustling city of Mumbai to “typically Indian” parents who thought her freckles were a birth defect – and have no idea where her unusual looks come from.
Pooja’s appearance has made her feel like a foreigner in her own country – with Indians staring, commenting and asking for pictures – and led to her being rushed to hospital over fears she had a skin disease and even told she couldn’t wear sleeveless tops at while studying at university.
Pooja, who runs her own clothes manufacturing business, said: “When I was born, my family had never seen anyone who looked like me before because they all have brown skin, black hair and brown eyes, like most Indians.
“Everyone in my neighbourhood was absolutely fascinated by me and were all very curious as to why I looked so different.
“When my freckles started appearing everywhere when I was three, because none of my relatives had ever gotten freckles before they didn’t know what they were.
“I was rushed to the doctors because everyone thought it was a birth defect or skin disease.
“I was always the odd-one-out at school, and was routinely bullied.
“People would always come up and ask ‘what are those spots on your face? Why do you have so many marks?’. It was a real mental challenge.
“Even in my first year of university, I was pulled aside and told not to wear sleeveless shirts because they were ‘too eye catching’ with my white skin.
“There was no rule against sleeveless clothing and every other girl dressed like me, yet I was singled out.
“Indians love to pose for photos with different-looking people from overseas, so I often get people coming up to me asking for pictures.
“It’s happened more than 100 times in my life – I have to tell the, ‘relax, I’m Indian too’.
“When I get into taxis cab drivers start speaking to me in English and are shocked when I answer them in Hindi.
“The funniest one is when I’m charged the foreigner price for public attractions because they think I’m a backpacker, so I have to prove I’m Indian.
“When I was in America people wouldn’t believe me when I told them I’m Indian. Even the customs officer at the airport had to look twice at my passport and asked me if I’m really from India.”
After Pooja was born, her parents decided not to have any more children in case her strange looks were a sign she needed medical treatment and they wanted to be able to afford this.
While her father Rajesh, 51, has darker skin and looks “typically Indian”, her mother Hemaxi, 46, also has slightly lighter than average skin and has a few freckles, although none on her face.
But it is a complete mystery to Pooja and her family why she looks the way she does.
Considering India was colonised by different countries and ruled by the British for over 100 years, the 24-year-old said there is definitely a possibility her ancestors were from the United Kingdom.
Pooja said her unique appearance made it extremely difficult to fit in at school and that she would often be singled out and bullied by her classmates when she was a child.
And as a teenager, the stunning redhead’s insecurities were intensified by the overwhelming pressure to conform to “impossible” Indian standards of beauty and she feared she would never have a boyfriend because no one would ever find her attractive.
Now, with her typically Caucasian features, she said Indian people stare at her and often mistake her for a foreigner, but are gobsmacked when they discover she is “one of them”.
After feeling like an outcast all her life, it wasn’t until Pooja travelled overseas to Europe and America that she realised there were people out there who looked like her and she was in fact “normal”.
Pooja said: “I’d love to get a DNA test one day to discover more about my ancestry because I don’t know anything about it.
“I have no idea why I look the way that I do but a test into my genes could explain a lot.
“My grandmother died when my mum was very young, so I was never able to ask her about it but I’m very curious.
“I always felt like such an oddity until I went overseas and saw all these people who looked exactly like me and it felt amazing.
“Indians are obsessed with pale skin but it has to be clear – any pimples, blackheads or blemishes of any kind are considered really ugly.
“So, while people were in awe of my white skin, they kept telling me that I’d look better if I just got rid of my freckles. They were perceived as this huge flaw.
“Freckles worsen in the sun and in Mumbai it’s always incredibly hot, so my freckles have just kept appearing.
“I’ve tried different skin creams and medications to get rid of them, but nothing ever worked.
“It was even told to try extreme laser treatment or to have cosmetic surgery, but I never wanted to go down that road.”
Pooja was recently snapped by prominent Mumbai photographer Karishma Mehtha for her popular ‘Humans of Bombay’ Facebook page.
And now as an adult, she fully embraces her unique looks and feels much happier in her own skin.
Pooka said: “After a while I just got sick of trying to change myself and eventually I just decided to accept it.
“People tell me to wear foundation and powders to cover my freckles but I’m just not that type of person and I feel beautiful the way I am.
“Natural beauty is the most gorgeous thing a woman can wear.
“It took a while to learn how to love myself but now that I do, I always dress my best and bring out my biggest smile for anyone who stares at me.
“I don’t care anymore if people stare at me or judge me because of how I look. I’m too busy loving myself to notice.”