Not Quite Not White by Sharmila Sen
Published by Penguin Books, 191 pages, $16
Coming to Cambridge from Bengal at age 12, bright-eyed Sharmila Sen entered a new white world, as she details in her memoir, Not Quite Not White. Amid shifting definitions of race, her educated, middle-class Hindu parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1982 in search of better jobs. Sen’s skin—paler than her parents—lessens her “foreign” appearance, and she gallops eagerly into learning English and the American styles and values that were new to her. She discovers different behaviors and manners, like how Americans accept gifts effusively while Indians respond quietly. Her attachment to India—despite family events, visits and dances that celebrated her origins—stays mostly squashed inside of her.
Sen writes colorfully about how whiteness rules the American roost, affecting those who are black, Hispanic or Asian. Describing the multi-rainbow shades of color that determine how these people are seen, she says Indians carefully differentiate themselves from black and Chinese populations, trying to protect against the bias those groups suffer.
Partly “ex-Indian,” she explains losing some elements of her identity. Soon her experiences as a student at Harvard and Yale become part of her story and she lands a job as an assistant professor at Harvard. Her evolving attitudes bring acceptance and success, but also invite some unwelcome treatment that leads to self-protection and anger. Sen’s observations are sophisticated and sometimes fierce. Now, living in Cambridge and married to an Indian man with three American-born children, the possibilities and complications march on for her.
From page 39: “I saw children with wounds, missing limbs, blind eyes, and stunted growth begging in traffic stops for a few coins. I was always told that if I let go of my parents’ hands in a crowd, I would be kidnapped, maimed, and turned into one of those beggar children. The kidnappers were called chheledhora and they were the bogeyman of Calcutta.” ◆