At the age of twelve, Sharmila Sen emigrated from India to the US and spent much of her life attempting to blend into American whiteness. Part memoir, part manifesto, Sen’s Not Quite Not White is a witty and poignant story of self-discovery. An excerpt:

My education in Calcutta began before I turned three. My parents enrolled me in a preschool modeled on the Italian doctor Maria Montessori’s theories of education. It was a coeducational school for middle-class children. Most of my classmates were Bengali and the teachers spoke to us in Bengali. We played with blocks, separated white rice from yellow lentils, and began learning the English alphabet phonetically. At that point in my life, I could read “cat” or “bat” or “rat,” but I could not really speak or understand any English. When I turned four, I was admitted to a school for girls run by Catholic nuns. Most middle-class parents tried very hard to enroll their children in private schools because state-run schools were considered inferior to even the most mediocre of private schools. In a poor country where jobs are scarce, enrolling one’s child into the “right” school by the age of four easily balloons into an existential crisis. I had to be interviewed by a small committee in order to gain admission into this school. But how was an interview to be arranged? That required a form as rare and as precious as diamonds from the Golkonda mines of India. The admissions form for this school was released on a particular day each year. Like many middle-class fathers at schools across the country, Baba stood in a line outside the school building all night to procure the form on the day of its release. Yet, he was not successful. Later, as it happens often in Calcutta, a distant acquaintance who knew someone with a connection to the school administration managed to get us a form. Baba filled out that form. I never laid eyes on it. I was told that it was very difficult to procure the form. Baba had done his part by turning to his network. Now it was my turn.

In a poor country where jobs are scarce, enrolling one’s child into the “right” school by the age of four easily balloons into an existential crisis.

The interview that followed was entirely my responsibility. I remember every detail of that interview. A nun opened the school gates and took me in. Baba was not allowed inside. Ma had dressed me in a cotton frock and crepe-soled white sandals purchased from Green & Co. in New Market, Calcutta’s upscale shopping arcade before the era of malls. My short hair was oiled, parted on the side, and kept off my face with a black metal bobby pin. My neck had been dusted with perfumed talcum powder.

The main trick for passing that interview was to remain calm. The questions themselves were very simple. I am sure four-year-olds are quizzed on far more academically rigorous subjects in India’s school admissions process nowadays. In 1974, the nuns were testing me to see if I would burst into tears when separated from my parents and faced with women in strange-looking clothes. Frocked, sandaled, oiled, powdered, and pinned, I was a battle-ready  four-year-old Bengali girl. I did not burst into tears. The gray habits and the large crucifixes hanging from their necks did not frighten me. My comprehension of English was tested next. Could a young Bengali girl with no prior  English- medium education be able to conduct a rudimentary conversation in English? I have no memory of when I had learned the little bit of English that saw me through that morning. My Montessori school had offered no lessons in conversational English. I spoke Bengali with my family and neighborhood friends. I spoke broken Hindi with our doorman, Hriday Singh, whom I called Darwanji. I understood Hindi from having watched many Hindi movies since I was a toddler and from the near- constant stream of Hindi film music emanating from various transistor radios around the neighborhood. Baba and Ma could speak English. Perhaps I had overheard them speaking with other adults. And they had taken me to see Hollywood films.

Frocked, sandaled, oiled, powdered, and pinned, I was a battle-ready  four-year-old Bengali girl. I did not burst into tears. The gray habits and the large crucifixes hanging from their necks did not frighten me.

The first film I recall watching in a movie theater was Bruce Lee’s last film, Enter the Dragon. The final fight sequence in a hall of mirrors is perhaps the earliest recollection I have of an entire film sequence. I can see the villain being impaled on a spear and hanging from the mirror even now. A Hong Kong– Hollywood martial arts movie, the last one the legendary Lee would make, might have been responsible for giving me just enough English to pass my first school interview. Bruce Lee died in Hong Kong in July 1973. I did not know that when I looked the nuns straight in the eye and answered the questions they asked me in 1974. I did not know Bruce Lee changed how Asians were depicted in Hollywood movies. I did not even understand he was Asian, just as one day Americans would call me Asian.

“What is your name?”

“My name is Sharmila Sen.”

“What is this?”

“A banana.”

“Do you know what color it is?”

“Yellow.”

“Well done.”

That was all. I had managed to answer three questions in English and I had done so without resorting to Bengali. I was admitted into the school. Baba was happy as he walked me home. I had not let him down. Not everyone had managed to gain admission to the school that morning. All around me I saw other girls who were in tears, being led away by frustrated parents who were scolding them for not acing the interview. Some of these girls would be admitted into other English- medium schools. Others would go into a separate educational track— Bengali- medium. To the list of labels we use to categorize people in India, let me add one more— English- medium. Those who are lucky enough to be educated in English- medium schools usually find more employment opportunities, more economic benefits, more upward mobility, and more cultural capital than those who attend schools where the medium of instruction is one of the numerous modern Indian languages. This was true in the 1970s and is even more true in the neoliberal economy of twenty-first-century India. How else would we become the world’s back office? How else would call centers be staffed? How else would we send white-collar emigrants who excel in the STEM professions to the United States?

Those who are lucky enough to be educated in English- medium schools usually find more employment opportunities, more economic benefits, more upward mobility, and more cultural capital than those who attend schools where the medium of instruction is one of the numerous modern Indian languages.

Having supplied my name, correctly recognized a fruit, and identified its color, I was on my way to a privileged English-medium life.

Excerpted with permission from Not Quite Not White by Sharmila Sen published by Penguin Random House. Pages – 224 Price – Rs 599

Feature Image Credit:  Penguin Random House

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