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The White Ancestor That Haunts My Mirror

My Indian grandfather had blue eyes. It took me years to figure out what that meant for me

My paternal grandfather was born in 1917 in Barisal, then a pocket of the British Raj. He had fair skin and bright blue eyes offset by tar-black hair. This made him a rarity in Barisal. He lacked the physical traits that would've marked him as unmistakably Bengali, a person hailing from what, today, encompasses the Indian state of West Bengal and all of Bangladesh. Markers like skin and eyes that fell along a spectrum of brown.

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He lost touch with his mother in 1925, when his father died unexpectedly. Saddled with the task of raising five sons on her own, his mother gave him up for adoption. He was shuttled from one family friend's house to another until he ended up in Kolkata. It was there that he realized he looked more like the city's British soldiers than any of his Bengali caretakers.

My grandfather's white genes have popped up occasionally in our family, and with a certain dogged persistence.

In hindsight, these qualities suggested that my grandfather had white ancestry. But this went unacknowledged in our family. Before affordable genetic testing rolled around, we had no way of proving it. Written birth records from that era were hard to locate, and the few that did exist may not have actively listed a European parent. Besides, we didn't talk about it at the dinner table. As far as my parents were concerned, we were just Bengali.

My grandfather's white genes have popped up occasionally in our family, and with a certain dogged persistence. There's the occasional cousin with blue eyes. As for me, I've got light brown, almost hazel, eyes, like my father and sister. My skin is light by Bengali standards.

This means that I tend to get questions, particularly from white people, about my parentage, about what I am. I answer those questions as truthfully as I can. I'm mostly Bengali, I say, but I've got some distant and muted white blood. This response leaves me with mixed feelings —€” both relief, and shame at that relief —€” that I am only now starting to face.

I spent my childhood, like a lot of Bengali families, in central New Jersey. Edison was the epicenter of immigration from the subcontinent to the United States in the 1980s. I was born in the following decade, when the population of Indians had grown sizable enough to constitute the town's majority. This bred some amount of resentment among people in central Jersey who weren't Indian. Some felt displaced when the streets they'd known all along were filled with mom-and-pop sari shops. Others just flat-out despised us, hurling at us unimaginative pejoratives related to curry.

Within my community of Bengalis relatives and family friends, colorism was blatant. I was born with powder-white skin that, by the age of five, mellowed into a soft brown. My paternal grandmother would rub my ashy skin with Eucerin after baths, bemoaning how I'd darkened in those five short years. These were throwaway lines, and she'd been conditioned to recite them. Yet as a child, I internalized the message they carried.

In middle school, things weren't better. One of my white friends, who I rode the bus with every day, would gossip about guys that she liked. She would tell me —€” quite openly, at that —€” how ugly she found Indian guys, particularly their muddy skin. She insisted that I was different, that I "didn't look that Indian."

I was born with powder-white skin that, by the age of five, mellowed into a soft brown.

What she meant, of course, was that I looked at last partially white —€” racially just uncategorizable enough to join the "white" camp. I recognize the utter wrongness of that comment now. But at the time, I believed her categorical dislike of Indian guys represented popular opinion. So I found solace in her caveat about me, as if I had somehow escaped the sorry fate to which Indian guys my age were doomed: a middle-school white girl's scorn.

As the '90s spilled into the aughts, I let these spores of internalized judgment grow. I witnessed the ascent of Aishwarya Rai —€” before Priyanka Chopra, possibly the most famous of the few South Asian beauties who have captured the American popular imagination. A decade after winning Miss World in 1994, she was bequeathed the title of the most beautiful woman in the world by Julia Roberts, followed by the rest of America. With her blue eyes and fair skin, she seemed like some impossible union of East and West. Growing up, I'd notice that family friends occasionally sighed, wishing their daughters had eyes like Rai's.

These were also my grandfather's last years, when he grew passive and silent. During parties, he sat in a corner, gaze unwavering like a statue. He became increasingly guarded about his childhood, a time for which he had no fond memories. In 2006, my first year of high school, he died.

Curious about his heritage, I probed my father about my grandfather's mother. It turned out that she, too, had blue eyes. I suggested that the reason for this, unheard of in the region from which our family hailed, was some white blood. Maybe it was the product of the British being in Barisal. I felt slightly ridiculous even mentioning it.

My father responded that he'd indeed heard rumblings of a colonial ancestor, and a collection of blue-eyed guys like my grandfather on that side of the family. He said nothing more, and I didn't press further. It was just a hazy oral history, but it was enough for me. I craved an identity, and this was my ticket.

By the time I got to college in 2010, I'd left New Jersey for good. I went to school in the Bay Area, where I started dating guys. It was a pretty homogenous pool, mostly white and fresh out of the closet. I found myself talking to guys who earnestly referenced loving Gaga or Smash, engaging with a kind of lowest-common-denominator lexicon of gayness. Many of them hadn't encountered Indian gay guys before. (Besides, with the exception of Zayn Malik, few South Asian men had permeated the greater cultural consciousness as sex symbols.)

Both at home and at school, the same, suffocating standard of beauty persisted.

What did they make of me? Finding my way through this group, I tended not to broadcast my family's background. When introducing myself to guys, I kept mum about details of my upbringing that would out me culturally — for example, the fact that Bengali was my first language. Perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me when one guy, echoing the verbiage of my middle-school bus friend, told me casually that he didn't think of me as Indian. I was, in his words, basically white.

I reacted swiftly and furiously. I asked him what he imagined it meant to be Indian: someone who bobbed his head around imitating a bhangra dancer or spoke ad nauseam about his love for Bollywood? Or, perhaps a former spelling-bee champion or engineer?

What I didn't let on that day was that I was wracked with guilt. I'd accomplished precisely what my childhood had conditioned me to want: I was, in essence, being considered white. Though the communities I encountered in New Jersey and in college were overwhelmingly different in makeup, the same, suffocating standard of beauty persisted. The outcome felt nauseating.

Only then did I understand how acutely I'd absorbed the colorism I encountered in these communities. It had seeped, like poison, into everything —€” my dating life, my friendships, the relationship I had with my mirror. When my childhood wish came true, it didn't feel like a victory; it tasted bitter. I had erased a vital part of myself.

I live in New York, now. When people ask about my background, I'll either say I'm "mostly Bengali," or that I'm mixed. The latter feels like a bit of a cop-out, a way of flattening my family's messy history into a word.

But the truth is that I'm still untangling my feelings about that messy history. Well after his death, I learned that the Barisal my grandfather knew was a theater of colonial terror. British forces who dwelled there would routinely, and with swift force, suppress Bengali independence movements.

There is a part of myself for which I'll never have the full story.

This history runs through my blood. My blue-eyed grandfather was the unlucky inheritor of the brutal way history unfolded in that particular time and place. I only wish the circumstances of his life, shuffled around from a young age in such a politically volatile period, hadn't made him so tight-lipped about his own story.

Shortly after graduating college in 2014, my curiosity prompted me to take a DNA test. Now, I have a number on a computer screen —€” falling, as I suspected, somewhere between 1/16 and 1/8 — that indicates I have some blood from the British Isles. I'm working through what that number means: the colonial cruelty it implies, who it suggests that paternal ancestor was. Was he violent and terrible, as I've been taught to imagine so many British imperialists were?

One thing the test confirms is that there is indeed a part of myself for which I'll never have the full story. Knowing this isn't an automatic corrective to my jumbled feelings, but it has given me some measure of resolve to embrace my identity and my features, both white and Bengali aspects of them.

This mental shift doesn't happen overnight. But these days, when I face the mirror, I don't wish that I'd been born a white man. I see a bit of my mother, a woman with a dusky complexion. I see traces of my grandfather, a man with a sharp nose like mine. I stare silently at my features, hoping that one day, I'll be able to read their histories as mine.

Mayukh Sen is the editorial director at This.


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