Sne Aribam Sharma identifies more with Kolkata’s culture than with those she inherited. The 31-year-old half-Indian half-Chinese makeup artist was born and raised in Kolkata’s old Chinese neighbourhood of Central Avenue and Shyambazar.
Her father, a mix of Punjabi, Manipuri and Naga (west and east Indian heritages), owns a dental clinic, and her Chinese mother used to run a beauty salon. They met in Pune, Maharashtra (in the west) while her father was studying and her mother had just separated from her first husband. Sne has two older half-sisters from a Chinese father, and a younger brother.
All of them learned about unity and diversity growing up together, but never understood what label to use for the term “mother tongue.” Sne speaks English, Bengali, and Hindi and understands Mandarin, Hakka, and Cantonese.
We sat down with Sne to speak about the unique experience of growing up half-Indian and half-Chinese. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What was it like for your parents to be married to each other?
My father, coming from a Brahmin family, was looked down upon for marrying a divorced Chinese woman with two kids. My mother was known in the Chinese community in Calcutta as the one who married an outsider. After I was born, my father’s family accepted them and they had a Hindu ritual in Manipur.
Growing up, did you grapple with culture and identity issues?
It was very confusing for us as kids—my brother and I have Indian-Hindu names (‘Sne’ means affection in Sanskrit and her brother Siddharth is named after Buddha). All our lives we’ve been asked: How are you ‘Sharmas’? We never purely belonged to the Indian-Chinese community, nor were we attached to the Manipuri/Punjabi/Naga side. But we definitely relate to Calcutta’s culture, food, language, and festivals. It’s our home, although we look like foreigners.
What kind of traditions/festivals does your family celebrate?
My father is a practicing Hindu, so if you walk in to my home in the morning you’ll find him in a lungi (the sub-contintenal sarong), praying with his little dhoop kathi (incense sticks). My mom worships Kali, Buddha and Kuan Yin without difficulty. My brother is an atheist and I’m a self-proclaimed Protestant.
On Diwali, we pray to Ganesh-Lakshmi, distribute sweets, light diyas, burst crackers, and buy new clothes. It’s still very exciting for us to come together in Indian wear for family dinners. We also celebrate Durga Puja and go pandal (marquee)-hopping every year.
In our heads, we belonged everywhere. It was only when I started traveling that I realised I couldn’t relate to the Chinese, or the Punjabi/Manipuri/Naga cultures. I associated more with the Bengali culture.
How will you celebrate the Chinese New Year?
My father participates in all the rituals, and we shop for new clothes. We don’t sweep the floor or shampoo our hair on the eve or on the first day of CNY, and are given Phung Baos (red packets with money) by the elders. On the eve, my mother prepares ten different dishes. There’s a whole fish cooked with the head and tail, and a steamed chicken dish (a whole chicken with its head and claws, representing unity and abundance).
We visit Chinese temples and our grandparents' graves. The community hosts dragon shows and at night the five most important dragon groups from Tangra (new Chinatown) hold dance parties, which continue till 5 AM. As a teenager, I partied all night and came back home in the morning, then changed into my uniform to go to school.
You were at the Chinese Consulate for Chinese New Year dinner. Was this exclusive for your family or is everyone invited?
Every year before the CNY, the Chinese embassy invites Chinese families for dinner. About a week before the real deal, we start having gatherings. Friends and families meet up for brunches and dinners. Chinese neighbourhoods in Calcutta are full of Chinese people coming back from different countries to celebrate CNY the Indian way, or should I say the Calcuttan way. It’s always been and will always be home for us.