It was my recent attempt at reading ‘Women of the Raj’ by Margaret McMillan that triggered memories of a period in the 80’s when I came into close contact with some very interesting progeny the English left behind, the ‘Indian’ Anglo Indians or Eurasians.
Margaret McMillan sums up quite well the Memsaheb’s and the Crown’s feelings about the Eurasians in her book (and in my mind also explaining the unsaid code of loyalty that the Eurasians eventually assumed) – If the new British arrivals accepted the code of the Anglo Indians (the name was what the British in India preferred for themselves until the Eurasians appropriated it) they would at least belong somewhere. The first article of the code was loyalty to the community. The Eurasians muddled things by trying to scramble up into the ruling race, claiming first that they were Anglo Indians and, when that term finally came to stand for those of mixed race by the time of the first world war, that they were Europeans, annoying the original Anglo Indians. They in turn were pressed by the native Christians who saw no reason why they should not share more than just the imperial religion.
While the introduction and conclusion sections of this book are exemplary, the rest is a good account for posterity, but a little bit of a difficult reading for me. It might be because I shared no empathy with the lofty memsahib, struggling to find her place among her many suitors serving the crown, the teeming coolies and ‘niggers’ of India, at that particular time in history in an inhospitable terrain and an uncivilized place. Many came grumbling and left with abusive words, only to retire much later in dowdy England, muttering with fond nostalgia ‘Ah! India, what a place that was, that was where we once lived a jolly good life’.
Let us first find a definition for the term Anglo Indian – According to Blair Williams (Book Anglo Indians – the author is an Anglo Indian himself) they were created in the 17th and 18th centuries, products of a male progenitor of European descent and a female from India. Always, they resisted from integrating themselves into the Indian populace, while the British in India themselves rejected them and eventually some 200,000 of them migrated to the UK in 1947 (the second and the third waves moved to Australia and Canada in the 60’s and 70’s). During the independence movement they supported the British. And thus for 200 years they lived life as a distinct ethnic group, hated by the British and the Indians. They were educated separately, in Anglo-Indian schools. The English while in power provided them preferential jobs at the railways, P&T, Customs and police departments. Unfortunately historians and sociologists have always treated them as marginal to both cultures. Today just over a 100,000 remain out of which the southern states have the bulk with Tamil Nadu accounting for the highest count.
Frank Anthony (1942) summed it then "We are Anglo-Indians by Community. Of that fact we have every reason to be proud. Let us cling and cling, tenaciously, to all that we hold dear, our language, our way of life and our distinctive culture."
The above statement will succinctly sum up the cauldron of emotions the poor Anglo Indian family would have been subjected to, hated by the English, ridiculed by the Indians and even fellow Christians (It was much the same case with the Luso Indians that the Portuguese left behind, and the black Jews of Cochin and Malabar, but they were few in comparison). The mistress to the English man may have married again, but the offspring bore the brunt of the scathing comments that they would have been subjected to. Their one intention in the earlier days was to find passage to England during which time they lived a turbulent period, but the ones that remain today have effectively assimilated into the population. A forlorn photo of the times gone by may hang by the proverbial thread, perhaps on the wall of the living room with a mother wearing a pretty English frock, holding a parasol maybe but wearing a bonnet and standing next to a pale suited-booted-bowler clad man from England or a dapper adventure seeker lost in India.
Most of us would have come across them in Bollywood movies notably ‘Julie’, which first came out in Malayalam as a lovely movie ‘Chattakari’, introducing the effervescent Lakshmi to the Indian masses or the more recent realistic movie ‘Akale’. Many of you may also remember the ‘Coppakoot’ people from Cannanore, the ones with very fair skin and sometimes blue eyes. Fortunately there were very few blond offspring. Memories of a drunken stepfather may remain, a father taunted by the populace for his wife’s fidelity, for that was always questioned of such female offspring.
Some time back I had written about two Anglo Indian’s Cliff and Engelbert. I am yet to post my article on Orwell, but this blog accounts my memories of two very interesting AI families that I came across. They were a proud lot, as Dr Moore summarizes - Anglo-Indians were among India's most international, emancipated and democratic people, a Westernized minority amongst the vast Indian population.
The memories of my few months stay at the Railway quarters with my uncle and aunt remain vivid, prominently featuring the Anglo Indian family across the street. The early days of my working life at Madras, as it was called then, jaunting aimlessly along aptly named streets like Pantheon road, Santhome, Mount road, Edward Elliots road, Vepry, St Thomas Mount, Gen Patters road, locations like Perambur, Mint, Egmore, Central, Pursuwalkam flash through my mind fleetingly. Today many of these names would have changed, and I remember the Fountain Plaza, the one and only ‘cool’ place in Madras, where eye candy and young people were always in plenty, for this was where we hung about. And I also remembered my friend (for a few months) who used to work nearby.
I remember the family at the railway quarters most of all – with the three pretty girls. The first who was married and who used to come often on a bike with her husband to see mama, then the very beautiful air hostess who would bring home her boy-friends and finally the youngest, the high school going girl who was eyed by all the boys and young men in the colony. There would be many youngsters wandering around that street towards evenings trying to get an eyeful of the sisters and we of course had a vantage point behind the wooden grille that the colony quarters just across their house, had. The hot afternoons outside presented a contrast to the cool innards of the high roof ‘quarters’, with a fan of 19th century vintage droning noisily above. The girls liked attention but hardly flirted with the local ‘brownie’ boys. Even as neighbors, they hardly mingled with us except for a hi-bi. Immaculately dressed in the latest western fashion (at least we thought so) and with bobbed hair, they were a pleasure to the eye. They mingled only with other Anglo Indian boys and so all we could do was ogle. Sometimes one of the three would make it even more painful by bringing out a Spanish guitar and strumming a few chords with a lilting voice to accompany. The father was an engine driver and would be seen only on some days, not very sober as well. He in contrast would be wearing shorts (Hanuman undies as people called it then – now they are boxers) and a half sleeved ‘banian’ and got along well with my uncle, an engine driver himself. The was seldom seen; she did not want the sun to spoil her dainty skin, but the offspring had acquired all the good qualities of both races resulting in those envious looks. As we eyed them on a daily basis, my aunt would come and chide her son and me in a good natured fashion. You think we listened? Sadly, some months later I found lodging of my own and moved, never to see these girls again and soon after that, my uncle and aunt also moved out of the Railway quarters and into their own house after his retirement.
It was a tragedy really, for they were a stereotyped lot, even though many of them were hard working & god fearing, they spoke in English ( today it is ‘cool’ to do so) and they dressed and felt like the English (today it is ‘cool’ to have a western outlook in India). Every Anglo Indian lady in the early part of the century was considered promiscuous (Nirad Chaudhuri was one who featured them in such a light) and every man a drunkard. Unfortunately they were more Anglo than Indian and that rankled in the minds of a lot of proud people who had ‘by the way’ just obtained independence.
It was in one of those sweaty summers that Cathy (not her real name) strode in to the environs of Pantheon road. My brother wrote to say that his friend Jack’s girl friend was moving to Madras from Kovai and asked me to make sure that she was getting along fine. I was not sure what to expect but when I saw her, I was jolted out of my tracks. Exquisite is the word I must use, she was ‘that’ good looking. She proved to be a very nice conversationalist and seemed to be at home in the hostel she had found to stay. The office where she worked was also OK though the Setu boss seemed to harbor not very innocent thoughts. My brother assured me that Cathy would have no problems on that account; they had perfected adept ways of keeping such people at bay. She missed Jack, and wistfully talked of the difficulties they had faced all those years, with the hope that things would change. I must have met her couple of times after that, and one fine day I heard that the two were getting married. For Jack had finally got his approvals to migrate to Britain and was taking Cathy with him. They left soon after and I heard that true to form, Jack had joined the British rail as an Engine driver himself . Well, as you can see; life takes a full turn to get you back to where you started, at times. I am sure they are doing well in England these days, and not facing any increased scrutiny on account of the mixed parentage. They were the lucky ones, they looked more British than Indian and would easily merge into the Britain of today. I doubt if Jack remembers Kovai or Cathy remembers Pantheon Rd, but I wish them peace and a life without conflicts.
I have also the feeling that when Blair Williams the writer met many of the Anglo Indians in UK to carry out his exhaustive study culminating in the AI book, he would have come across Jack and Cathy and presented his questionnaire – with one of his questions being ‘Did you miss India’? The answer would have been a resounding No! Like many agreed, the only thing they would have missed from India was – the shortage of domestic help in UK – and Cathy would have then sounded like a memsahib pictured in Margaret’s book.
I have not yet had the opportunity to read two oft mentioned books -the first of books is ‘Bhowani junction’ and the second ‘To the coral strand’ by John Masters where he presents the British Soldier Rodney Savage, the Anglo Indian girl Victoria and her husband Patrick. The first book was a successful movie, but I have them now.
And thus, I will always remember the Anglo Indians, especially the girls, their railway mutter, the pop music (they always scoffed at Usha didi’s and Uma pocha’s home grown pop, it had to be the Beatles or Rolling stones or some such thing though they took kindly to Cliff and Englebert) the rum that flowed at their parties (if one got invited), the dances, the balls, their talk about the ‘blighty’, their fixation to the possibility of the sun darkening their skins, the western attire and bobbed hair, their distaste for us ‘country’s’- country bumpkins, their lovely cakes and their lilting singing voices and the peculiar English accent. They were among the pav-wali’s of Bandra (though I must clarify that many of the Sandra’s from Bandra were also of Portuguese and Dutch descent), the Anglo’s of Madras and the Chattakari’s of Kerala, who were and are always a piece in the Indian cultural fabric.
Even though they were precariously perched between the color conscious English man and the Hindu caste system, and sometime termed half castes, they survived to tell many a tale today. They are the Anglo Indians. Many of the remaining AI’s integrated into the Indian Diaspora and became important people, sportspeople, artistes, writers, thinkers, officers, armed forces personnel and professionals. Today you hardly see any differences or the segregation that once existed.
The Anglo-Indian heritage center website opens it doors with a beautiful message that tells us how they feel - "If England is the land of our fathers; India is the land of our mothers. If to us England is a hallowed memory, India is a living verity. If England is the land of our pilgrimage, India is the land of our homes. If England is dear as a land of inspiring traditions, India is loved for all that she means to us in our daily life." Herbert Alick Stark (1926)
Anglo Indian – Blair Willaims, his website
Children of Colonialism - By Lionel Caplan
Anglo Indian contribution to Indian railways
Margaret Deefholts essay
A brief history of the Anglo Indians by Dr. Gloria J. Moore
Paromita Vohra’s wonderful short movie Where’s Sandra?