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INNOCENT ADVENTURES

The Anglo-Indian Way Edited by Errol O’Brien, Rupa, Rs 195

The late 1970s and the early 1980s saw the quiz scene in Calcutta in ferment. It was a coming of age for scores of quizzards who took the brain-game out of drawing rooms and private parlours and into what were big-time happenings in auditoriums and club lawns as tense teams locked horns on trivia and not so much trivia, not only with the quiz master of the moment but critically, amongst themselves. Individual team members were made to bone up on specific topics, general knowledge became specialized knowledge and strategy and tactics came into play as the contest pulsed forward. Prizes moved up exponentially and the audience usually was as partisan and raucous as any barmy army could get. Quizzing was no longer to be our last innocent adventure.

There were many Calcuttans who pioneered this paradigm shift and quite a few of them were Anglo-Indians. Consequently, the venues where the quizzes generally took place were clubs where the community majorly featured, like the Dalhousie Institute, the Grail Club and so on. The former was, of course, the home ground of the O’Brien family, which was virtually synonymous with the activity. Errol was a O’Brien senior but I think he was more visible to the quiz fraternity at his beloved Christ the King Parish Church at Park Circus. Errol believed, and I don’t think he’d commit factual errors, that open quizzing in Calcutta was born with a CKPC quiz.

The reason for this extended lead-in to what is a small volume of 25 capsules on famous Anglo-Indians is that it’s meant to serve as an advisory of sorts, because the reader who looks for aspects of analysis, evaluation or judgment concerning this distinctive community, or indeed the individuals who populate the book, is certain to feel left out very much in the cold. On the other hand, it’s written in a style the classic quiz master would use; it’s fact-filled, checked out, attention-grabbing and has no ambiguities. Naturally, it revels in trivia, so it’ll tell you how Roger Binny got Humphrey in his name, after Michael, because an Anglo Indian male’s third name is always that of a saint and who has heard of a Saint Humphrey? Well, Binny told Clive Andrew Francis O’Brien, Andy to all of us, that Saint Humphrey had been a Benedictine bishop in 856 AD. Andy O’Brien adds that the other name Binny acquired was ‘Jack’, because his bottom was shaped like a jackfruit, though this hardly interfered with his exploits in the 1983 Cricket World Cup, where he ended up as the highest wicket-taker in the tournament. Or take the case of the Young Bengal firebrand, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (sorry Errol, the Vivian comes after the Louis) whose radical teaching methods led to his expulsion from what was then the Hindu, later Presidency, College in 1931; almost a century later, the Presidency University Auditorium was named the Derozio Hall; additionally, Presidency College had it’s first and only Anglo-Indian principal in Francis Joseph Charles Friend-Pereira between 1955 and 1958. And that Frank Anthony was a principal delegate of the first delegation from independent India to the United Nations, in October 1948. Or who or what is a thurifer? Forty years ago, quiz personage Neil O’Brien plucked an answer literally out of thin air. It’s also well known that three-year-old Helen (Richardson) fled Burma and the Japanese army and trekked over the Arakan Mountains first to Calcutta, and finally to Bombay, and into the stuff of Bollywood legend. And if you really want to know, in March 1987, Philomena Eaton of Calcutta was declared India’s first Secretary of the Year.

One finds a great deal of suchlike factoids on the achievers who O’Brien and his guest writers recount, reaching from James Skinner of Skinner’s Horse to Diana Hayden of Miss World 1997, the ramp and a hugely successful, bespoke show on the History Channel. To pen an inventory of accomplishment, restricted in this case to just two dozen of this distinctive community, hasn’t been too difficult a job for someone with O’Brien’s credentials; even the list-making has more or less sorted itself out. What was difficult for him, I think, was to decide how much to probe into and put forward with regard to the certainties on offer; in other words, entail an examination of lineage and circumstance. In O’Brien’s compilation, such journeys are not attempted. For example, it’s widely understood that the Anglo-Indian community had its beginnings in the conjoining of the British rulers and a section of the people they ruled; the male parentage was, in the main, either English, Scottish or Irish. So how did Henry Derozio and Francis Friend-Pereira inherit Portugese surnames or the incomparable Leslie Claudius a Roman? What had happened? Or else, what defined and determined the community’s interface with the Armenians of Calcutta, the Parsees of Bombay, the Indian Christians of Madras or indeed the British masters and their memshahibs? Chances are that O’Brien’s slim volume would have gained weight in the right places had he tried.

It’s nice to conclude with an enduring memory. Many decades ago, when Mohun Bagan played the red and yellows, the ramparts outside the club ground customarily became a muddy, moveable stampede. When things got tricky, which was often, the mounted police was called out, and one remembers getting caught in front of Sergeant Ronnie Moore, sitting hugely on his rampant horse; Ronnie would make his horse snort angrily and paw the air with its front legs, whilst gently stroking and patting the animal’s neck, as if to say to us who were pushing and shoving at hoof level, “I’ll be gentle with you all, but don’t push your luck too far.” Can you think of a policeman, with or without the horse, telling you that these days?