Barry O’Brien is in a transitional phase — from being a full-time quiz master for over three decades and authoring several academic books for schools, he is now slowly and steadily sliding to the full-time writer zone, enjoying staying away from the stage and public view, something that he had planned for himself. And just as the quizmaster and public figure was getting into ‘reclusive mode’, his first major non-fiction book - The Anglo Indians: A Portrait of a Community - came his way. A subject that's not just close to his heart but forms his entire existence, was always on the cards, to be honest. And though he insists that the book has come at least 10 years earlier than he had originally planned, the timing doesn’t feel unsuitable at all. We caught up with the acclaimed orator at his residence in Alipore and in a free-wheeling chat he spoke of starting off his writing career 2.0 with this narrative fiction, the fascinating assimilation and the evolution of the community in the Indian diaspora and why the women of the community should be conferred with the Bharat Ratna.
We believe a book about the community was long due from you. What is it that took you so long?
Long! For a book of this nature, only the research should take ten years. But I completed the research and writing in five years. I quote from the acknowledgements section of my book: “I lied when I said give me a couple of years. It would never have been enough had it not been for the lockdown. Trapped in my library, the Anglo Indians: A Portrait of a Community finally escaped.”
For how long has the idea of the book been brewing in your mind?
Frankly, I was sure that the right person to write it would be my father. For years I had been telling him to write it….but he was too busy doing things for the community rather than sit down and write about it. And also, I think he was a better editor than a writer - maybe he knew that! So I knew that I would write it some day, years later. Then David Davidar called me and asked me to write a book on my community. So, finally, I didn’t decide, and cannot take the credit for coming up with the idea. That must go to Davidar from Aleph!
So, when do you think we would have got the book from your table if you were to decide solely?
May be 10 years later! You see, I am on the verge of slowly moving to full-time writing. It’s a transition. As the intro about me in the book says, “Restless, Barry is neck-deep in his debut novel and his first collection of short stories – all this between conducting quizzes, public speaking courses and motivational sessions in India and overseas.” Basically, I am restless. I want to be a full-time writer in the last phase of my life. I have left myself no choice. It’s what I really want to do!
So, this is the start?
I have been writing books for the school curriculum for about thirty years now - it’s what I do for a living! But, in addition to that, I want to write both fiction and non-fiction - and that journey has well and truly begun.
How has the start been?
I can tell you I never imagined I would write non-fiction or narrative non-fiction of this nature. I like doing social commentary but to get into something that involves so much research, as I am no academic or scholar, was a real challenge. I find writing fiction, creating characters, building a plot and setting it in a particular time in history fascinating and exciting. It gives me an adrenalin rush!
From my late teens I have been on stage, conducting quizzes, later taking classes, anchoring special events, assuming responsibilities and official posts in charitable trusts and organisations - so everything has been in the public eye, most of my life - now I feel, it’s time to withdraw - sometimes, you need to confine yourself in order to break free. In a sense, I want to cage myself in, in order to run free. The confines of my library will set me free! I prefer to be home, with my family, even alone in my library - writing! From being just a stress buster, it has become my prime obsession, and will, I am sure, in a couple of years, be the only thing I want to do; the only thing I do. Besides travelling…which will open even more writing-horizons.
The book has been structured well, being divided into four parts containing interesting chapters. Tell us more.
It’s the story of the Anglo-India community from the day the Portuguese arrived till today. It covers politics, history, our culture; it’s about how the community has evolved from the pre-independent to the post-independence eras in India. The community transformed itself drastically in a couple of decades — from not being Indian at heart to becoming Indian in every atom of their being. In such a short time - that was fascinating.
Which are your favourite chapters?
The chapter on Anglo-Indians in India today — very comfortable in their skin, and how out youth are competing, and “going for it”, in modern India.
Then there is a chapter on The Community’s Romance with the Railways. My other favourite is the chapter on the contribution of Anglo-Indian women - they were the first to “step out” and work, and show the others the way.
The first to ‘Step Out’ - that should be an interesting read…
I have a proposal - for conferring the Bharat Ratna on the Anglo-Indian woman. They stepped out to work well over 100 years ago, fighting the odds, serious stereotyping, taboos…other women in India followed several decades later.
Tell us about your research.
I was sure that the pre-independence sections would require much more research and I was equally sure that I would be able to write the post-independence chapters from the top of my head. For the research, I took the help of my daughter Zasha, who is 30 years younger than me, but a scholar; and my wife Denise helped me structure the book, edit it, see it through,
Have you found your writing style?
My aim was to write like I speak. That has gone down well. The subject is serious but the language is easy going and flowing. In fact, quite a few people have told me that it’s like I am speaking to them. Some people become somebody else when they write. I am happy that I don’t!
What do you think you will write about in the future?
Human interest — that’s what interests me most — and telling a story! I am also fascinated by the oneness of religion.
What about the community now?
There are about 4 lakh Anglo-Indians today in India — certainly not 296 as the government claims! There is a chapter in my book – ‘Another Betrayal – this time by the government of India’. If there are 296 of us (so they say, according to the 2011 census) then why did they give two parliamentary seats to a community (in 2014) which has a population of only 296! Preposterous! And the manner in which it was done - without taking the community or any other stakeholders into confidence. A clear betrayal!
Pictures by B Halder