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Book Excerpt

Barry O’Brien shares excerpts from The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait Of A Community

'While those of other communities stayed home, the Anglo-Indian woman stepped out of hers with a handbag full of courage and a demeanour of confidence, to earn an honest living'

Barry O’Brien | Published 05.11.22, 06:04 AM
The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait Of A Community By Barry O’Brien

The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait Of A Community By Barry O’Brien

Published by Aleph Book Company

From the Prologue

This is the story of a community… that has lived through the vagaries of history — through the best of times and the worst of times, through hope and despair —with wisdom and foolishness. This is the saga of a people, much loved and loathed; ridiculed and respected; missed, misjudged, written about, and written off. It has endured the cold betrayal of an old empire and been comforted by the warm embrace of a new nation. With it came insecurity for some and a new beginning for others, in a nation reborn.


To belong or not to belong, that was the question.

A David that has made a Goliath Contribution

Never a Goliath, always a David — the community has invariably punched above its weight, and lived to tell the tale. I shall tell it like it was —how European traders found the route to India and forgot the way home; how the British created, nurtured, used, misused, and finally betrayed a community so vibrant, so vulnerable. I shall tell it like it is — how an extraordinary community has found its feet and taken its appointed place in modern India; and how a David has made a Goliath contribution to the nation.

In an honest attempt from the head with plenty of heart, I will share the good, the bad, and the ugly. So, buckle up… and enjoy the ride.

Whoever you are, Anglo-Indian, old friend, acquaintance, scholar, or curious observer, this is a sincere attempt to say it like it is. It is factual, analytical, honest, at times emotional, and often personal.

Read it with an open mind. I wrote it with one.

Identity and Loyalty —Incredible Change Overnight!

Right up till the early 1940s, Anglo-Indians were still singing ‘God Save the King’ at community events. In 1932, only a decade-and-a-half before they officially became ‘Indians’, Arthur Hind (not pronounced as in ‘Jai Hind’) refused to wear a turban although it was a part of the official attire of the Indian contingent at the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics. He was hours away from being sent ‘home’, to India, when he apologised, and was finally a part of the gold-medal-winning hockey team. Incredibly, just sixteen years later, Leslie Claudius was moved beyond words while standing on the winners’ podium at the 1948 London Olympics and watching the Tricolour flying high. He later said in an interview, ‘When the national flag goes up… hardened men have tears in their eyes.’

Patriotism — of Duty and Action

This small community has never shouted it from the rooftops but its incredible contribution while serving in India’s Armed Forces is a reality to be proud of — four Mahavir Chakras, twenty-five Vir Chakras, two Kirti Chakras, two Shaurya Chakras, 22 Vayu Sena Medals, 13 Param Vishisht Seva Medals, 17 Ati Vishisht Seva Medals… and still counting. Not bad for a community that was a mere 0.01 per cent of the population at the time!

What ‘Back Home’ Meant Back Then and What It Means Today

Right till the 1950s, and for some even beyond that, ‘back home’ meant ‘England’— a home they had never seen; some even admitted that they couldn’t point it out on a map. In the 1960s and 1970s the compass pointed towards Canada and Australia. In the 1980s, as emigration laws tightened, the Anglo-Indian exodus was no longer competing with the annual migration numbers of the wildebeest on the plains of the Serengeti. Then, as the country’s economy opened up in 1991… emigration slowed to a trickle, before drying up completely. What happened then was quite amazing. Those who had left all those years ago started talking about a different ‘back home’, even visiting it to look for ‘that old oak tree — the one they used to play on’. Today, when they talk of their roots, they talk of India. The geography of the soul has been altered forever.

Anglo-Indian Schools

…the people who made the Anglo-Indian system of education the most sought after in independent India were Christian missionaries from overseas (and later, India) and the legion of Anglo-Indian principals and teachers, each with a distinctive walk, voice, charm, persona, character, idiosyncrasy… even human weakness and a ‘wrong side’. In fact, it was the latter that made them seem, once in a while, vulnerable, and human. Most of them were humane and compassionate to the core, but tough as nails outside.

This was the Little India you populated, the one that prepared you to take your appointed place in the Big India that you would live in as an adult. Different people, from the extremes of social strata and a sky-full of communities, beliefs, traditions, and viewpoints, floating overhead, sometimes jostling with dark clouds, often nestling near an elegant rainbow.

Kolkata, the Community’s Capital

There was a time when a triangular chunk of Kolkata between Bowbazar at the apex, and Park Circus and Park Street at different ends, housed more Anglo-Indians than any other specific area in the country. The triangle included major hubs like Dharamtala, Wellesley, Ripon Street, Elliot Road, Royd Street, Lower Circular Road, Entally, Park Circus, and whatever came in between. Everything an Anglo-Indian needed and considered sacred or important was a walk, rickety-rickshaw, or boneshaker-tram ride away: church, school, work, food, old friends, new movies, old magazines and records on Free School Street, new shoes on Bentick Street, and old and new music on Park Street. Anglo-Indians also came in hordes from Kharagpur, Asansol, Jamshedpur, CKP, Patna, and even faraway Allahabad.

All of the above held true till the 1970s. Then they began to move out of central Cal, way beyond Ekbalpur and Kidderpore, to Behala, and then to Thakurpukur and now Picnic Gardens. The only other specific area in the city that is associated with the community is Bow Barracks. If you’re ever in Kolkata in December, make it a point to spend a couple of evenings at ‘the Barracks’. Everything happens right there on the street — carols, live music, dancing, wishing, eating.

The Gift of the English Language

The English language has made a vital contribution in helping people across the country communicate with each other and enrich our cultural diversity and interpersonal sharing. So, it’s time to pay a tribute to English, the language, and the people who have cemented its place in free India as an Indian language — the Anglo-Indians.

The Bharat Ratna for Anglo-Indian Women

My gut feel is that you will second my ‘Bharat Ratna proposal for the Anglo-Indian woman’. While those of other communities stayed home, more than a hundred years ago, the Anglo-Indian woman stepped out of hers with a handbag full of courage and a demeanour full of confidence, to earn an honest living. No patient was untouchable, no sports outfit unwearable, no aeroplane too dangerous, no personal remark too hurtful to send her scuttling home in fear or embarrassment. She pioneered the movement for the emancipation of women in India, not via activism and protests, but by sheer determination to go out and work. That and the courage of her conviction. She was the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ who showed the way to the women of India. Hardworking and efficient, she fought the big fight against vicious stereotyping, and changed people’s perspectives of the working woman, their closed mindsets, and laid the foundation for women in India to step out, stand up, and be counted.

What of the Future?

People, some genuinely concerned, some genuinely pessimistic, often ask, ‘What of the future? How long will the community last?’ I have no idea. But what I do know is that wherever I go I meet more and more Anglo-Indians, striving, surviving, thriving. Yes, we are small. And scattered thin. But far from dying, just yet. Some of us are living well, some better than ever before, and some, to fight another day. But alive we are. As is our culture, our language, and our gallant spirit. Alive and kicking! How long we will last as a community we have no idea. But, as long as we do, you bet we’re going to enjoy the ride. For we believe that the Force Is With Our Youth, and The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow.

Last updated on 05.11.22, 11:15 AM

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