This is an article which appeared in "The Statesman".
DIVERSITY MATTERS: ANGLO-INDIANS: New old-world charm
Charity work, an ‘English’ education, Moulin Rouge, jazz, puffs and pastries… The Anglo-Indian community
has been a Kolkata fixture for long. Now, the community reinvents itself for a new age. DEBJANI CHATTOPADHYAY reports
An integral part of Kolkata’s cultural heritage, Anglo-Indians are a two hundred-year old community with origins
dating back to the European settlers’ arrival in India for trade and commerce. A concentration of Portuguese, English,
Dutch and French traders developed in the port cities of India. The men married Indian girls and for the next nearly 150 years,
the Anglo-Indians grew as a community, culturally as well as in size. In fact in the 1800s, they even outnumbered the British
in the country and this perhaps resulted in feelings of insecurity among the rulers. Members of the community were not allowed
in top positions in the administration or the Army, and were also debarred from buying land in India. This gave rise to unemployment
and general discontent. Jobless youths engaging in antisocial activities were common. But things took a turn after 1857 when
Anglo-Indians were once again inducted into the Army and in other prime positions. When the Telegraph arrived in 1851 and
the Railway began to reach out, avenues opened up in these departments as well as in customs, shipping and education.
nobody can tell you about Anglo-Indians better than Mr Melvyn Brown. The most agile figure in St. Xavier’s College library
for over 40 years, Mr Brown is a veritable a chronicler of the community. “All Anglo-Indians are Christians but not
all Christians are Anglo-Indians,” he emphasises and continues: “According to the Indian Constitution, an Anglo-Indian
is a person whose father or progenitor in the male line is of English-speaking European origin. We are half-and-half. Our
style of living, thinking, social customs, home décor, dressing, meals is quite different from a Bengali or a South Indian
Christian. Most importantly the language spoken at home is invariably English.”
Anglo-Indian cuisine is fascinating,
to say the least. Only an Anglo-Indian cook can do justice to specialties such as cutlets, Jhal Frazee, alu chops, light-as-air
puffs, pastries and the like. But the number of such experts is fast declining. “An Anglo-Indian will always prefer
a continental dinner,” says Mr Brown.
The mass exodus after Independence did leave the community a little wobbly.
An identity crisis, economic backwardness and alienation hit them hard.
So what is the situation now? “After the
British packed their bags, there was a crisis situation. Those who could migrated to England and the rest struggled to make
ends meet. Prime jobs in the Railway, Post & Telegraph and Customs were no longer easily available. Education was never
a priority and this resulted in a large number of school dropouts. But the situation improved after the ‘80s when the
younger generation became serious about education. The ‘90s saw an Anglo-Indian doing as well as any other Indian,”
says Mr Brown.
A great majority of Anglo-Indians migrated to Australia, Canada and the USA. What’s amazing is that
these boys who were school dropouts here did extremely well abroad. And it is equally strange that a community that has always
been associated with English-medium education could itself be lagging behind academically.
However, the credit for the
quality education that Kolkata boasts of will always go to the Anglo-Indian community. The much-in-demand “convent-educated
bride” is entirely a product of these schools – six Loreto Convents, three St. Thomas’, La Martinere for
Girls, Pratt Memorial and Calcutta Girls’ School to name a few. The church plays an important role in the lives of Kolkata’s
Anglo-Indians, a majority of who are Catholics. For most, Sunday mornings are meant for church and social life often revolves
around church activities.
Anglo-Indians, with their innate sense of rhythm, have long been the caretakers of the city’s
entertainment. Guitar in hand, they drove the crowd to fever pitch at Moulin Rouge, Blue Fox and Trincas in the swinging ‘60s.
Pam Crain, Louis Banks, Carlton Kitto, Lew Hilt, Lou Majaw and Donald Saigal gave jazz buffs exactly what they wanted. And
perhaps no one ever entertained Kolkatans like Ken Stuart did. Sadly, such affairs have become dim echoes of the past with
a number of musicians leaving the city, thanks to an extent to Indipop.
The city currently houses about 30,000 (2002 AI
Research Bureau) Anglo-Indian families. These are concentrated in Ripon Street, Royd Street, Elliot Road, Bow Street, Chowringhee,
Park Street, Park Circus, Free School Street and parts of Kidderpore. Quite a few of them who have done well for themselves
are settled in Picnic Garden and Behala. A few families live in and around Ballygunge too.
A cheerful community with huge
potentialities, Anglo-Indians lend much colour to Kolkata. Self-sufficient and proud of their heritage, they no longer carry
the baggage of alienation and isolation. After all, they are the ones who taught us to raise a toast!
(An Extract from