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Alistair McGowan meets Melvyn Brown
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Melvyn Brown meets Alistair McGowan

September 30, 2007


Alistair McGowan: My next impression...I’m an Indian

When comedian traced his roots, he was startled to find that the genetic trail did not lead back to Scotland, as he expected, but to Calcutta and a large number of other dark-skinned McGowans...

My father was born in Calcutta . Throughout my life I had asked him why the family were there. Were his parents Indian? When did they leave Scotland ? Did he speak Urdu? Did he have an elephant? He always told me simply: “We were an English family who happened to be living in India .”

When he moved to Worcestershire, after he was married, he initially told people he was Welsh (that was why he pronounced certain words a little strangely) and that he was slightly dark-skinned because he had spent the summer working in greenhouses.

My father’s parents died before I was born and the only connection with India that I can remember are occasional telephone calls – always in the middle of George and Mildred, for some reason – from an Indian woman asking to speak “to George McGowan, please”.

My sister Kay and I would hear him say “Hello, Auntie Gee” (or Auntie Jean, as we thought then) and vaguely hear him use some Indian-sounding words but, stupidly, we were far too interested in George and Mildred to ask him about “George and India ”.

When he died (in 2003, aged 74) I had to take the birth certificate to the registrar’s office in order to obtain the death certificate. On the 74-year-old slip of paper, under the word “caste”, was the term “Anglo-Indian”.

I had no idea what it meant. This time last year, thanks to the BBC1 series Who Do You Think You Are? I was about to go to Calcutta to find out.

CALCUTTA, September 2006. The journey from the airport is staggering. I am instantly hit by the heat, the humidity and the huge number of people. It’s as if someone has said, “Let’s get everyone in India to go to Calcutta for the day, for a laugh.” But this isn’t just for today – it’s every day. And it’s no laugh.

Inch by inch there is something new to be shocked by: people sleeping comfortably on the pavements, litter everywhere (mainly plastics, of course). Women carry milk churns on their heads. Old men cycle happily through downpours pulling carts laden with newspapers; cows wander aimlessly along the side of the road. It is as if every decade of the past century is taking place at the same time.

Finally, the road is wide and pleasant. We see some once-majestic buildings, airy parks, the wonderful Victoria Memorial.

I go to see a man called Melvyn Brown. His inauspicious house sits opposite two even more inauspicious tailors’ shops. I walk in through a beaded curtain and am amazed that, one step off the seething, dusty road, is this comfortable, clean room full of DVDs. Melvyn is a film buff, a slight but wonderfully alive man and he knows everything there is to know about Anglo-Indians.

First he tells me that to be “Anglo-Indian” does not mean that you were from an English family who “happened to be living in India ”. To be Anglo-Indian means that a parent was Indian. Not an immediate parent but someone. A mother. He tells me that it comes down the mother’s side.

At least, that’s what I think he is saying. There is a lot of information to take in suddenly and on top of that I am being heavily distracted by his quaintly old-English soft furnishings, especially three crocheted red, yellow and green cushions in the shape of fish perched evenly on top of the sofa.

Anyway, the likelihood is that someone in my McGowan past – probably a soldier in the British Army – left Scotland and married an Indian girl. But when? And whom?

It had progressed from being a common accident (“a hit and run”) to an actual policy, he says. British soldiers were encouraged to “modify” their genes. And, in the early days, were even paid to do so.

The Anglo-Indian, proficient in both languages, was listened to by the Indians and was loyal to the British whose culture he took on completely. Melvyn describes the Anglo-Indians proudly (he is one himself) as rugged, artistic, hard-working, “the unsung heroes of the British Raj”.

They worked on the railway, in the docks, in the telegraph offices – they were well respected and well paid.

In fact, they were doing so well at one time that the government became worried. Worried that, with the huge native Indian population behind them, they would become so powerful that they could take over the country. Ceilings were imposed on how far the Anglo-Indian could rise.

As independence raised its head, a “psychosis of fear” passed through the Anglo-Indians. They knew that they did not belong to any of the reemerging factions – and the majority, for their own safety, left their homeland.

They left for Australia , for South Africa and Canada . They left for Britain . And, in my dad’s case, for Hillingdon, west London .

In Britain , the “psychosis of fear”, says Melvyn, took hold again and led to a lot of secrecy about the “foreign” roots of this swarthy, new, British-but-not-British community. They feared much and experienced some racism in the land of their distant forefathers, he says.

Out of a sense of self-preservation, one of them, my father, clearly said that he was “Welsh” and had spent the summer working in greenhouses. And never referred to his roots again.

“So, my dad was properly Anglo-Indian?”

“Oh, yes. That’s what it says, actually, on his birth certificate, isn’t it?” “Yes. And, if he was Anglo-Indian . . ?”

“Then so are you, Alistair.” Melvyn is so kindly and intelligent, bright and spiritual. His laughing mouth, his thin lips, his shiny beard-line are so like dad’s that it feels like my father is telling me all this himself – finally.

“Do I look Anglo-Indian?” I ask. “No. But I would have guessed that this was the case, actually, after 10 minutes in your company.”

“How?” “From your demeanour, your manners, your diction, your vocabulary and your accent.”

I am amazed. Here am I, having built a career as an impressionist and spent two decades opining about what people’s voices said about them, and yet I had no idea what my own voice said about me. And it said, to the initiated, “Anglo-Indian”.

I leave with a new friend and an answer. But now there’s a new question: who was the mystery woman who changed the course of my family’s history? And when? Dad always said they just “happened to be in India ” – so, it can’t be far back, surely.

Well yes, it can. Over the course of the next five amazing days (which take us from Allahabad to Mirzapur to Chunar), we find out that the initial “hit and run” as Melvyn called it, happened as far back as 1750.

In short, I was the first McGowan in my father’s line to be born in the British Isles in more than 200 years.

The previous “Anglo” was John McGowan, who went to India to serve in the British Army and was clearly seduced not only by a local Indian girl (Maria de la Cruz) but by the fact that he would be paid to have children with her.

I am unsure what to think about my ancestors’ military involvement. My knowledge of history is appalling, but even I know that the British Army did some terrible things in India .

A description of John McGowan in a military history book describes him as “one of the most distinguished officers of the Bengal army” and “an intrepid and gallant soldier”.

I am happier (ethically) to read him also described as “an unassuming and upright man”.

In Chunar I look for the grave of John and Maria’s son, the wonderfully named Suetonius, who had followed his father into the army.

The tombs are enormous, black and sandy, in the shadow of the old British fort. I am on the banks of the Ganges in what looks like Leeds cemetery. I read a couple of inscriptions and wonder where Suetonius is.

I can’t find him. A lot of the graves have been ravaged. Bricks here, headstones there have been taken for use as tables or for sale. I had never heard of this man until today but I am sad not to be able to find him, to feel his energy and read his name.

I look at the group of local boys playing on the graves, sitting on tombs. It all seems wrong – so lacking in respect. I cannot imagine any graveyard in Britain being treated like this. Yet what respect were the Indian people shown, in turn, by these invading British – setting up their fort in what was a holy Hindu site? Bringing their people, their culture, their diseases, their religion, their guns and cannons here.

In this one instance, it seems to me, there is no truer phrase than “what goes around, comes around”. No more fitting word than the one we have taken – like so much – from India : karma.

As my time in India approaches its close I realise that, if forced to choose, I would rather live in India than America . And I am shocked. I feel that there is a greater sense of respect and togetherness here. A greater sense of nature and spirituality.

Yet, overall, the journey into India and into my past has made me feel how British I am. British born and bred. Indian history. Unexplored Scottish roots.

John McGowan (c 1750) was as far back as we could get in the history books. He, I’m sure, is the McGowan who left Scotland and through whom I feel so Scottish.

I’ve always felt a connection with Scotland , have always loved the country and the people, its mountains and its cities. I’ve sat at Hampden Park and sung Flower of Scotland from the heart. Scotland – my spiritual home.

Back in the UK , at the British Library, a man in a three-piece suit called Tony shows me all John McGowan’s military records and, finally, shows me the place from where he sailed to India .

And there, swimming before my eyes, is a word I had never expected to see – “ Ireland ”.

I am shocked. I can’t take it in. I feel as if a big tartan rug has been pulled from under me.

Today I am still convinced – along with many other McGowans – that John only sailed from Ireland .

We have no actual records of John’s birth and family myth says Scotland . My heart says Scotland . I will cling on to Scotland . And embrace India . Like a true Englishman.

Who Do You Think You Are? was on BBC1 at 9pm on Thursday 4th October 2007.

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Alistair McGowan discovers his Anglo-Indian roots.

NOTICE:  'Anglo-Indian The Newsletter' is an individual non-profit venture of Mr. Melvyn Brown, who does not receive any funds from individuals in India or abroad.The work done for the community is a personal non-commercial venture of Mr. Melvyn Brown, who has a deep personal interest in the Anglo-Indian community as well as in the Catholic Church.

This site contains the writings of Mr. Melvyn Brown of Calcutta. An Anglo-Indian Chronicler of the community and Founder & publisher of "Anglo-Indian The Newsletter".Melvyn Brown is also the Founder & Director of the "Ambassadors for Jesus",a Roman Catholic movement, with permission from the Pope, with a newsletter published promoting Catholic Unity.