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India In Our Hearts

“You can take the Anglo-Indian out of India, but you can’t take India out of the Anglo-Indian,” says Philomena Eaton. She should know. Philomena is the convenor of the 9th International Anglo-Indian Reunion starting on Sunday, January 6 in Kolkata.

The week-long celebrations will see 1,200 Anglo-Indians from all over the world flying in to what she describes as “the heartland of Anglo-Indians in India”. The only other Indian city to have hosted this reunion was Bangalore in 1988. “We want to celebrate the land of our birth,” says Eaton, accepting that around 800 participants are from abroad. Two-thirds of the participants are above the age of 50. “Anglo-Indians who settled abroad years ago are nostalgic about India. Their children who grow up abroad sometimes do come back too to know more about their roots but for the older generation, this is home.”

Blossom Lillywhite, president, The All-India Anglo-Indian Association (Mumbai Branch), recalls, “Sixty years ago, my peers would say that they were going ‘home’ to Britain. I drilled it into my children that we are Indians first and that India was home to us and that we were not going anywhere.”

The beginnings
Hugh Gantzer, well-known travel writer based in Mussoorie explains, “The community has been around for a long time but, till 1947, there was no Independent India. It was only after Mahatma Gandhi started his movement did the feeling of Indianness develop among the people. Once India was formed in 1947, many Anglo-Indians faced the dilemma of whether they should stay in the country or emigrate. Many of those who had relied on the security of reserved jobs felt insecure when these reservations were removed, and felt that they had to emigrate. Those who stayed back in India did do very well. My uncle Admiral Ronald Pereira was the Chief of Naval Staff. My classmate Dennis LaFontaine was the Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force.” Adds Harry MacLure, editor-publisher of Anglos in the Wind, a magazine dedicated to the Anglo-Indian community, “We are not restricted to any state. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the whole of India is our home.”

Staying rooted
However, being spread out all over the country does have its disadvantages. “We are not as close-knit as the Parsis,” says Hugh. “One of the reasons is because of the diaspora as we are scattered all over India. In spite of this, there is a strong sense of community.” Believes Nicole Campbell (38), a businesswoman and sportsperson from Bandra, “We are very close-knit. Yes, our ancestors were even more close-knit but life was different then. They were mainly employed in the railways or defence forces, or as nurses and teachers. Now all of us are venturing into different professions and migrating to different parts of the country and the world. But we are still close to our traditions and beliefs.”

For Jason O’Connor, a resident of Wadala and the owner of a corporate facility management firm, growing up in an Anglo-Indian home meant being part of a “close-knit secured community with fabulous traditions, be it friends, food or festivities. We’ve got the best 3Ds — drink, dance and dress sense,” he says. Ralph Craven, who has his own wine distribution business, believes, “We have a rich heritage, a unique gene pool, a rich upbringing, good etiquette, and a unique cultural factor. We have matured and become a unique aromatic spirit, generously flavoured and very stimulating. We’ve got a good standing in society.” In fact, they are firm that they’ve never been discriminated against. Says Colleen Gantzer, who, like her husband Hugh, is also a travel writer, “We’ve not felt discriminated against, not even once. We do have this funny situation because of our foreign-sounding name when we check into hotels. The receptionist asks us, ‘Can we have your passports?’” (That’s the norm for foreign guests).

Wedding woes
Colleen also explains, “Anglo-Indians don’t have arranged marriages. Dating is an essential part of our life.” However, the scene is changing with several Anglo-Indians opting to go for the arranged marriage route. Says Harry, who started a matrimonial column in his magazine nine years ago, “Since then, around 70-80 weddings have taken place thanks to the column, among Anglo-Indians not just in India but all over the world.”

Adds Graham Heiden, vice-principal, Christ Church School and a long-time resident of Byculla, “Anglo-Indian children today don’t have much time to interact with each other. That is one of the reasons youngsters are going for the arranged marriage route, visiting matrimonial websites and going through matrimonial columns.” Blossom says, “Earlier, we were concentrated mainly around Byculla, Dadar, Bandra and Colaba and intermingled with others during socials, jam sessions and church meets. Today our community has dwindled – a large number has migrated while those who stayed back have relocated to distant suburbs. As a consequence, match-making within the community is not as simple as it used to be.”

The end?
There are predictions that the community will die in a couple of decades. But Jason laughs them off, “I take that prediction with a pinch of salt. We are still very much vibrant and alive. When we come together for community activities, there is a lot of enthusiasm among the young generation too.” It’s not surprising, as Ralph explains, “We, the young generation, are very proud of our community because we have a rich heritage and culture backing us.”

The sense of pride transcends regional barriers. Says Harry, “I grew up in Chennai and learnt to read and write Tamil in school. My cousins in Lucknow speak Hindi fluently. Our culture and heritage are still being maintained due to Anglo-Indian associations.” States Philomena, “That’s what is beautiful about our community. We assimilate the food habits and language of the region but retain our unique way of life.”

Sixty years ago, my peers would say they were going ‘home’ to Britain. I drilled it into my children that we are Indians first and that India was home to us
— Blossom Lillywhite

We are very proud as we have a rich heritage and culture backing us. We have matured and become a unique aromatic spirit, generously flavoured and very stimulating
— Ralph Craven

I take the prediction (that the community will cease to exist in a couple of decades) with a pinch of salt. We are still vibrant and alive. There is a lot of enthusiasm among the young generation
— Jason O’Connor

We are not restricted to any state. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the whole of India is our home... Our culture and heritage are still being maintained due to Anglo-Indian associations
— Harry MacLure

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