Slice of forgotten history

I’m not much of a film buff and have extremely poor knowledge of films, actors, actresses and directors, especially of the Bollywood variety. Which is not to suggest that I hate watching films; on the contrary, it’s great to watch the occasional movie, provided it’s interesting and not sequenced absurdity, and I don’t have to go to a cinema. Nothing can be more distracting than cellphones bursting into distasteful versions of bhangra.

A long while ago, I had picked up a DVD of Anjan Dutt’s film, Bow Barracks Forever. I am rather partial towards Anjan, who is not much of a filmmaker (he is yet to get over his theatre days and ends up making movies that are theatrical and lack the subtle sophistication of the audio-visual medium) but an excellent human being with a big heart.

Anjan started off as a journalist with The Statesman and was a fine writer. I have known him since my early years in journalism, which was much before the last millennium came to an end. After some years, Anjan meandered into theatre, acted in some avant-garde Bengali films, appeared in Mrinal Sen’s movies and then began making his own films.

Late in life, he decided to become a musician-cum-singer and though I don’t care much for his music, he is quite popular as Kolkata’s balladeer doing a desi version of Bob Dylan. Amazingly, mashimas love him as much as teenagers with names like Ranjana, although kakus tend to frown upon his subversive lyrics.

But this is not about Anjan so much as it’s about Bow Barracks Forever. The DVD got buried under a pile of books and I chanced upon it recently. The film has been shot on location at central Kolkata’s famous dilapidated and crumbling red-brick landmark, Bow Barracks, built to house American soldiers during World War II and now the last refuge of Anglo-Indians in what, once upon a time, used to be the ‘Empire’s Second City’.

At the time of independence, all the occupants of Bow Barracks were Anglo-Indians who, like Anglo-Indians elsewhere in the country, especially in railway colonies, could trace their ancestry back to Britons who had come to India during the Raj, married Indian women and raised ‘half-and-half’ families.

Although never entirely owned and accepted by India’s colonial rulers, who had their own little ‘Whites only’ charmed society, they were integral to the colonial administration. Anglo-Indians were preferred over others for jobs in the Railways, Customs, Excise and Posts & Telegraph as they could be ‘trusted’.

Looked upon as ‘collaborators’, perhaps unfairly so, during the freedom movement, tragically Anglo-Indians were disowned and dumped by the departing British when the Union Jack was replaced by the Tricolour.
Overnight, they became the Empire’s abandoned children.

Some of them were able to migrate to Britain, others set sail for Australia, New Zealand and Canada. But many, like the Anglo-Indians of Bow Barracks, stayed back because they felt this was their home and their destiny. So much so, the Anglo-Indians of Bow Barracks refused to vacate their sooty, poky, damp and crammed rooms. This was the only anchor they had known in their lives.

Years ago, Aparna Sen had made a film, 36 Chowringhee Lane, on the loneliness of an Anglo-Indian teacher, Ms Violet Stoneham (Jennifer Kendal) and her brother, Eddie Stoneham (Geoffrey Kendal) in the twilight of their lives. Ms Stoneham, at least, had a job and an apartment of her own; Eddie lived out his last days in an old-age home waiting for his son to visit. Ms Stoneham was left with memories of the Raj, a whistling kettle, and her cat, Sir Toby.

Bow Barracks Forever is also about the loneliness and the frustrations of a community that lives on an island, yet craves to be accepted as part of the mainstream. It’s about the Moral Science teacher whose wife, Rosa, runs away with her pot-bellied afternoon lover, an insurance agent, and then returns home suitably contrite and chastened, and Aunty Lobo, a widow who bakes cakes and brews wine and calls her elder son in London only to be greeted by an answering machine.

There’s Anne, the battered wife of Tom, who is a small-time racketeer. And then, of course, there’s dear old ‘Peter the Cheater’, the cheerful conman. Bradley is a quintessential Anglo-Indian lad, bindaas and a layabout who can’t keep a job and has no problems apart from his love for Anne, whom he rescues from Tom.

Watching the movie brought a rush of memories of my childhood years in Jamshedpur. There used to be this Anglo-Indian boy in school with me (there were quite a few Anglo-Indian families in Jamshedpur those days) who would go out of town for summer holidays. I once asked him where he spent his summer vacations. “With my aunt at Chakadapore. My uncle’s a loco driver,” he replied, “During Christmas, we go to my other aunt’s place at KGP. She’s got a fireplace and all, men.”

That evening, I pored over my school atlas, trying to locate Chakadapore and KGP. I couldn’t find either place. Next day I asked him to write down the names of these locations, which, to a young upcountry boy, had an exotic ring. He scrawled out, in uneven letters, Chakradharpur and Kharagpur in my English exercise book.

Half way through that term, he left for Australia with his mum and dad (“He’s going to drive a tram, men!”). I wonder if he remembers his summer hols at Chakadapore and Christmas at KGP.

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta

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