My girl's musings - II

Updated: 10 August, 2020 09:02 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

In the second and concluding part of her tribute to the tiny community of Anglo-Indians, to commemorate World Anglo-Indian Day on August 2, this columnist recaps a few slice-of-life chronicles from across India

Fiona FernandezBecause communities are all about the stories...

That was a line from my sign-off paragraph in last week's column that pretty much summed up my memories of interactions with fellow Anglo-Indians (AI) during my wanderings.

Since this column always has a city connection, it's fair to kick off today's trail from ground zero. A little under six years ago, I had been approached to be part of a documentary on Bombay's AIs, called The Forgotten Stew. Its makers, Cheryll Tucker and Richard Young – both city folk – did a fine job of including members of the community across age groups for a narrative-based production. Naturally, I was curious to meet these heavyweights in a city where our numbers have been steadily dwindling.

The self-funded project's star was the late Hazel Branch, 95 years (at the time), a gregarious music teacher respected by generations of Bandraites. There were others too whose stories stood out – like Amelia Greene D'Souza, a singer with several Bombay bands when Churchgate Street (today's Veer Nariman Street) was like NYC's jazz hub in Central Harlem district. Branch was in her element on the day we dropped by for her shoot segment. She regaled all by crooning a few AI favourites; her voice was crisp and she didn't miss a note with the accompanying guitarist – another AI veteran – cartoonist Keith Francis. Her memory was razor-sharp, as she recalled anecdotes about the "good, old days, when lamp-lighters would move around our neighbourhood in Byculla to light lamps at 7 pm," or how Bombay rang in Independence Day with all-night celebrations.

During one of my many trips to 'Cal', a dear aunt, who was more guide and friend, suggested we head to Kharagpur; "You'll get an idea of those days; your mum would visit with her friends, too, some of whom are still around," she egged. I was sold. And off we were, on a train from the chaotic Howrah junction. The junction, despite the IIT campus and student junta, had a languid charm, reminiscent of a sleepy railway town. I could have easily stepped into a frame from RK Narayan's Malgudi Days. We hopped on to a cycle rickshaw and slowly made our way along palm-fringed bumpy non-roads and gullies; my aunt reminisced about the late 1960s, when they would walk down those same roads as 20-somethings, of AI family signboards everywhere and a buzzing social scene. Suddenly, she pointed out to a run-down site, "That was the Railway Institute Hall, a popular venue for AI dances; your mum moved beautifully on the dance floor..." Alas, those genes hadn't passed, I grimaced. By now, I could easily imagine Elvis Presley's Blue Suede Shoes blare out of a loudspeaker, as the Christmas Ball reached a crescendo. High heels, polka dotted frocks, gelled-hairdos, and volumes of railway town gossip must have filled the ballroom.

Another place where the AI spirit was in full flow was at family weddings in my maternal grandparents' home in central Kerala, a sea fronting, formerly Portuguese-occupied town called 'Tangy' [today's Thangasseri] that is a three-hour drive from Cochin. A thatched-roof home with a green courtyard was where my grandpa had chosen to spend his post-retirement years after medical service in the Nilgiris. For city bums like us, it was the instant switch-off, as we did the slow-mo walk with my grandma to the fish market on sea sand-kissed lanes. I recall this one time, at an uncle's wedding, AI-style that piqued my interest about roots and identity in a big way.

From the 'grand march' to the 'home-coming', endless luncheons blessed with beef biryani and tamarind curries cooked in firewood-heated earthen pots; it was an eye-opener for an impressionable 13-year-old. I recall moments when I'd hurriedly seek out my mum after a well-meaning aunt or uncle uttered a word or phrase that didn't make sense. For example: "So, is your father on-line?" and "Are you going up country?" Trust me, when mum revealed the actual meanings, I went all ROFL, forgetting that they were seated right there. "Silly Bombay girl…don't even know how we talk," they muttered.

Yes, I don't. Never will. But thank god for such memories and moments that stitch stories into chapters of that big, fat Anglo-Indian book. What would be without them?

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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First Published: 10 August, 2020 08:25 IST

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