My girl's musings

Updated: 03 August, 2020 12:50 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

This columnist pays tribute to the tiny community of Anglo-Indians as they celebrated World Anglo-Indian Day on August 2

Daman Singh, daughter of former PM Dr Manmohan Singh speaks about her book, Kitty's War that focuses on the Anglo-Indian community. Also in the frame is celebrated Anglo-Indian author J Allan Sealy. Both were present at the literary events of the 11th Anglo-Indian reunion held in January 2019.
Daman Singh, daughter of former PM Dr Manmohan Singh speaks about her book, Kitty's War that focuses on the Anglo-Indian community. Also in the frame is celebrated Anglo-Indian author J Allan Sealy. Both were present at the literary events of the 11th Anglo-Indian reunion held in January 2019.

Fiona FernandezIt was roughly around 2pm when I reached St George’s Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School in Madras [no self-respecting Anglo-Indian (AI) refers to it as Chennai]. It certainly didn’t feel like early January but more like the middle of summer as a warm breeze greeted me on my way to the school; I learnt later that it was once the Military Male Orphan Asylum, was established in 1715, thus making it one of India’s oldest schools.

"Don’t worry my girl, lunch will be served till 3.30pm," assured one of the hosts at the 11th Anglo-Indian Reunion 2019, when I called her to inform her of my arrival. I smiled. It had been a while since someone called me ‘My girl’ – that oh-so-familiar endearment used by Anglo-Indians for women from 6 to 60 years. I was truly coming home to meet the ‘gang’. Well, more like trying to be a fly on the wall to understand more about my community since members had converged from across the globe to meet, greet, discuss and celebrate their legacy over a weeklong itinerary that included hockey matches, talent contests, literary sessions, heritage walks and food talks. And yes, there was the customary grand ball.

As I walked towards the colourful, massive shamiana, I could hear strains of the Kenny Rogers-Dolly Parton duet, Islands in the Stream being belted out by a live band. The strong aroma of beef chops and biryani – both AI staples – filled the air, along with peals of laughter and bonhomie. As I tucked into the homely fare, I watched with awe as several couples – young and not-so-young – waltz or slow-jive to every beat. Never mind the soaring mercury levels. AIs love their music and dance, and here it was in full display. And this spirit set the mood for the rest of the week, as I soaked in every bit of my roots – from our rich literary and sporting traditions to contributions in education and the armed forces. For a Bombay-bred AI with a reporter’s nose, there couldn’t have been a more fruitful, enriching experience.

Another city that got me in touch with my roots is Calcutta [again, no self-respecting AI calls it Kolkata; ‘Cal’ is more like it]. While on a Christmastime visit after nearly 15 years, as I walked down a dressed-up Park Street, and caught up with old friends over several cuppas at Cha Bar, memories of those wanderings from previous trips rolled out in a flash – of Ripon Street’s settlers on either side of the tram tracks, who spoke with an interesting drawl, of Bow Barracks jolly get-togethers, and of losing our way inside the maze-like New Market as it prepped for Christmas shoppers.

Bangalore, too, has a few pockets, albeit dwindling in number, thanks to the insensitive development that transformed the city. Neighbourhoods like Fraser Town and Whitefield, once identified with the community, are a pale shadow of a time when Whites, Johnsons and Browns were common surnames that etched iron gates of bougainvillea-lined bungalows. Cantonment used to be the ‘it’ place for all the coveted dances, hearty luncheon invites, and where walking down every alley or street on a Sunday morning would introduce you to at least one new Country music artiste.

Having grown up in the Maximum City, it has never been easy to gauge what the ‘Anglo-Indian way’ is all about, except for glimpses of it at family functions or weddings. Then again, because of its negligent numbers here, the sense of community was never visible. We assimilated with the Goans, East Indians, Mangaloreans and Syrian Christians as members of the larger Christian congregation in Bombay, and stuck out only when the question about "your native place" or "your mother tongue" cropped up. Truth is, we never really had one, and English has always been our first and only language spoken at home.

In fact, for members like me, it remains a treasure hunt to track down more of my ilk, which is why visits to these last bastions make for much-needed nourishment. I heavily recommend such trips to other AIs seeking to retrace their roots and preserve their family stories. Because communities are all about the stories, after all. Speaking of which, watch out for my column next Monday, as I continue to hit the rewind button with more chronicles from Lucknow, Kharagpur, Kerala and yes, all about how I met some of Bombay’s iconic AIs.

A salaam and shout-out to all the buggers, babalogs and baby mems [read: memsaabs].

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: 03 August, 2020 07:53 IST

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