A recent gathering of Anglo-Indians in the city to celebrate a new book about this micro community acted as a timely reminder of its unique origins and status in the mosaic that is India
(Left) Barry O’Brien chats with Michelle Phillip (right) with Denzil Smith
“Was your father on-line?” I vividly recall my wide-eyed reaction from over a decade ago when I had visited Madras, to this query that was dropped by a well-meaning ‘uncle’ [if you’re an Anglo-Indian, every senior or friend of your parents were addressed as an uncle or an aunty]. It took me a few moments to process the question; the mind jogged through whether he was referring to my father’s (unsuccessful) attempts at sending an email on the home PC. Why was this uncle in another city keen to know if my father was online? And even if he did, why was it important enough to be brought up at a family dinner? Seeing the dumbfounded look on my face, he spared me the blushes. “Was your father working in the Railways? Did he have a job on the ‘line’? [Which he explained referred to the railway track] Was he an engine driver, guard, ticket collector…?”
My father wasn’t ‘on-line’, but that interesting term to refer to a profession was a penny-drop moment for me. I took it upon myself to recount all the words and utterances connected with our unique phraseology. Having spent most of my life in Bombay, interactions within the community were limited due to a smattering of us in the eastern suburbs. But each time we’d visit relatives in Madras (always Madras, never Chennai), the quaint seaside town of Tangasseri, in Kerala, Cal (not Kolkata) or Bangalore, these Anglo-Indianisms would fill the air—be it for a tea time soiree [high tea was a ceremonial thing], a meal, at a party, or after Sunday mass, when we caught up with long-lost cousins and relatives. “My word, you’ve lost colour,” referring to the tanned complexion, or “Child! You have two left feet; you couldn’t even do the Hokey Pokey at Uncle Graham’s birthday party,” a snide comment on one’s lack of dancing skills [a must], formed part of the lexicon.
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All of these nostalgic reminders came flooding back as I sat enthralled, listening to Barry O’Brien discuss his new book, The Anglo Indians: A Portrait of a Community at an event organised by The All-India Anglo-Indian Association, Mumbai branch at the parish hall in Byculla’s Christ Church. Dressed in their Sunday best, the Bombaywallahs were in splits most of the time; they held onto his every word, as he took everyone on a joyride about the inspiring but oft-forgotten timeline. O’Brien discussed in great detail about a range of topics in this conversation with Dr Michelle Philip, HOD-English of Wilson College, from the fair skin fixation that was once a huge deal, to the dilemma of allegiance after India gained Independence, and socio-cultural concerns as their fellow community members migrated to England, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
O’Brien, who heads the All-India Anglo-Indian Association, has ticked all the right boxes with this eponymous title and goes to great lengths to explain the different ‘types’ of Anglo-Indians’, from those of Portuguese descent, to the rest, of Dutch, Danish, French and British descent. The references to history were insightful going by how the audience was in rapt attention. However, the educationist was careful to not let the chat slip into an academic discourse. One interesting segment was his explanation of how ‘Indian’ the Anglo-Indian really is; he constantly peppered it with anecdotes, dipping into accounts from his family and friends. To drive home the point about the community being a mix of desi and Western, he shared about his mother, Joyce who was a railway colony girl, and was an unabashed fan of Dev Anand while his father, Neil, loved Clark Gable movies. Both represented their version of being Anglo-Indian. “So who was the real Anglo-Indian? Both! We did both Clark Gable and Dev Anand. When our families met, one side would discuss Wordsworth while the other would hum to Kishore Kumar’s latest film songs,” he elaborated as I spotted many knowing nods in the audience.
As the evening progressed, for me, the fly on the wall, as insider (an Anglo-Indian) and outsider (a member of the press), I felt as if I was seated by the fireside in the drawing room, listening to an uncle regale all with episodic reminders of AI’s glorious legacy and contribution in pre- and post-Independent India, not forgetting to draw from Anglo-Indianisms, and discuss food, the all-time favourite topic in our homes. Education, the armed forces, hospitality and aviation, sports, especially hockey….O’Brien rattled off stalwarts and path-breakers in these fields, much to the delight of the crowd who had forgotten that it was nearing dinner time. Doffing his hat to its education values, he reminded, “Anglo-Indian schools didn’t brainwash you; it made you be you. No wonder its alumni are today’s Right wing leaders, Left-leaning activists and centre-of-the-road liberals.”
By the end of the session, I was quite sure that the audience got their fair share of history, fun and laughter, courtesy ‘Professor’ O’Brien’s crash course. “India is a beautiful mosaic that includes every community, including us Anglo-Indians. Because we are scattered thin you cannot see us, but we form a sparkling part,” he signed off.
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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