Moving forward...

Anglo- Indians
Last Updated 24 September 2016, 18:38 IST

Let’s start with the basics: Who is an Anglo-Indian? We have 4,635 communities in India, but the only one to be defined by the Constitution of India are Anglo-Indians.

According to Article 366 (2), “An Anglo-Indian means a person whose father or any other of whose male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is domiciled within the territories of India and is or was born within such territory of parents habitually resident therein and not established there for temporary purposes only”.

That explains why every AI, which is how Anglo-Indians refer to themselves, has to be born in India, and why we have European surnames. The Gantzers are of Danish-German origin, with Pereiras (Portuguese), Lynsdales (English), Adies (Scottish), O’Neils (Irish) and Malinowskis (Polish) in our bloodline. The ‘Anglo’ in ‘Anglo-Indian’ refers to our mother-tongue because our community was consolidated during the British era.

Equally important, however, are the distinguishing traits which have not been specified in the Constitution. Every AI is a Christian. The Christian religion, along with the faith of the Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis, is recognised as a minority by the Constitution. But then, so too are Anglo-Indians. But AIs are not a religion, they are a community. So Anglo-Indians are a minority community within a minority religion.

This confuses that army of babus deputed to visit every household, to record the great Census of India. Because of this uncertainty, we are not sure how many AIs there are in our land. Some say that it is 1,25,000, admitting that this is an informed guesstimate. Many AIs believe that before the Great Exodus, starting in the mid-40s, there were twice as many AIs then as there are in India today. That is the sad tale of the consequences of the cosseting of a community. But we will come to that a little later.

First we must dispel a commonly held myth about the community. Anglo-Indians did not start when Job Charnock married his Indian wife in Kolkata. We have an appreciably older heritage.

Anglo-Indians are of European descent in the male line, and the first Europeans to enter India as a trading nation were the Portuguese. Vasco da Gama landed in Cochin in 1498. The success of the Portuguese trade with India encouraged the French, Dutch, English, Danes and other European nations to follow and set up their colonies in our land. All our European ancestors were Christians, so we are not converts from any other faith. We’re very lucky to be in a land with such a great diversity of beliefs and, as writers, we make it a point to learn as much as we can about them. Our home library has books on all these faiths in English, our ‘mother tongue’. We’re also happy that English is the Associate Official Language of our country, the language of the Supreme Court, and the language in which the original version of the Constitution has been written, protecting all faiths, including ours.

Way of life

Our Christianity also gave our community our love of music. We, personally, have a collection of CDs ranging all through the national and international spectrum from bhajans and qawalis through rock, pop and western classical, to Tibetan deep throat and Gregorian chants sung by choirs of Catholic monks. Choirs are an important part of Christian worship. If you can sing in a church, you can certainly sing in a Christian festival like Easter and Christmas. It is still an Anglo-Indian custom to form groups of carol singers at Christmas to visit houses singing the traditional songs, and be rewarded with a slice of Christmas cake and a sip of Christmas wine. These carollers are usually mixed groups of young men and women, often children, under a senior mentor. Since we have never had a caste system and our boys and girls intermingle freely from childhood, as they do in European societies, we select our own life partners.

That did shock the more conservative communities of our land, as did the way some of us dressed. But now, the young people of other communities are following the social trends we set years ago, so the old prejudices are being eroded very fast. Think of the increasing popularity of dating, Valentine’s Day, tees and jeans and discos. Anglo-Indian socials, as we once called our community gatherings, invariably featured a dance to either recorded music or, better still, to a combo which was a group of musicians drawn from friends and family. Dances were an important feature of AI life because that’s where our young people met each other under the watchful eye, and perceptive comments, of their elders. “Don’t get friendly with that Smith boy, girlie. He’s a waster: no job!” Or, “I saw your Junie dancing with Mikey Jones at the Christmas ball. He’s a straight, hard-working lad. They’ll probably jibe well. They certainly jive well! No?”  ‘Jive’ is AI slang for ‘being in accord with each other’. Jiving is a fast, closely interactive dance to swing music. It calls for both an intuitive anticipation of each other’s movements, and physical fitness.

Physical prowess were, once, admired by our community more than intellectual achievements. From this preference was produced our strong sporting ethos with many hockey Olympians. The traditional self-discipline of the community nurtured a Naval Chief, Admiral Ron Pereira, and an Air Chief, Air Marshal Dennis La Fontaine, and many decorated defence services heroes. Now, as community values evolved, we also have acclaimed writers like Padma Awardees Ruskin Bond and I Alan Sealy, both from our own Himalayan district.  And from Kolkata, the very articulate elected politician Derek O’Brien. The changing needs of the times, when we have become a minority within a minority, has produced Harry MacLure, his wife Gillian, and their friend Richard O’Connor of Chennai.

They are the now-essential sustainers of Anglo-Indian traditions. Every little community needs such dedicated heritage keepers. A minuscule community which forgets its past has no ballast and soon becomes absorbed and forgotten in the swirls and eddies of history. Remembrance of the achievements of the past propels the ambitions of the future. A formidable force in this anchoring of our community ethos is not an Anglo-Indian: historian, editor, author S Muthiah. His remarkable book, The Anglo Indians – A 500-Year History (Niyogi Books), is an invaluable addition to the 15 books brought out by Harry’s publishing house, Anglo-Ink, written by Anglo-Indians about Anglo-Indians.

Food for thought

Many of these books reflect the nostalgia of senior citizens of the community for the days when AIs dominated the posts and telegraphs, police, customs and the great railways of undivided India. These private transportation companies preferred AIs in the middle-level administrative and technical jobs because of their physical toughness and their bilingual skills. They recruited boys just out of high school and offered lifetime security in an environment sequestered from the travails of emerging India. Here, in the railway colonies, AIs did what they do best: they worked hard and played hard.

They also produced a unique cuisine which fused European recipes with regional flavours and techniques. Most AI women relied on their cooks, recruited locally, to produce dishes in their own eclectic way: not quite Indian, not entirely European, quintessentially Anglo-Indian. Mulligatawny is an elaboration of the South Indian vegetarian rasam with the addition of chicken or mutton stock. The northern pillau evolved into the AI shikari’s junglee pillau: much spicier than the original to balance the gamey flavour of wild boar, venison or duck taken on the wing. Sometimes the experienced housewife toned down the assertive taste by soaking the pieces of meat in vinegar.

The lady of the house came into her own in the kitchen when creating for Christmas. As early as the last week of October, she started laying in stocks for the greatest festival of the AI year. Stretching back to the time when their European ancestors had no access to fresh fruit in their long, snow-bound winters, Anglo-Indian housewives still use preserved fruit and dried nuts. From them they brew our home-made wine, our non-alcoholic ginger wine, and the mysterious OT, the Other Thing, whose recipes are the closely guarded secrets of every family. In the final stages, the making of Christmas fare becomes a family venture with everyone pitching in to mix the Christmas cakes before baking, and the richer Christmas puddings, roll the Goan-inspired kulkuls, and  boil, crumb, decorate and stud the leg of ham with cloves as we did in our grandparents’ home in Bihar.

Then comes the building of the crib, the table-top tableau of the birth of Christ in a stable in Bethlehem, including the visit of the Three Kings who could have journeyed from India. After which we decorate the house with streamers, stars, bells, Christmas cards, holly, mistletoe and the Christmas Tree trimmed with tinsel and favours. Finally, the festoon of Christmas lights and the red Christmas star alight every night all through Christmas week.

These unique traditions could have been lost when AIs faced the first life-changing test of their community. Long dependent on reserved jobs in the railways, posts and telegraphs, police and customs, they realised that they were unable to compete in the open market of Independent India, where even bus conductors were, often, university graduates. They had to make a choice between the land of their birth and an imagined better life overseas.

Many opted to migrate to English-speaking countries deceiving themselves with the meme: “Who will our children marry?” Today, though those expat communities still call themselves Anglo-Indians, they know that they are pretending. AIs are defined by the Indian Constitution; not the American, Australian, New Zealand or any other. When these runaways accepted the citizenship of any other country, they ceased to be Anglo-Indians. The strength of the community in India was reduced by more than half. In hindsight, this had a wonderfully reinvigorating effect.

With the crutch of reserved jobs removed, AIs were forced to stand on their own feet. Today, education is the most sought-after goal of young AIs. This, in turn, has led to fundamental changes in mindsets and social attitudes whose repercussions are still sweeping through the community. To start with, using their command of English and their westernised lifestyles, they have been welcomed into the burgeoning multinational, IT and hospitality boom. Blossom Lillywhite, head of the All-India Anglo-Indian Association of Bombay, tells us that it is difficult, today, to find a young AI who is not a graduate. We got the same feedback from the north, east and south.

This is a vindication of the late Frank Anthony’s foresight. Anthony was the towering leader of the All India Anglo-Indian Association, a voluntary non-religious, non-political body formed to look after the welfare of the community. In recognition of his stature in the community, and the fact that he was a barrister with a formidable legal reputation, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly, the body that wrote our Constitution. Realising that Anglo-Indians had been traumatised by their inadequate educational standards, he set up the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examination (CISCE) in 1958. In his own words, the schools affiliated to the Council would be “ from the taint of regionalism, linguism and communalism.”

Students who opt for this examination are required to pass in English and four other subjects. Thanks to that, these schools have contributed immeasurably to giving our country the one great advantage it has over China: our familiarity with English. About 1,80,000 appear for ICSE’s Class X examinations, and 80,000 for the Class XII exams drawn from the 2,200 schools affiliated to CISCE. Other organisations, strengthening our educational standards, are The Inter-State Board of Anglo-Indian Education, and the Association of the Heads of Anglo-Indian Schools. Thus, there is a constant self-regulating system ensuring that our schools stay at the cutting edge of teaching technology appropriate to our needs. We asked a revered principal what distinguishes the alumni of AI schools from others. He said, “A command of English, integrated nationalism and character”.

Inadequate education blighted the Anglo-Indian community. It took that lesson to heart. A course-correction this small community was forced to make has given India an edge over China. AI schools produce young Indians fluent in English, the language of international communications, commerce and diplomacy. Today, there are an estimated 210 Anglo-Indian educational institutions, including eight teachers’ training colleges. In Dehradun, Mussoorie and Nainital alone there are 16 AI schools; four schools in Dehra are owned by Anglo-Indians. This is a significant resurgence from the old days when educationally challenged Anglo-Indians clung to their Association as a life-support system against the buffeting of the outside world.

Today, we look to the Association to help us to meet others of our small community, to preserve our customs and traditions, to sustain our vibrant way of life. Our schools have become matters of great pride worth fighting for and, occasionally, fighting about. We can’t let out greatest contribution to our motherland be choked in political obtuseness. We know that we are the leaven, the yeast, that will make our country rise to meet the beckoning challenges of the future.

(Published 24 September 2016, 14:41 IST)

Follow us on