The dark hazel eyes of Valerie Beecham shine bright with yearning every time she speaks of dancing. Foxtrot, Jive, Waltz, Tango—she counts off all the dances she had once known by heart on a wrinkled forefinger. Beecham grew up in the former ‘White Town’ area of Allahabad—she calls it Ala-bad and does not know that it’s called Prayagraj now—at a time when balls and parties were common and organised as grand affairs by the Anglo-Indian community and civil bodies, especially during Christmas and Easter.
“There would be live bands with saxophones, and girls dressed in gowns. There would be drinking and merry making. We made lots of friends like that. It was a very European tradition,” Beecham recalls with a smile. It was in one such dance that she met her husband in her 20s. Now, at the age of 82, Beecham is one of the six current residents of the Grant Govan Homes, a refuge for a handful of elderly Anglo-Indians in New Delhi. The octogenarian does not know if they hold balls in Allahabad anymore and even if they did, it would not matter to her. She does not dance much now and her dancing partner, her husband, departed long ago. Memory and youth have both proved to be fleeting.
Built in 1940, Grant Homes seems to hide in plain sight, much like the Anglo-Indians of Delhi. A withered sandstone marker inside its fenced courtyard informs that the establishment was built by ‘friends’ of the businessman and philanthropist RE Grant Govan, who among other things, was the first President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Located between the Red Fort and Nigambodh Ghat, the home is a living reminder of the Raj in the heart of India’s capital.
“This place has been home to me for 15 years. Hazel Cross, our oldest resident, has lived here for 30 years,” says Beecham, pointing at Cross who is now too old to speak. The fading gold of her green eyes remains youthful and agile as she winks at the cameras we had brought along with us to document what almost felt like a relic from another time. Both Beecham and Cross had Irish mothers.
Maintained by the All India Anglo-Indian Association, New Delhi, the Grant Homes consist of seven cottages painted red, much like the ones in the Anglo-Indian colonies in Allahabad, tucked neatly behind the shade of the trees that grow in its garden. To get in, residents have to apply. They also have to pass a “test” and clear an interview. They have to be 60 years and above and need to prove that they really are Anglo-Indian and in need of assistance.
The other residents of the home include Violet Pingault, 77, with a bobbed head of white hair, who is secretly proud of her altar. “They all come to see my altar. It’s the most decorated one here,” she tells us as she shows off her collection of rosaries. Pingault is from Calcutta as are Jennifer Cooke and the only couple in the home, Hazel and Michael Sims. Among Anglo-Indians, it is said that those from Calcutta looked down upon other “up-country” Anglos-Indians. “Calcutta was the capital of the Empire for a long time so a lot of us accumulated there, I suppose. But now, there is a lot of migration since there are no jobs there,” says Hazel Sims. She lived in Kidderpore before coming to Delhi in the 70s.
These distinctions barely make a difference today when life is mostly about survival. “Delhi has one of the richest Anglo-Indian communities in the country. Many have migrated here from Calcutta and other places in search of a better life,” says Troy Hodges, the vice president of the All India Anglo Indian Association, who looks after the maintenance of the homes.
Left in the twilight zone following the exit of the British troops, the Anglo-Indian population dwindled over the years following the Independence of India. The colonial hangover lasted for a few decades but by the late 50s and 60s, many were unable to keep up with the changing ethos and economic instability of the nation and migrated in droves to commonwealth nations like Canada, Australia, and of course, Britain, the “fatherland”, in search of a better life, better income, but also in search of a home.
There were attempts to forge a “homeland” in India too—in the Andaman and Nicobar islands or in the reclusive hills of McCluskieganj. The elusive “homeland” has become a pipe dream today for the residents of the Grant Govan Homes who think ‘home’ is here.
“We live here now. We don’t want a state,” Cooke, 72, who grew up in a colonial-era mansion in Dalhousie, Calcutta, states. “We already had a ‘Little Britain’ in Calcutta for years. Look what happened? Everyone left,” she says. When she was young, she remembers that the Anglo-Indians maintained their distance from the Indians.
“Our Anglo identity is in our names. We don’t steal our names from gravestones. These are our real names,” she adds. Her grandfather had been a white man with blue eyes. She says her sister’s husband used to look like the Prince of Wales. But the residents do not wish to go to Britain anymore. “What will we do there? We will never be considered English because we are not white. It’s better here,” says Michael Sims, 77, who was born in Fort William Kolkata to an Anglo-Indian man working in the Indian Army the year before Independence.
For third and fourth-generation Anglo Indians today, the ‘Indian’ precedes the ‘Anglo’. They insist that they are ‘Indian’ since they were born here and have lived their whole lives here. The insistence on the assertion of “Indianness” reflects the sense of lingering unease and racial politics that the community has engendered in response to years of othering by both India and Britain.
Betrayed by the “fatherland” which left them behind in its former colony, these children of the twilight zone were shunned in India as “brown sahibs”, denigrated as drunks, insulted as “kutcha bacchas” (weak children). During the Freedom Movement, many nationalists considered Anglo- Indians a threat, their fears allayed by the fact that Anglo- Indians shared much of British cultural traits including dress, food, language and following religion. Even after independence, the Anglo-Indian anxiety of racial mixing can be observed in the mass migration, the community’s unwillingness to marry outside of their own, and the pride they take in their “British surnames”. That is slowly changing too. Pingault’s son, for instance, has married a Punjabi girl. She says is okay with it, as long as they raise their child as an Anglo.
The residents show photos of the previous occupants of the Grant Homes who lived and died in these very cottages, this little “homeland”. “Philomena Berkeley, Kerry Ann Hatch, Phyllis. All neighbours, friends. All gone. In 50 more years, the word Anglo-Indian will stop existing,” Hazel Sims rues.
Were the residents happy living out their last days here in this forgotten corner? They shrug, they are as happy as they could be. There was laughter and familiarity in their chit-chats and warmth in their embraces. There are gifts on Christmas and the occasional outing to Gidneys’ Club in Connaught Place, one of the only Anglo-Indian clubs left in Delhi. There is chicken that Shireen, the chatty cook who comes daily, cooks “Anglo-style”. There is the occasional Jim Reeves song someone hums from memory. And there is the company of those who watched the sun finally set on the Raj.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Fading Twilight")