Friday, Jun 09, 2023

The Anglo-Indian Stories That Must Be Told

Anglo-Indian History

The Anglo-Indian Stories That Must Be Told

The discourse on the lived experiences of Anglo-Indians can be enriched by listening to the members of the community

Lives Well Lived: (From left) The author’s relatives Malcolm Abraham on the guitar while Ronnie Abraham looks on; Cecilia at her first Holy Communion; Elizabeth and Fred Higgins, Mellesha Hayden’s grandparents
Lives Well Lived: (From left) The author’s relatives Malcolm Abraham on the guitar while Ronnie Abraham looks on; Cecilia at her first Holy Communion; Elizabeth and Fred Higgins, Mellesha Hayden’s grandparents Courtesy: Cecilia Abraham

Welcome to my world    
Won’t you come on in

‘Welcome to my world’ by Jim Reeves is playing on Alexa while I type this article and it takes me back to a time when my identity was tied to being a special Indian who spoke English at home, ate yellow rice and mutton ball curry on Sunday afternoons, wore frocks with box pleats and thought the portrait of Queen Victoria hanging in her dining room was of her matriarch English grandmother. I spent quaint afternoons staring at yellowing pictures of my dark-skinned great grandmother in a Victorian Gown. I was piqued by my Anglo-Indian influenced ancestry.

The ‘Anglo-Indian’ was born when the colonial masters married Indian women to beget children who would take their business and trade interests forward while personally relieving the loneliness of their soldiers living in an alien culture. The Portuguese were the first to begin this eugenic experiment, the offspring being called Luso-Indians, later Eurasians. The more successful colonists/imperialists, the British also followed this paradigm for two hundred years before they formally defined the community in the Government of India Act of 1935: an Anglo-Indian was “a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is a native of India.” The gendered definition has in many ways limited the community formally but informally many families claim Anglo-Indian heritage because of their cultural roots.

My story, like those of all Anglo-Indians, is enmeshed in India’s history of colonialism, colonial evangelisation and familial legends. My mother is of Telugu and East-Indian mix. When I asked my father who we were, he would say ‘Black Portuguese’. Only a few years ago did I learn the term that used to refer to the lower castes and mixed Portuguese-Indian community who converted to Catholicism. On my school forms, my father would fill in ‘Indian Christian’. Grandfather was intent on Indianising his identity. He worked for the British Army and later the Nizams Police and believed that an Indian identity would serve the family well as the British were leaving the country. Ironically, he enrolled his sons at St. Joseph’s European High School in Bangalore. The culture at home, however, remained Anglo-Indian, be it cuisine, dress, language and religion (Christianity). At school, girls would call me Anglo-Indian and I would get tongue-tied for we never claimed to be Anglo-Indians.

In the 60’s and 70’s, when Australia opened its doors for immigration under the White Australia policy, my uncle Adolph wished to immigrate.  He was rejected for not showing white lineage while his cousins with fairer skin and blue eyes were given visas to immigrate. The family further cringed and held on tightly to their Indian identity. My uncles were exceptional national-level hockey players and were offered jobs in the Indian Railways; my father being the exception, refused to work as a constable in the police and became a medical representative.

Never associating with the larger Anglo-Indian community, my father surprised all by applying for the Anglo-Indian MLA position in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh state under Chandra Babu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party in the 1990’s. He received flak from the community for calling himself an Anglo-Indian, an identity he had refused to partake in. To my young mind, it was an epiphanic moment; I wanted to know more about my Anglo-Indian heritage. I found baptism certificates and marriage certificates of family members from the British Library.  I spoke to my grandparents, relatives and friends of the extended family to find out more. There was talk of an English man who married a local Rajasthani woman. My great grandfather had been a bugle player for the British Army band. A few members of the family were Anglo-Burmese. My family does not have any direct European blood in the last 4 generations, so it is a watered down ancestry. I believe myself to be on the periphery of being a constitutionally defined Anglo-Indian.

We only have strands of our culture that bind us, let us remember and celebrate it while we bury the last generations of the true blue mixed-blood Anglo-Indian.

In 2017, I started a social media account called @angloindianstories and started to crowd-source stories similar to mine. I was introduced to Mellesha Hayden, a former Hyderabadi who immigrated to London when she was 4 years old because she had had an English grandfather who fell in love with India and married an Anglo-Indian lady. She too, like me, shares a deep passion for her Anglo-Indian history and we both work on the project.

There is a romance in the history of Anglo-Indians but also gut-wrenching stories of family abandonment after Independence. Like the time when Hayden’s grandmother returned to India because she could not bear England’s gloomy weather and the pressure of her English mother-in-law. Painful is the story of how her grandmother, deep in debt, was presumably kidnapped by Afghan money lenders when her children were just infants. Hayden’s father passed away two years ago, his only wish being to give a face to his mother. No photos of her ever existed. We also carried the success story of Mr. Blair Williams, an engineer from London who worked as an officer in the Indian Railways for 15 years before immigrating to the US where he worked as a professor at New York University. He started a charity for helping Anglo-Indians in India and published books preserving Anglo-Indian culture. The community is also very proud of Maxwell Trevor, Olympic cyclist who now trains poor rural children in the sport and is an international coach.

Through this project, we also got to meet many Anglo-Indians who are doing a lot to keep the culture alive. Notable ones are Harry MacLure, Chennai-based author and editor of the magazine Anglos in the Wind, and Nigel Foote in Australia who has funded movies and projects on Anglo-Indians. There is Bridget White-Kumar who has written innumerable books on Anglo-Indian cuisine and the late Margaret Deefholts from Canada who had a website to chronicle her personal history and identity as an Anglo-Indian. We also have Dr. Uther Charlton-Stevens whose father was an Anglo-Indian; he has recently published a book titled Anglo-India and the End of Empire. So, it is both the women and men of the community that wish to preserve the legacy, especially the senior members who were closer in time to the Colonial era and who were easily recognisable as Anglo-Indians because of their language and lifestyle.

We’ve come a full circle; Anglo-Indians in India and abroad have assimilated into their local communities, like their ancestors.  We have a 500-year-old history which is a relatively short history that was largely undocumented. It is only from the late 18th century that we have documents concerning the community. There are many academic researchers and families pursuing romantic, literary and sociological nuances of Anglo-Indian identity. We need such work for not many in the younger generation know who an Anglo-Indian is.  History books hardly mention smaller communities of mixed races.

The British rulers and the Indian nationalists created a community that was marginalised and discriminated against. Men were typecast as drunks and women were not treated favourably and this has been a grudge of the community against the larger Indian society. It is important to note that it was also a proud community that refused to be put into a caste category and settled into colonies like McCluskieganj in present-day Jharkhand and the Andamans which meant further alienation. It was a community that served its motherland by way of becoming soldiers, teachers, nurses and by serving in the railways, post and telegraph departments. They also bought laurels to India in sports, especially hockey, cricket, cycling and track and field events.

There are strong leaders in the community today fighting to win back their nominations in the state legislatures and Lok Sabha and also trying to keep their minority benefits to help the younger generations. Party politics within Anglo-Indian Associations divides the larger community; the focus should be on redefining the ‘Anglo-Indian’ to suit the current status. We only have strands of our culture that bind us, let us remember and celebrate it while we bury the last generations of the true blue mixed-blood Anglo-Indian.

(This appeared in the print edition as "A Story That Must Be Told")

(Views expressed are personal)

Cecilia Abraham is a social worker, writer and poet. She crowdsources Anglo-Indian stories and photographs on social media