As I sit at my Kinglee Xperience stall on a humid March day at the Indian Institute of Technology Indore, waiting for the next person to ask me about my work, as I prepare for my next event. I am jotting down my learnings and as I get to the end of the page, I’m interrupted by a man in his early 50s. He asks me my name in Hindi. I reply: “Aubrey King-Lee”. He asks me with a smile, “So you know Kung-Fu?” I reply: “No sir, I don’t. I am an Anglo-Indian.” He asks me: “Wo kya hota hai?” (What is that?).
I give him my presentation. Impressed as people usually are, he gives me a run-down of his organisation and leaves. I’m a rural entrepreneur who creates income and employment opportunities for rural communities through handmade products. We use our organsiation as a platform for social change. I work in a village called Udaypur Gaon in Madhya Pradesh, 150 kms from Indore. To showcase our products for a day at various start-up events, we travel back and forth.
As the day draws to a close, my friend Dilip and I head back. Recounting the events of the day, I stop at “Wo kya hota hai”. I stare at the beautiful scenery passing by and I am filled with anger, trepidation and confusion. Down the line, did I forget that I am an Anglo-Indian? I have a five-hour journey ahead of me and I need something to distract me from the traffic and bad roads. This was perfect. So I start pondering about what being an Anglo-Indian means to me.
When there is a problem, I usually break it up into microcosms and solve it. How many Anglo-Indian friends do I have? I count fewer than 10. How many Anglo-Indian families do I know that I am in touch with? I count fewer than five. Apart from my grandfather, who was an Air Marshall in the Indian Air Force and a few near and dear ones, I don’t look up to anyone. I rack my brain to find someone, but I can’t. You may throw names at me, but I would still shake my head. Am I so disconnected from the community that I can’t find anyone that I could relate to?
My parents keep telling me about the amazing Anglo-Indian schools and their Anglo-Indian friends. When I ask them where they are now, they say: “All abroad. Australia, New Zealand, Canada. Everyone is all over the world.” I have been told by many of my Anglo-Indian and non-Anglo-Indian friends to leave as life abroad is way better. “Will they ever come back?” I ask. “Never. Never in a million years. Even if you pay them to return, they will not. “Leave and don’t look back”, “Those were the days”— I am told repeatedly. But I didn’t live in those days. I live now and I live for the future, not in the past. I only have a few or no Anglo-Indian memories, know nothing worthwhile about the community. Anglo-Indians love song and dance and I have been to a few Anglo-Indian get-togethers; like the one at the Rangers Club in Kolkata and the one in Chennai. But what happens when the songs and dances stop? Are we only a song and dance community!
My father was a planter, working in the Dooars in North Bengal. I studied in Siliguri, which was the nearest city. My closest friends were Marwadis, Punjabis and Bengalis but no Anglo-Indians. The way these communities looked after their own was so heartwarming that I wished that my community had what they had. From get-togethers, to business meetings to supporting each others’ businesses, I kept asking myself: “Why can’t we be like them”.
“You are too negative. You work in rural India and you don’t spend time in urban India to mingle with like-minded Anglos. There are meets but you don’t attend them,” I tell myself. Playing devil’s advocate, I question every complaint that I have. Apart from ‘Anglos in the Wind’—a Chennai-based community magazine for Anglo-Indians spread across the world—that has been a beacon for this community, I don’t see anyone else. I would be lying just to make you feel good and shake my head when you spout names, but I don’t know anyone else.
Last year, my parents and I were invited to an Anglo hockey tournament commemorating all the Anglo-Indians in the armed forces. I had the pleasure of meeting Leslie Fernandez, the goalkeeper of the Indian Hockey team that won the gold at the 1975 Hockey World Cup. It was my first meeting with an Anglo- Indian legend. Why aren’t there more like him and why don’t we celebrate them more often?
By now Dilip and I have crossed 70 km, with another 80 km to go. We make our first pit stop. My legs are killing me, but I love it. The grind, the travel, the pain is a reminder of the work I have taken up.
Apart from my family and a few sponsored events by the State Bank of India Youth for India fellowship, I have never been helped. Ironically, I break into a smile. Things will not improve unless we keep fighting for our place and our due. Applying the same process for our community, yes, there is a problem, but no one is coming to help us. All we can do is look within for answers. But, the question remains: who is going to put their hands up and fight?
With 10 km remaining, we stop at my favorite dhaba (food joint). The waiter looks at me and says, “BPM”— short for Butter Paneer Masala. I nod, and the order is given. We wait for the order in silence as I am lost in thoughts looking to find a solution. We have already lost our seats in the Lok Sabha and Anglo-Indians have either gone abroad or have married into other communities as a safe bet. What options do we have? When do we convert thoughts into actions and start staking our claim? How can we get Anglo-Indians abroad to invest in Anglo-Indians in India? How can we get Anglo-Indians to start creating employment opportunities within the community? I am grateful for ‘Anglos in The Wind’ because that’s the only way I know what’s happening in the community and our history.
With the meal done, we begin the last stage of our journey. What if we have an Anglo-Indian-only online store that sells Anglo-Indian products? What if we could have our own Anglo-Indian-only chain of restaurants that employs Anglo-Indian cooks that could be crowd-funded through Anglo-Indians? Why not an Anglo-Indian crowdfunding platform? How can we provide grants and financial support to Anglo- Indian entrepreneurs and mentor them? How can there be a better network that leads to better and firmer action-oriented goals? How can we get the youth more involved in Anglo-Indian associations? Can we have Anglo-Indian open mics?
As I reach my room, tired from the long day, I am engulfed in despair that I may not have a clear vision for our community. Is our community in such a decline that answers are so hard to come by or is it easy to complain because I know nothing will happen and I should let things be because this community is bound to fade as we are our own worst enemy? As I begin to unpack, I find the book of poems I had co-authored with a friend to find solace. It was in times like these that I had to look at my own words to pep me up and look for hope because as a community we are in a long dark tunnel with no light in sight.
I walk along with my head hung,
Anger, disdain and pain a constant reminder,
Love my biggest friend turned foe, emotions my strength turned weakness.
I walk slowly, lost in the nothingness of time that frowns on me as it passes by,
knowing that I am my own worst enemy.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, but how long the tunnel, I do not know.
(These are a few lines from the poem ‘There is no light at the end of the tunnel’ from the book Silverblood. It is a collection of poems and photographs by Aubrey Maurice King-Lee and Hokhevi Zhimomi, published by Anglo Ink)
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Search For Identity")
(Views expressed are personal)
Aubrey King-Lee Is a rural entrepreneur and founder of Kinglee Xperience